The Spiral Web
The Spiral Web
On the Nature of Coincidence
Paul Martin Lester
All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2000 Paul Martin Lester
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the publisher.
Published by Writers Club Press
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For my father, Tom,
my mother, Jody
and my brother, Carl
who taught me much more
than I was able to teach them.
Everything is true except for the part when I said the banana sticks to the wall.
Spalding Gray in Swimming to Cambodia
There are a hundred ways of wondering at circumstance.
Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Table of Contents
The Spiral Web at Work
Our lives are composed of coincidences that constantly shape us. Most of the time we never learn of a coincidence that influences our life. You only need to consider all the possible events since the creation of time that have occurred in your life and mine that make it possible for you to be reading these words and you have a sense of how many coincidences there are. Of the ones we do discover, most are curious synchronistic or serendipitous oddities that might make us giggle and tingle, but that's about all. But a few are nothing short of miraculous and contain the power to drastically change the direction and content of our lives.
Have you ever been rambling through a rain-soaked Miss America beauty pageant parade in Atlantic City, been down to your last nickel because of poor planning or circumstances and found a twenty dollar bill on a sidewalk that allowed you to have a meal and call home so that you could be rescued from your present plight?
Or after taking pictures at the scene of a gruesome murder in uptown New Orleans in which a woman stabbed her lover with a butcher knife you return to the safety and solitude of your darkroom to process the film, turn on the radio and the first tune you hear is an ancient, scratchy and obscure recording of an unknown (to you) blues singer belting out "The Ballad of Frankie and Johnny" that comforts you through your terrible memory?
Or after thinking about what ever happened to a lover you knew several years ago in New Orleans and how you miss her smiles and hugs you decide you've had enough Guinness for the evening in this smoky Belfast, Northern Ireland pub and must return to your flat when you suddenly feel a hand on your shoulder and turn to see her smiling face as you had imagined a moment before?
Thus is the nature of coincidence.
The fourth definition for coincidence in Webster's International Dictionary is:
the concurrence of events or circumstances appropriate to one another or having significance in relation to one another but between which there is no apparent causal connection.
Think of a coincidence as a point on your spiral web that touches one or more points on other spirals. Think of touch in this context as anything that is a part of your life—material or mental. In this way, you can visualize that the number of possible coincidences you can discover is infinite. It is up to you to give the energy necessary to practice finding the meaning for the coincidences. Another word for this form of energy is love.
Pablo Picasso was once asked, "What is art?" Substitute "a coincidence" with "art" and his answer, "What is not?" is another coincidence.
The psychologist Carl Jung recognized that there are instances in a person's life, usually triggered by noticing a familiar object in an unfamiliar way, that can link the past, present, and future in a non-causal way. For Jung, these "synchronisities" are another way of saying meaningful coincidences. And although there is no obvious or logical link between these events—no causal context—these intersecting events are strongly felt as having deep meaning for the one experiencing the connection. Jung's first synchronistic event occurred while a patient of his was relating a dream about a golden scarab. Just then, he heard a slight tapping sound on the window behind him. He opened it up and in flew a large beetle, close approximation of a scarab, that he snatched with his hand. That experience began his life-long investigation into the nature of causation and coincidence.
Causality is the basis for Albert Einstein's theories on relativity. It is a model based on the way we feel time and space flow in a line ever since the Big Bang that created the universe. Coincidental causality questions the notion that time must flow from point A to point B while never occupying those two points at the same moment.
Soon after Carl Jung started his study of coincidence, he contacted the physicist Wolfgang Pauli to learn about quantum physics to find out if coincidences have an actual, physical connection. But his search for physical proof led to frustration. He could find no reasonable explanation of non-causal time and space in traditional physics theories. That's because theories, or educated guesses based on a series of observations, are rooted in western, linear thinking. You must break from the hold causal time and space has on you and, as in the title of the work by Baba Ram Dass suggests, Be Here Now.
I call all the coincidences in a person's life a spiral web because they link us all together in a constantly, upwardly revolving dance. Think of the natural structure of a conch shell or DNA. From a little more than an idea and the will to discover, a tiny cell, common to all living things, expands to form a circle that grows ever larger with each revolution. After a few turns, an outsider can see that the pattern being formed is an interconnected, rhythmic spiral that connects us all from the beginning of creation (and perhaps before) to the present moment (and perhaps beyond) by a thin, resilient web. It is a web not of string or optical fiber, but a web composed of life itself.
In our most philosophical moments, we have all considered the idea of the meaning of life. Most of us haven't a clue so we consult and accept the writings and teachings of religious leaders. But when you ask yourself, "What is the meaning of life?" chances are you are really considering, "What is the meaning of my life?" Religious publications and sermons may convince you that the meaning of life and the meaning of your life can both be found by adopting an organized set of procedures and beliefs that conform to a pre-existing body of agreed upon rules. And that will work just fine for some. But ultimately, meaning must come and be found within yourself. You don't need organized religion, a Ph.D. or a major life catastrophe to discover the answer to that question. But you do need to be observant, curious, critical and ready when some other spiral web touches your web.
A first step in practicing coincidental awareness is to spend time in your favorite room and notice all the objects you have on the walls and floor. Where did they come from? Did you purchase, find or receive them as a gift? What did they mean to you the first time you saw them and what do they mean now? Can you find any links between the objects? By doing this exercise you learn to consider every object that touches your web as a possible source for insight into yourself. When you expand this exercise to your friends and family members or what you notice walking or driving, you increase your chances in finding those coincidences that are magical, wondrous and meaningful.
This exercise and the thoughts it promotes make a valid point—if you think of life as a constantly running mystery with an unlimited supply of clues, you can't possibly get bored playing the game. With a detective movie, television program, book or board game, once the murderer is revealed, much of the joy of solving the whodunit is eliminated. You may watch a detective movie or read a novel over again in order to see how the clues were initially presented, but only a handful bother.
But it is arrogance that only accepts meaningful coincidences as valid. Suppose you are at a music concert and suddenly remember attending a similar concert with a high school friend several years earlier. If you unintentionally recognize a face in a crowd of the thousands in attendance as that of your old friend, you label that lucky find as a meaningful coincidence. Does it follow that all the other faces are not a part of the synchronistic moment? But if the musical group was not of interest to you, if the town you lived in was not on the band's tour, if you never bought a ticket, if your friend had moved to another town, if the seat your friend was occupying was bought by another—all of these factors and thousands/millions more make it possible for the two of you to be together. All these events are part of what makes a coincidence noticed. Coincidences happen whether you notice or assign meaning to them.
There is always a constant you can be sure of about life: Something always happens. And although you may discover the clues that give you the meaning of your life, there are countless other games to play—countless other mysteries to solve. I once overheard a father tell his daughter who was looking out of an airplane's window in amazement that "Life is about the best thing that will ever happen to you." And if you think you know all about your life, pick any other life you happen to notice (even the life of a soy sauce bottle) to analyze and learn from.
The more coincidences you notice—no matter how insignificant they may seem at the time—the better are your odds in discovering the right combination that gives meaning to your life. Therefore, it is to your advantage for the world to exhibit an ever increasing number of them. Actually, you initiate intricate series of coincidences from the moment you wake to when you go to sleep (and even in your dreams). Every time you arrange to meet someone, introduce two unknown friends, buy something from a store, walk or drive, ask for directions, go to a movie, change a channel, and so on, you are creating a chain of coincidences.
You can also purposely create (or conjure) coincidences. Think of them as seeds you plant as you travel along your life that may grow to influence another life or may, coincidentally, come back to touch your spiral. If a soda in a machine costs 75 cents and you have a quarter in change from a dollar or if you've finished reading a newspaper, leave those objects behind (recycling is not only a good idea—it's socially acceptable coincidence creation!). The quarter and newspaper may help someone else find a job. If you know that a friend has had a hard day and also likes chocolate, leave a boxed bon-bon where she can find it. It may improve your friend's mood the next day so that she will be more open to create additional coincidences. The next time you walk in the country, pick up a rock and place it on top of another rock along the trail. Someone along the path may notice that stone and put it in his pocket and place it on a mantle for further meditation about its possible meaning to his life.
The idea that you can create coincidences through mental concentration is one expressed by Maxwell Maltz in his book Psycho-Cybernetics which I read in the eighth grade. What I recall of the book is his idea that you can mentally prepare and even influence future events by "pre-visualizing" them in your mind. In college and later on I came across the writings of Richard Albert, or Baba Ram Dass, who also taught that the mind and the physical world can be linked more concretely than we can ever imagine. Think of an elephant right now and hold the image in your mind for several moments. Chances are you will see an elephant, in some form, later in the day.
Although most coincidences you create (actually, you are never aware of most of the coincidences you create) will be a silent and invisible movement of objects and ideas through space ("anonymous" is the official name for confidential coincidence creation), there are many times when the donor and donee of a coincidental gift are known. That's fine. The key is that there is some sort of transference of an idea or object to someone else. You may arrange to surprise a friend on her 30th birthday with a party or you may write a note on a sheet of paper and leave it in the magazine pouch at your seat on an airplane, but it will not do to call out a message while underwater alone and off the coast of some remote island or bury a potential gift hundreds of feet under the ground where no one is likely to find it.
Conjuring coincidences leads one to question the nature of causality. Cause and effect is a basic scientific principle and a fundamental tenet to the understanding of our concept of time and space. But cause and effect is a linear, western concept that may have no basis in fact. If time and space are a part of the spiral web, effect can come before cause. You can feel full before you've sat down to dinner. You can will future, meaningful coincidences that make changes in your present life. Such a notion is a decidedly non-western way of viewing how the world works.
A word we use instead of coincidence is luck. We feel lucky when we hit a jackpot in Las Vegas or unlucky when we don't. But that see-saw emotional ride is really a convergence of many separate events that create the coincidence that we interpret as either good or bad. Chance describes a state of mind in which you are ready to momentarily give up control of your life in the hope that there will be a positive outcome. "I took a chance on black 17, but I lost my stash." But as you learn to find meaning in a chance occurrence, you discover that bad luck and tragic events are meant to teach us valuable lessons. In fact, we always learn more from those experiences than the good times because we think about them much more often. If you can laugh at a flat tire on a lonely stretch of road somewhere in New Mexico, you are close to discovering the meaning of life.
Superstitions become a part of our personalities when we associate objects, actions or thoughts as somehow controlling positive coincidences. And who can say that's not the way it works? My one superstition is that I must always use regular flavor Colgate toothpaste when I brush my teeth in order to avoid getting a cavity. And so far, I am free of holes in my teeth.
Researchers have discovered that we have five, separate, and complete dreams every night. One of the most frustrating experiences is to remember having a vivid and meaningful dream only to have it quickly fade from your memory. One reason for that phenomenon may be because of a small, curved piece of your brain that hugs the central portion near the thalamus known as the hippocampus. The word is Greek for seahorse because of its shape. It is in the hippocampus that long-term visual messages are stored. Dream images seldom get a chance to be included because in order for images to be stored in the hippocampus, we must replay them in our minds several times. That's why it is usually only strong, visual messages with emotional connections that we remember. Since dreams are largely composed of unusual, multi-layered (both in composition and meaning) images of people and places that are often unfamiliar, it is hard to make sense of dreams and hard to remember them. It is sort of like trying to recall an individual frame of an MTV-style music video—you can say you had a dream, but you can't tell any of the details. But there are exceptions.
Here's an exercise that will demonstrate the non-temporal aspects of coincidences and may also lead to some insights into your dreams. If you want to put more, less momentous dreams in your long-term storage, keep a journal book and pen next to your bed. Whenever you have a dream, write the details (as much as you recall) in the book.
Let's try this out. Go have your dream (although it may take a week or so to get a good one) and then write the description of your dream in your journal.
You may find that you dream (the language here is a bit confusing since the verb and the noun are the same) more often with a pad by your side. What's really happening, however, is that you are remembering more of the dreams you always have every night.
When you translate a visual message to another form—writing—you make the images much more symbolic. These dream pictures are now much easier to remember because you have included three forms of words (thoughts in the mind, on paper and most likely spoken to another) and two forms of images (the literal dream and its symbolic interpretation). Words and images together form a strong communication bond which is why they are used together so regularly in the media.
Finally, to demonstrate the non-linear aspects of coincidental time, let 10 or 20 years pass and come back to your words either by design or by coincidence.
Chances are that you will be able to recall that dream after reading your own words that you wrote in your journal.
Another curious aspect of coincidental awareness is that it is not bound by any restrictions of time. An event occurring many years ago can suddenly thrust itself into the present moment through planning or not. That's why proud civic leaders bury time capsules in their communities to be opened by proud civic leaders one hundred years later.
That notion of timeless time explains this set of circumstances:
Several years ago I was visiting my friend Milton who lives in New York City. One night we were walking along a noisy street on the upper west side when I happened to find a five dollar bill on the sidewalk. I laughed and bragged to Milton about how lucky I was. He responded in his characteristically low-key fashion, "So." I folded the bill and stuck it behind a picture to keep it as a lucky charm.
Milton and I have been forever linked after successfully defending our master's theses at the University of Minnesota journalism school on the same day. Milton is the only friend of mine who has ever been hit by a train. At a New York party we attended after I found the five dollar bill, we met another man who was also hit by a train. The two of them traded their train stories to the amazement of the invited guests.
It is years later. Milton and I are about to enter an elevator with a member of the hotel staff who holds four, empty glass pitchers (two in each hand). We all want to go to the revolving restaurant at the top known as the Polaris in the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Atlanta. It's Sunday morning and I'm looking for a Bloody Mary with a view.
After a long wait, the door opens and a family with kids get out. We enter the elevator when suddenly the hotel guy yells, "Damn. Someone punched all the down buttons. You can't do anything about it. You'll have to go down and then come back up." To which I reply, "Well, I like to ride." The employee, however, doesn't want to go and he steps out. Milton and I ride down and stop at each of four lower floors. The view out the elevator's window is the wall of the hotel prompting Milton to say, "Oh I get it. When we're below the lobby we're in a Polaris submarine and when we're above it, we're in a Polaris missile."
Finally, we arrive back at the lobby. The guy with the four glass pitchers is waiting because this is the only elevator to the restaurant on top. Other people get on and punch their floors. With each lit number, I see that the man is getting more anxious. I notice sweat beads on his forehead. After each stop and the people depart, he walks over to the control panel and somehow presses the close door button with an extra finger while loudly banging the pitchers against each other. When we arrive at the top, he rushes out.
We casually find chairs in the bar area and debate that when they turn on the revolving floor whether it will go clockwise or counter-clockwise (I guessed counter and won). A few moments later the floor (or is it the view?) starts moving and our man in the elevator without the glass pitchers is our waiter.
I ask him if I can get a Bloody Mary. He apologizes and explains that Georgia law prevents him from serving alcohol until 12:30. I then ask for a cup of coffee (because waiters like to wait). While he's getting it together I turn to Milton and say, "Let's see if I can make his day a little better from now on." I reach into my wallet and pull out that same five dollar bill. It's a bit faded and stuck behind a picture, but it's legal tender. When he comes and leaves the coffee on the short, black table, I give it to him with my thanks. He asks if I need any change and I reply, "No." He says a sincere "thank you" and leaves a slight smile in my memory.
Milton and I talk about everything from the size of the hotel compared to the World Trade Center (you would need three more Hyatts on top of one another to match it) to whether birds ever become afraid of heights (after watching a hawk soar and land on a small ledge on the building across from us). We both become serious when Milton admits that for most of his life, he has lived in fear. I explain the plot of one of my favorite movies, Defending Your Life, in which the Albert Brooks character must overcome fear in order to advance to the next level. For me, I tell Milton, ultimate freedom from fear means economic freedom. When all the bills are paid from a steady, secure job and there is money left over, that's when I feel free.
We are suddenly interrupted by the waiter who unexpectedly leaves a colorful and grateful plate of pastries for us. "Compliments of the house," he says quietly. I smile and say one word to Milton, "Magic."
Another way to confirm the existence of coincidences is by a close reading of news events whether reported in print or broadcast.
The Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, September 29, 1994 displayed this headline in large, boldface, roman typeface family letters in the upper-right side of the page:
800 Lost at Sea in Ferry Disaster
The subhead read:
Baltic Sea: There are 126 survivors from the vessel that sailed from Estonia for Sweden. A crew member is quoted as saying a loading ramp was improperly closed.
A major international news story such as this one has many pieces of information that reporters who work for news organizations put together. The stories and images that they produce contain facts that answer the five "Ws" and one "H" questions of journalism—who, what, when, where, why and how. (It usually takes several days or longer for why and how to be answered.) Rescue workers, eye-witnesses, victims, fellow journalists, public information officers, and experts all contribute in trying to answer as many questions as possible.
If available, photographs are included in order to add additional information. For the Times story, a color photograph fills three columns to the left of the story. Its cutline reads:
Survivors from the sunken ferry, bundled in blankets and wearing plastic bags as shoes, arrive in Turku, Finland, after being plucked from frigid waters of Baltic Sea by a Swedish rescue helicopter.
Since it is almost impossible to get pictures immediately after a significant tragedy especially in a remote part of the world, informational graphics (infographics) are used to show the geographical location of the tragedy and other information. On the fourteenth page of the first section of the newspaper, the front page ferry story continues next to a set of infographics inside a thinly ruled box. Two maps are presented—one shows an overview of a huge section of the world with a scale of one inch equals 3,000 miles with a small rectangular box over the area presented in detail in the second map in which one inch equals 60 miles and includes names of countries and numbers tied to a chronological explanation of events detailed in a fact box below. There is also a small illustration of the type of vessel that sunk with facts concerning its ownership, operator, length, number of crew members, and passenger and vehicle capacity.
Such information comprise the hard and cold facts that form an unemotional frame around the hundreds of stories of each victim, survivor, family member and those who didn't take that particular ferry. This story is no exception:
Officials said the majority of those on board the Estonia were Swedes, including about 60 civilian employees of the Stockholm Police Department, several dozen members of a Swedish senior citizens club and several judges returning home after visiting Estonian counterparts.
Reporters are trained not only to discover the hard facts of a story presented with the most important first, called the inverted pyramid style, but also to report and photograph
the emotional and deeply personal stories that always involve large groups of people traveling together. For example,
"I can't describe how horrible it was to watch as an 11-year-old boy realized he had lost his father," said a glassy-eyed Carl Tosterud.
One woman standing near the docks at the Tallinn waterfront clutched a teddy bear and wept. "My husband and son were on their way to Sweden," she said. "My son left his teddy bear behind."
How close a publication is to the scene of a tragedy, the more space is devoted to these personal stories—simply because they are easier to get and readers are more curious about people that come from their own part of the world. As well as victim stories, there are also stories that describe miraculous rescues. A Stockholm doctor, Lars Lamke, 63, survived because he happened to be in the right place at the right time:
Lamke said it may have been the location of his sleeping quarters that saved him. He was on the sixth floor of the ship, and the life rafts were just upstairs on the seventh. He made his way toward the stairs with his companion, who is missing and presumed dead, climbed to the top, opened the door and felt a fierce wind blowing.
Rescuers found Lamke's raft just as the sky was starting to get light. A helicopter took him and his lifeboat mates to a small military hospital on the Finnish coastal island of Uto, and then moved him to Turku.
Although not identified in the picture's cutline on the front page, one of those walking from the rescue helicopter with bags on his feet could have been Lamke.
On Thursday, September 9, 1994, at exactly 7:03 and 10 seconds in the evening, USAir Flight 427, a Boeing 737-300 jet bound for West Palm Beach, Florida from Chicago, suddenly turned nose down and crashed in the woods outside the Pittsburgh airport killing all 131 on board. The plane's "black box" containing flight control and radio recordings revealed that one of the pilot's last words was "shit," the most common word recorded by these fire proof devices. Once again the questions of who, what, when and where (with why and how to follow in the next few days) are interspersed with stories of those unfortunately on board and those who fortunately missed the flight. Typical of the former type is a sidebar story within a longer one detailing the not unusual mechanical history of the doomed plane written two days after the crash:
Family of 5 Killed in Crash Was Returning From Funeral
Earl and Kathleen Weaver, who worked for British Airways, were killed with their three young children because they happened to be returning from a funeral in Chicago of a 9-year-old relative.
But there are other individuals that can afford to joke about the disaster, if nervously, because they missed the flight:
Tom Briercheck, 56, of Pittsburgh, counted himself lucky to have avoided the tragedy. He missed the fatal flight. Briercheck had attended a machine tool show in Chicago, then stayed downtown for a couple of beers—and was late for the plane.
Briercheck and David Carter, a factory manager for his company, arrived at the Chicago airport just as the flight left, around 6 p.m. They had another beer. When they returned to check for a later flight, a ticket agent told Briercheck he should count his blessings.
Briercheck called home from O'Hare International Airport at 7:15 p.m. His 13-year-old grandson, Billy, answered the telephone in tears. When he heard who it was, the child yelled, "Grandma! He's O.K.! He's coming home!"
"It really didn't hit me until then how fortunate I was," Briercheck said. He added that he plans to play the numbers when he gets home.
"My wife won't complain anymore," he said, "when I have that extra beer."
The next time you snap your seatbelt on an airplane, park your car on a ferry, drive on a freeway overpass, hold the strap of a subway train, pick up a menu at a restaurant or take a drink of water at a city park, take a moment to look around you and consider all the coincidences that have occurred to bring you and all these strangers together at this particular moment. Unless you survive a major news event—the plane crashes, the ship sinks, the highway collapses, the train derails, the restaurant explodes, or a gunman shoots—you will never learn how all these people with their endless array of coincidences arrived at this intersection of time and place. If you had the energy and gumption, you could go up to each person, introduce yourself and get them to tell the story of how they happened to be around you. But you probably would be considered at best, mildly annoying and at worse, seriously deranged. So, we leave it to others to do the interviewing.
Journalism is the reporting and telling, in words and pictures, of news stories. And because of the nature of news, journalism concentrates on events in which the spiral webs of people and places touch each other.
When I tell family members and friends that I'm working on a book about coincidence, they volunteer their own tales of meaningful coincidences they've noticed in their own lives. And what I find amazing is regardless of whether the coincidence seems trivial or is told with the confidence that the story is absolute proof that there is a mystical force that links us all, the folks telling the stories all have the same expression of wide-eyed, almost child-like wonder. Fred, a fellow faculty member, told me this story:
Over the phone, a student he had never met, Melanie, made an appointment to see him for academic counseling in his office at 11:30 two days from the call. When the day and time arrived, so did a woman. Fred asked, "Are you Melanie?" She answered, "Yes" and put down her book bag. They talked about 15 minutes. Fred helped her select a class for the next semester and she left. He was about to leave for lunch when another woman came running into his office. A bit out of breath, she explained, "I'm sorry I'm late. I couldn't find a place to park." Fred asked the same question, received the same reply and performed the same advisement service for this other woman named Melanie.
Another friend of mine, Don, a documentary filmmaker, went to lunch with me and Fred. We told him the Melanie story and he told us this one:
Over an Internet discussion group, he happened to notice another member of the list with the name L. Turke and located at a computer site at MIT. Early in Don's career, he was inspired by a professor at Harvard named Larry Turke. Don wrote an E-mail message to L. Turke hoping this was his long-lost mentor. A day later, he received a reply from Larry Turke at MIT who regretted that he was not the Turke he sought, although he happened to know Larry Turke and once saw him complain loudly and bitterly to a cashier at a convenience store about the poor service. Looking over Larry's shoulder at the time and later typing in a greeting on the computer to Don was Larry's girlfriend, (you guessed it) Melanie. She works for a historical film archive company in Boston. A few days before, Don had ordered a few minutes of footage for a film he's working on over the telephone with Melanie.
Or this coincidence from a friend who's husband, Jimmy died in a motorcycle accident:
My husband and his sister [Jenny] hadn't spoken to each other in more than three years. But she came down here immediately [when she heard the news of his death]. She was staying at a nearby hotel, where my brother and sister-in-law were staying. On Sunday, the day of the memorial, Jenny wasn't ready to come to the house when my brother came to take her. He said to call and he'd come get her. She said, "No, I'll just call a cab." When she decided to come over, she opened the phone book, picked out a cab company, called and a cab arrived. The cab driver's name was Mr. Luck. He drove her to our house and when he pulled into the driveway he said, "I picked up a guy from this house a few weeks ago." Jenny, liking his name and the coincidence asked if he could take her to the airport the next morning. She came into the house and asked if Jimmy had taken a taxi a few weeks ago. He had gone to the Clearwater airport for a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. The next morning Jenny called me from the airport. She said that she had gotten in the cab and said only that that had been her brother, Jimmy that Mr. Luck had picked up. Luck said, "He's a great guy. We talked all the way to the airport. I'm thinking about moving to Costa Rica and he talked about when he traveled there. He told me to do it because you never know what's going to happen, so just do it. Then he told me about his family and his wife. He said he is so grateful to have her as his wife because she's let him live like a teenager his whole life. Then he said, 'I've had such a great life, I've gotten to do everything I've wanted to do.'"
My friend would never have learned of her husband's happy life if not for a Luck(y) cab ride by her sister-in-law.
Coincidences that make you tingle and cause you to imagine hearing the four notes played on the piano of "The Twilight Zone" television series in the background over and over don't have to involve yourself. A student of mine, Susan, came into my office and dropped off the following collection of coincidences concerning the deaths of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. I had seen the list many years ago as a kid:
Lincoln was elected in 1860. Kennedy was elected in 1960,
Both Presidents lost children, through death, while residing in the White House,
Both were slain on a Friday in the presence of their wives,
Lincoln was killed in Ford's Theatre while Kennedy was killed in a Ford Lincoln,
Both their assassins were Southerners who were murdered before a trial could be arranged,
John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839 while Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939,
The successors to the Presidents were both named Johnson, were Southerners, Democrats and had previously served in the U.S. Senate, and
Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 while Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.
This collection of facts makes you wonder if there will be someone born on 2039 who will grow up to assassinate the President in Lincoln, Nebraska with a gun bought in Dallas. I will probably not know, but perhaps you will.
The Spiral Web at Work
"But you see, I don't even have a home. I am absolutely . . .. I live in a van. . . . well, thanks for the advice."
That little bit of one side of a conversation is all I could hear as I walked past. The speaker is a woman in her forties with long blonde hair wearing an aqua sweat suit and carrying a folded lounge chair. Her back is turned toward me. She's talking to a man who is all white. He stands behind the driver's side of a white Monte Carlo. His hair, skin, and shirt are white. In stark contrast is an oversized brown coffee mug that is set on the roof of his car. Since he's short, his eyes start just above the rim of the cup.
Every Sunday morning in the same section of the beach at Bolsa Chica, a circle of beach chair and blanket sitters congregate for about two hours. But this collection of diverse people are not family members or office workers having a picnic. It is the Huntington Beach chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Smokers sit so that their fumes will blow away from everyone else. And although I can never hear the words of those standing to talk as I jog past on the asphalt road nearby, I know why the group is formed because my mother was an alcoholic.
Drinking was always easy and never a problem for my mother until we moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Laredo, Texas in 1961. Laredo is a hot, dusty and lonely location for a mother in her early thirties with two young sons. When we lived there, the city was rated as one of the poorest in the United States. If the extreme temperatures and contrasts between the rich and poor areas don't depress a person, the day-to-day sunshiny boredom will. Although my Mom played bowling in a league and acted in little theatre productions, she was slowly going crazy because she didn't have a job outside or inside the house. We had a maid, Maria, who cleaned the house and cooked our meals. Mom was a homemaker in a rented house with no one there who needed her care and concern. Her friends were women from the neighborhood in similar situations.
Occasionally I would come home from school and find my mom and a few of her friends sitting in the living room watching "The Match Game" or the old "Jeopardy" game with Art Flemming with cards that showed the printed answers instead of television monitors today. Before each lady was a simulated wood-grain TV table with individual bowls of potato chips, dip and their drink in a tall glass. Mom was the bartender specializing in only one drink—rum and Coca-Cola. Being interested in the show on the black and white screen, I would sometimes sit at the end of the couch all erect and polite not noticing how many drinks they've had or how slurred their speech had become. That's the first memory I have of my mom drinking in front of me. But at the time, I never thought she had a problem with alcohol. In Laredo, you quickly become fluid conscious. And whether the drink was a plain, cherry or rum Coke, it never was as important as whether it was cold and plentiful. In my house, we never ran out of ice, Coke or rum. And that was the same in all my friends' homes.
When we moved to Mesquite a year after President Kennedy was killed, my parents switched from rum to Pearl beer, brewed in San Antonio. At the time, Pearl had a billboard next to a major freeway around Dallas that contained an actual running stream of water. It promoted Pearl's "pure, spring water" used in the brewing process.
They bought three or four cases of Pearl beer a week. Hanging from the window that faced the street in my father's downstairs office of our house were 30 strands of beer tabs linked together in chains. Each seven-foot length contained about 150 tabs. The entire window was covered with 4,500 tiny silver tabs. At three cases a week, it took my parents a little over a year to collect all of the tabs for the window. The decoration was a source of pride—like fraternity houses that display all the different types of beer bottles emptied by the brothers and placed high on specially built shelves.
My mother and father were both alcoholics. You can't drink as much beer as they did—about 5,000 cans a year or about six a day—without causing disastrous effects.
During the week my parents enjoyed a beer when they came home from work and two or three at dinner. But their primary drinking sessions were reserved for the weekends. From Friday evening until late Sunday, you could count on seeing them with a beer in their hand or one set nearby. When the weather was nice, they would usually sit in the backyard around a wooden picnic table waiting for the meat to cook in the barbecue pit. And although they often had parties with friends, most of the time the two of them would simply sit across from each other and smoke and drink.
Sometimes we would go out to dinner. It would always be the same place—the Shakey's Pizza parlor where my Dad used to work when we first moved to Mesquite. The only job he could get was making pizza's behind a large glass pane in the restaurant. We would often go visit him and he'd wave and fool around with the dough and always had a big smile on his face. At ten-years-old, it never occurred to me to be ashamed or embarrassed of him. Nine years later, during a conversation when he was explaining why he was divorcing my mother, I told him how much I admired the fact that he was willing to do anything to support his family. It was the last time I heard my father cry. I thought he looked cool in his white hat and apron.
When he got a job as a writer for the Dallas Times Herald newspaper in the advertising department, I think he liked going back to the pizza parlor as a customer to show his old boss he was doing well. The four of us always sat in the front section so that we could get a good view of the musicians. At that time, there was a piano and banjo player dressed in red and white striped clothes with straw hats who performed old songs like "Blackbird," "Daisy," and "Five-Foot-Two." A slide projector showed the words of the songs on a screen, but I had long before memorized all of them. Every time we were there, they would call my dad up to sing. He always initially feigned shyness, but then leaped up on the tiny, brown carpeted stage and led us all in one of those songs. I could tell—I could see it in his eyes—that he loved to perform. But I hardly looked up when he was singing. I could watch him make pizzas, but I was too embarrassed to watch him on this stage.
The lively crowd would clap loudly for him as he returned to his seat. He would order another pitcher of Pearl and I would raise my eyes in disgust my brother's way because we knew it was going to be another long night. Almost always we left the restaurant and walked around the small shopping mall next door until it was past midnight. When we returned, they would still be drinking beer, but now with new-found friends in the seats where Daryl and I had been sitting.
On the drive home, in the back seat of our car and late at night I was always wide awake. Sometimes I questioned my father's behavior—maybe he shouldn't be driving. But he always drove and he always got us home. He was still filled with songs from the night and would try to get us all to sing with him. Mom never said a word on the trip home. She simply leaned against the door looking out the window. I would sometimes get mad if I thought he ran a traffic light or was speeding. I would try to convince him he was too drunk to drive by yelling out, "HOW MUCH IS EIGHT TIMES SEVEN?" I thought that combination was particularly challenging. But he would always laugh, try to convince us that he was perfectly capable, and eventually blurt out the correct answer.
With all the alcohol in the house, my brother and I were naturally curious about what the stuff tasted like. When my parents were out playing tennis one weekend, we decided to try alcohol. We first opened a can of Pearl, but we couldn't drink it because we instantly hated the smell of it. We couldn't figure out how to open a bottle of wine, so we never tried it. We poured a heavy, light-green liquid (creme-de-menthe) in a glass from an old, odd-shaped bottle, but it tasted like toothpaste. We sort of liked a little rum and Coke together, but concluded that the soda by itself was better. We both shivered uncontrollably and vowed never to do that again after we drank a bit of Jim Beam whiskey that seemed to scorch our throats as it went down.
But we ended our experimentation after opening the magic bottle in the back of the refrigerator behind a carton of milk. This bottle seemed like it was out of an Aladdin story. It was larger than the other alcohol bottles. Adding to the mystery was its label that was all in French. The top was like no other bottle in their collection. It was covered with golden metal "paper" that I slowly unwrapped without tearing it so that we could put it all back together after we had tried it. Under the wrapping was a little wire basket around a plain, brown cork. I gently pushed on it with my thumb. Suddenly, the bottle exploded in my hand. "Oh SHIT," we both yelled as champagne sprayed all over the refrigerator, the kitchen and each other. When the bottle and us had calmed down, we tried it and liked it a lot. By far, this was our favorite alcoholic beverage with its laugh-provoking bubbles and not altogether unpleasant taste. I filled the bottle with tap water, shaved the sides of the cork with a knife and stuffed it back on the top as best as I could, screwed the metal basket back on, wrapped the top with the gold-colored paper, and placed it back where we had found it behind the milk. To anyone other than a couple of kids, it was obvious that the bottle had been opened and crudely resealed. But we never heard a word about it from either parent.
When I was 16, I found ways to get my own alcohol. I often went on double dates with an older guy named Johnny. I worked with him at a grocery story. We went out with my girlfriend, Diane and her friend, Mary. He was married, but somehow managed to go out with us on Saturday nights. I always drove. I would stop at a liquor store and Johnny would buy two six-packs of beer. I took us all out to a park near a lake outside of town. When we stopped, Johnny handed each of us a can of beer.
I am forever linked with Diane in my memory because we were busy making out on a couch of her house when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
On this night in my dad's car with my friends, I was in a jam. How was I supposed to drink beer with my friends when I couldn't stand the stuff? The only thing I could think of was what I did—with a beer in my hand, I pretended I needed to open the car door and absent-mindedly dropped the beer on the ground. They all laughed with me at my klutziness. Johnny said, "No problem" and handed me another one. I would take a couple of fake sips and go through my door-opening, can-dropping routine again as if for the first time. This time, Johnny didn't offer me another one and I concentrated on getting Diane's bra unsnapped.
A few months later, cherry vodka and Southern Comfort were the preferred drinks of our gang. We sometimes mixed them together. The boys on our block built a clubhouse next to the creek and that is where we would try our late-night chemistry experiments. Our parents thought we were spending the night together camping in the woods. One Sunday after a night of drinking the sweet mixture, I spent the entire day in bed or kneeling before the toilet puking until there was nothing left but green-colored bile. My mom and later my dad came to my room to check on me. I offered a weak, food poisoning excuse, but I knew that they knew why I was so sick. They had the experience to leave me alone in my misery. But they never questioned my behavior. At the time I was grateful, but now I feel it was another example of their careless attitude toward parenting.
Not all people, of course, should be parents. My parents are an example of a couple that should have used condoms in bed. But naturally, I have mixed feelings. I once had a friend, Bill, who had parents who overlooked and orchestrated almost every move he made. He angrily told me how stifling it was to live under such repressive parental control. I remarked that my parents let me do just about anything I wanted. Bill wished aloud that he had been given my mom and dad. But after talking longer about our different backgrounds, we concluded that both sets of parents could be placed side-by-side on a circle, but pointed in opposite directions. Whether your parents care about you so much that they don't let you grow or they care about you so little that they let you grow too fast, both sets of parents are flexing their overpowering egos that leave you feeling insecure, angry and unloved. Bill became an alcoholic and lost his high paying architectural job. And although I had some close calls in which I was lucky to drive home without killing myself or someone else, I have never been consumed with the need to drink alcohol.
The writer Hunter S. Thompson once said that you need to get completely drunk or stoned every so often in order to clean out your "plumbing." I used to subscribe to that sentiment when I was 20-something—especially at dance parties in which the object is to be free and wild—but as I grow older, I've noticed less and less of a need to get "shit-faced." I don't, as you may assume, credit this behavior to the maturity that comes with age, but the fact that few of my current friends have dance parties.
I have never passed out from drinking, but I have from smoking marijuana. All through high school and during the 1960s (a decade that is measured from Kennedy's assassination to the end of the Vietnam War), my rock-and-roll band member friends smoked the stuff. But I always turned a joint down when it came my way because I was going to be a dentist and didn't want to screw up my brain. I believed all those LSD-flashback horror stories and links between grass and heroin. I didn't want anything to do with acid or needles.
I clearly remember the first time I tried a marijuana cigarette. I was a volunteer driver for the McGovern presidential campaign. On election day in 1972, I drove my tiny, brown, sunroof, Capri sports car to the poorest sections of Austin, Texas and picked up huge, middle-aged African American ladies who somehow managed to cram in the car. I would drive them to their polling site. After the polls closed, three other volunteers and I went out to dinner. I was driving. A guy in the back lit up a joint and passed it to me. I tried to pretend that this was all perfectly normal and put it up to my lips (but I didn't inhale) and accidentally stubbed it out against the steering wheel. They all laughed at me, lit the thing again, and passed it around. By the fifth round, I was getting the hang of it, but I was also hopelessly lost in a part of the University of Texas campus I had never seen before. "Where the hell are we," I desperately asked while unknowingly feeling the first hint of paranoia that comes from the drug. "A place you only find when you're stoned," came the amused reply from the back.
A year later I was working in a bank in downtown Dallas. I had to quit school after my dad quit paying for my education when I told him I had switched majors from pre-dental to drama. The employment application had asked me if I had ever taken drugs. Since I was told that I may be given a lie detector test, I wrote that I had. Nevertheless, I was hired as a mailroom courier, one of the least glamorous jobs in the always glamorous banking business. About three weeks after working there, my supervisor along with the head of security, a most unpleasant man with a permanent frown cut into his face, questioned me privately about my drug experience. I matter-of-factly told them the one and only time (which was true) I had tried marijuana with those political volunteers (I actually thought they may be more upset that I had worked for McGovern). They gave me a stern lecture sprinkled with scientific research (they said) about smoking marijuana and its links to more dangerous drugs including heroin. I assured them that I had no intention of ever using it again (which was also true) because I didn't like to smoke and hated the feeling of losing control of my mind. They seemed pleased with my answer. I was later promoted out of the mail room and given a more responsible position in the customer relations department of their money order division. Poor people throughout the country who don't have checking accounts must pay their bills with money orders. If a company said they never received their payment, they talked to me (or three others working there) to clear up the problem. My boss was honestly sorry to see me go when I quit to return to college to become a photojournalist.
I worked for the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans for three-and-a-half years. Picayune is a French word that means little. It also referred to a French coin, the equivalent of a penny, that was the price of the newspaper in the 1800s. In New Orleans, I learned to eat oysters and crawfish, drink beer and chicory coffee, and take drugs. Newspaper photography is a rough and stressful occupation. When you're not worried about the police hassling you, or getting the right pictures, or finding the location of an assignment, or processing your negatives, you are confronted with most of the worse a society has to offer. I laughed to myself when those bank officials lectured me on the evils of grass, but in New Orleans I learned that they might know something. Because from marijuana, I easily graduated to Thai sticks, hashish and cocaine.
A couple of other photographers and I would often take three hour dinner breaks on slow news nights and drive around the city stoned. I remember coming back from one of those trips to be sent on an assignment. A woman was threatening to jump off the Mississippi River bridge. I somehow managed to drive there, but was stopped by all the traffic. Police officials had closed the bridge so that they could talk her out of committing suicide. I parked my car on a sidewalk and walked the entire length of this huge bridge. People who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in their cars asked me what was the matter, but I was so stoned that I couldn't answer—I was distracted by the beautiful lights of the city. When I finally got to the top, the police crisis squad had saved her and I took a quick picture of her being driven away from the scene in one of their cars. The photograph was used on the front page of the next day's newspaper.
I shared a darkroom with the chief photographer, Murry. Ours was bigger than all the other darkrooms. Murry worked the day shift while I came in at three and went home at 11. The day shift editors stored their alcohol, usually Rebel Yell, in the bottom drawer of a metal file cabinet in the darkroom. At first I was upset that they would come in at the end of their shift to smoke their cigars and drink their whiskey while I was trying to print pictures. But I started to enjoy the stories they would tell of when they were cub reporters. The joy and laughter they shared was infectious and I learned to accept these uninvited guests. Later, I realized how similar their stories were to the ones I was currently living. Would I end up like these old geezers?
While the older guys got fuzzy with alcohol, my fellow photographer friends would use drugs in our darkrooms and after work. Since I didn't have to be at work until the afternoon, I could sleep it off all morning. Many times we closed down Pat O'Brien's bar at five in the morning when they turn on all the lights and hose down the place.
I began to like that feeling of losing control of my mind because then I couldn't see the image in the viewfinder of my camera, of the mother crying over her daughter who had drowned, or the son standing over the body of his father killed by his uncle, or the young husband and father electrocuted after trying to erect a television antenna on his roof, or the young girl mangled, bloody and screaming in agony because of a head-on car collision, or the remains of a man killed in a plane crash, and on and on.
Fortunately and coincidentally, I was offered a way out of New Orleans and took it. I fell in love with a woman from Minnesota and went to live with her in Rochester. This move probably prevented me from becoming a drug addict or alcoholic. A few years later, I heard that a friend and fellow photographer lost his job and wife because of his addiction to cocaine and alcohol. He's now living somewhere in Canada working in a real estate office.
My mother wasn't so lucky. I was too young in Laredo to identify my mom's drinking as a problem. But I should have, I suppose. I was 11 when we moved to an uncertain future in Mesquite. Frustration, boredom, loneliness and the fear that you are wasting your life is a lethal combination no matter where you live. Add to the mix her coming from a dysfunctional family in which her father, a traveling salesman who was gone most of the time and her mother who was an alcoholic herself. mom also was facing the realization that she could no longer hide that she was a lesbian. I have to wonder how my mother maintained control for as long as she did. But she managed to keep me and my brother clothed, fed and happy despite the severe economic problems sparked by my dad's poor gambling and job choices.
I can honestly say I had a happy childhood until I was 14. I was never abused and seldom denied anything I really wanted. In an era before the dominance of television as the major source of entertainment, we all played sandlot baseball, raced homemade go-carts, chased each other on bicycles, explored the dark and scary underground sewer system, built camp fires and cooked beans in the creek, floated on rafts at the nearby lake, walked our dogs through the woods, played army with pointed fingers, and so on. But today in my old neighborhood, the empty lot where our baseball diamond sat and the creek where wooded mysteries were revealed have been replaced by apartments and a housing development. No wonder television is so popular.
In 1965, when I was 14, our family disintegrated into four separate individuals with four distinct life paths. Never again would the four of us act as a team, a tribe, a gang, a family. Ironically, the year started out as promising as I could ever imagine because my father bought us a lakefront lot.
Texas is a strange state in many ways. But one reason is that it has no natural lakes. However, that oversight has been overcome by hundreds of dams throughout the state. Consequently, more people own boats in Texas than horses. Every weekend we drove for about an hour to a lake called Calendar to help clear off the land in the hope that one day we would build a house on the property. It was hard work chopping trees, removing rocks, and raking sticks and leaves, but we were energized by the fact that we all worked together toward this dream cabin in the woods. As never before or since, we were truly a family when we gathered together on a wooden picnic table to talk and listen about the plans for this magical, oak-filled paradise. Mom and Dad would smoke cigarettes and drink beer while Daryl and I listened or went exploring. We'd go to the lake about every other weekend until one day when I heard my mother crying in the bedroom.
Hearing a parent cry immediately causes all sorts of confusing and conflicting emotions. It also arouses intense curiosity. I still have not forgotten the sound of my mother's sobs on that Saturday afternoon. Dad was cutting the grass. I was going to my upstairs bedroom. As I walked past my parents' room, I could hear my mom crying through the slightly opened door. I was scared and unsure what to do, but I also wanted to find out what was the matter. It was dark and smoky in the bedroom. I called out to her, but she didn't answer at first. She sniffed loudly, wiped the tears from her eyes and then started crying again. I walked into the room and between sobs she told me. Even though the monthly payment was only $50, we lost the lake lot because we couldn't afford it. I told her that it would be okay, but I didn't really believe it.
I left that room and became my own independent entity not reliant on the rest of them for all the normal support and encouragement you usually get from a family. I told myself to never again get my hopes up that this family would somehow manage to pull itself together. Our family died that sunny Saturday and it never came back. After that day, Dad spent more and more time at work, my brother hung out longer with his older, wilder friends, and I escaped to the comfort and security of my room and to the companionship of the one family member who never deserted me, Jason, my German Shepherd. My mom switched from Pearl beer to vodka and rum, but without the Coke. I was 14 and I lost my mother, my father and my brother. Within a short time, dinners were either spaghetti or hot link sandwiches from the little convenience store down the street or not prepared at all, our clothes were seldom cleaned—several times I caught bad cases of athlete's foot because my socks were often dirty—and my mom was now drunk most of the time.
The worse I ever remember was the time Mom passed out in front of my friends on the living room carpet. Another time she asked a couple of my buddies if their parents smoked and whether they would run to their houses and borrow some cigarettes from them. Alcohol also made my mom sick and I would often hear her vomit in the bathroom. She lost her job and seldom changed out of her nightgown. My brother and I used to sit in our room and daydream about our parents getting divorced and us living with our dad in peace.
I learned several important lessons growing up with her. One lesson I learned was a direct result of her drinking problem. Although I sometimes confronted her and asked her to quit, I realized that she would never stop simply on my urging. In fact, all you can do to help someone in a similar situation is to offer your love and have the patience to wait until the time when they return to you.
The worse year with my parents was during my senior year in high school. Luckily, I had met Fran, my first wife, and was taken in by her family. Estelle and Hoyt fed me dinner every night for that entire year. My parents never said a word about this peculiar arrangement. I want to think that they understood I needed to get away, but I can never be sure of such a rationalization. By this time, there was no home at home or logical thought processes. Once when Fran's sister, Samantha, a deeply religious person, came over for a visit, she openly wept at the filthy condition of the house.
But then, a miracle happened. My mom somehow realized that she desperately needed help. She entered an alcohol treatment center and was gone for a week. One day my dad told me someone was on the phone who wanted to talk with me. I couldn't believe who it was. Because my mom and dad had been consumed with depression and alcohol for so many years, I came to expect as normal the mood swings, illogical arguments and slurred words. But here on the phone was a bright, articulate and cheerful person I had never met. My mother was sober.
My parents stayed married another year, but now the quiet drinking binges were replaced with violent arguments. With my mom's mind working properly again, there was no way she was going to stay with my dad. Mom knew she was a lesbian by the time she was 14 years old. But Texas in 1943 was not the best place or time to come out of the closet. Texas in 1971 was probably not much better, but once she admitted this key fact in her personality, the knowledge of her sexual preference began my family's recovery. For 20 years she played the role of wife and mother thinking that she could hide her attraction to women behind a mask of cultural acceptance. My father's ego couldn't accept that she preferred women more than him so he was happy to be divorced, and besides, with her sober, he didn't have a drinking buddy.
It's 23 years after my mom's telephone call from the alcohol center and I'm walking up the ramp at an American Airlines terminal at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. My mom is supposed to meet me for a 30-minute visit—the time I have between planes on my way to Tampa, Florida. She stands in the middle of the gauntlet formed by other family and friends of my fellow passengers. When she sees me, her face lights up and she opens her arms for the first of many hugs. We are truly happy to see each other and we walk with my arm around her shoulder searching for a place to sit.
Although I love my mother and miss seeing her, I seldom write, call or visit. Our relationship, long before my high school graduation, is based on a need for independence. And although we can count on each other in times of crisis and despair, we have an unspoken rule not to let our lives become too entwined. But I have recently noticed this rule being gradually changed as she begins to worry about her old age security and health. I am forced to confront the uncomfortable reality that perhaps she will have to live with me and my family in the not too distant future. I would prefer, in total selfishness, that we remain mother and son, distant and apart.
These hectic, catch-up, face-to-face airport sessions are about all the time we ever make for each other, but without complaints ever voiced from either one of us. Just as every airport has a nervous, want-to-be-somewhere-else, impersonal mood, we find a noisy corner in a tiny bar and chat self-consciously like unfamiliar business partners at a conference when the day's work is done. I order a beer and she has a Coke with a lime squeezed in it. We haven't seen each other in about a year, but we both seldom look in each other's eyes when it's time to talk. I check the time on my watch a little too often and with too obvious an intent.
I sometimes joke with friends that I only see my mother twice a year for about 30 minutes in the Dallas airport—and that's long enough, thank you very much indeed. For the first 15 minutes, I fill her in on my career and family news and she tells me a story about her work or a friend who is not feeling well. The second phase of our brief visit is reserved for more serious discussion. Recently, Mom, at 65, is concerned that we understand each other better. She wants to know if I have forgiven her for the memories I have when she was sick. I assure her that having an alcoholic mother has actually helped me with students and friends with similar problems, "So yes, I have forgiven you." But whenever you're trying to convince another person and yourself of something at the same time, words and gestures never quite ring true.
After my parents divorced, Mom joined an Alcoholics Anonymous group called "The Suburban Club" located in Dallas. The members are composed of upper-middle class alcoholics who park their fancy cars in the lot behind the building so that no one from the street can recognize their license plates. Although I was invited to join the Alanon program for children of alcoholics, I was too shy to participate.
Through the years I learned about AA. She was sponsored by an older woman named Milly who smoked little unfiltered cigarettes called Picayunes (it seemed that almost everyone in AA smoked), had a deep, throaty smoker's voice with a quick, loud laugh and had a wonderful habit of grabbing my arm and looking right into my eyes whenever she talked to me that reminded me of my great grandmother. They had a close, loving and supportive relationship that my mom, no doubt, missed with her own mother.
Mom quit drinking on the eighth of February. Through the years, the number eight has been a lucky number for her. When I would think of it, I used to send her a birthday card on that day because for her, it marks the beginning of her life as sure as on her actual birth day. Once when she visited me in New Orleans, we went to the horse track. In the eighth race, the eighth horse was named "Imperial Press." Besides the connection with her favorite number, the name referred to my profession. But we had conditioned ourselves to only place two dollar bets and we stuck to that plan without thinking about the convergence of all these coincidences. The horse, of course, won and for years afterwards we laughed at how stupid we were to not bet more on the horse. "At least we could have bet eight dollars!"
Mom also sponsored many new members who often became long-time friends. She helped them cope with the realization that they could never have another drink of alcohol for the rest of their lives. She also gave them support for all the other personal problems they faced that led and fed their drinking habit.
Despite additional work-related and personal hardships after deciding to quit, my mom never took a drink in almost 25 years. I am as proud of her for that as I am of anything I have ever accomplished in my life.
It's close to the time when we must walk toward my next airplane's gate. Again we walk slowly with my arm around her as harried business executives carrying their bags whiz by us. The counter clerk has made the last call for passengers. I turn to my mother and give her a hug and a kiss. I tell her that I love her. But this time, she holds me close to her and doesn't let me go. I start to feel a bit embarrassed because I imagine that we look like two lovers afraid and desperately sad to say good-bye. With tears in her eyes she quietly asks, "I know you love me, " she squeezes my arms for emphasis, "but do you like me?" "Huh?" I stammer. My mind races as her eyes tell me that she wants an answer right now.
I love my mother because she is my mother, because we have been through many curves and changes in direction, and because she has always supported me no matter what I have done or haven't done (I used to tell a joke that if I took a machine gun and killed an entire elementary school class and a television reporter asked her for a reaction, she would answer, "Well, if it made him happy . . .."). I love her because I can talk to her about almost anything, because I have known her longer than anyone else on this planet, and because I feel concern, care, and compassion for her. But do I like her?
Most of us are stuck with our family—we have no choice. But we choose our friends. Because of my distressed family, I treat my friends as family members and often call the men my brothers and the women my sisters and am never hesitant to tell either gender that I love them because I do love my friends and I like them too. I miss them and want to talk with them and spend as much time as is possible with them because I like them. Is my mother someone I would want to spend a lot of time with? Is my mother a friend? Do I like my mother?
I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know if I had really forgiven her for being a lousy parent. I thought I had. And when I smiled, squeezed her arms and looked into her eyes immediately after her question, I was sure when I clearly stated, "Mom. I love you. And yes, I like you too." She closed her eyes for an instant to savor my words. We parted as mother and son, family members and friends.
But when I was settled in my seat after the soda-and-peanuts phase of the flight, I had time to think to myself that no, I really didn't consider her a friend.
A couple of weeks later, while on a flight back to Dallas, I again had time to think about her question.
It was on a Sunday. She was sitting on her couch at home, alone and watching her Dallas Cowboys play football on television with her cat by her side. I had called her before the game started to let her know that we would "watch the game together" in our separate homes, on our separate couches and on our separate television sets. But in our minds, we were sitting together riveted to every play and yelling and groaning depending on the result just like when my family used to sit before our Magnavox and watch "Dandy" Don Meredith and later Roger Staubach lead the Cowboys to victory more often than not.
She told me that she would call back at half-time so we could review the game's progress. And just before I hung up the phone, I decided to tease her a little and said, "And HEY. I love you AND I LIKE YOU TOO. OKAY?" "Okay," she answered and I imagined her smiling.
But she never called back.
Someone sitting in her little apartment would have simply seen that she decided to take a nap during half-time. But when I was enjoying a beer, she was having a heart attack. When I was getting up to get something to eat, she was dead. When I went to sleep that night, her cat was wondering if it was going to get fed.
There were over 300 people at her funeral. I only knew my family members—her sisters, my uncles and cousins—and a handful of friends she had introduced me to through the years. Most everyone there were AA members she had helped through the years. They were here to celebrate her life. All these people wanted to hug me and somehow thank her through me. Time after time, their message was the same: My mom saved their lives.
Because of alcohol, my mom met and helped all these people. Alcohol linked us into a family as real and true and random as any biological family. We had come together on this sunny, Texas day from hundreds of separate spiral threads to show our love for my mother. And yes, we all liked her too.
This celebration of life, because of her death, would never have happened if not for alcohol.
I discovered I am left-eyed by one of my father's friends.
In Laredo, Texas my dad knew a lot of people on both sides of the river. He had the type of personality who could get along with all sorts—from undereducated day laborers to doctors. He mainly worked as a salesman for a hat company, but he also was the weatherman for the local television channel, the host of a bingo-like game produced by the station, and with my mom performed in several productions for a community theatre (he played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Every morning I would wake up to him singing "Seventy-six trombones . . ." while he shaved). Despite us only living there for two years, he was well known in the town.
I went to visit one of his friends, a doctor, at his house. This older gentleman (in my mind he looks like Papa Hemingway) taught my father how to hunt for deer. They always came back with a buck that was quickly separated into its various meat parts and carefully wrapped in white paper packages that were stored in our freezer in the garage. My mom's specialty dinner and a favorite of mine was venison Swiss-style steaks.
I only went deer hunting with my father one time. When he woke me up around four in the morning, I gave him a big, excited hug. We drove out to his friend's ranch in the dark. He stopped the car on a narrow, dusty road for me to open the headlight-emphasized metal gate. When I swung it clear of the car, he turned the lights off. That startled me for a second, but he got out and stood beside me. For several moments we simply looked up into the sky without saying a word. I had never before or since seen the stars so large or so bright. It almost seemed that you could reach out and touch one. It was an absolutely beautiful and magical sight. When we arrived at the camp, there were several other men, friends and fellow workers of my dad's already lying on cots set around the walls of a large, open room with a small kitchen on one side. They were all talking in the dark and laughing. When we arrived, my dad fit right into their conversational rhythm.
This was the first trip in which I heard my dad cuss. Although my friends and I had heard and used most of the major curse words, it was a bit of a shock to hear my dad suddenly use such taboo words.
Later in the day, we took off together into the head-high cacti bush desert looking for deer. And although we saw many fresh tracks and poop pellets, the bucks were smarter than us on this day. Driving home, dad stopped the car on the side and scooped up a road kill white rabbit and placed it in the trunk. When I asked him what he was doing, he said with a smile, "Your mom is going to expect us to come back with something. I'll tell her that there were two of us out here with guns and I didn't shoot it."
This doctor also taught my dad how to load his own bullets. He had a .270 rifle that used long, thin brass missiles. On his work bench in the garage I would sometimes watch him carefully load the jacket with the bullet, powder, packing and charge. I liked it when he pressed all the parts tightly with a hand lever. But I always thought he could use more practice. When we went out shooting, his home-made bullets would often not fire, or perhaps more unsettling, wait a split second before they fired. I always asked for the store-bought bullets, but he never hesitated to use his own and laughed each time there was a firing quirk.
When he took me over to his friend's ranch outside of town that bordered the river, I was amazed that the doctor had a specially built bullet-packing room that contained an automatic loader that could be adapted for all sorts of arms—pistols, rifles and shotguns of various caliber. I was also wide-eyed that he had his own shooting range. Square, paper targets with a red bulls-eye in the center were placed in front of stacks of hay about 50 yards away.
He asked me if I wanted to shoot at a target. He was a gracious, gentle and large man who was the type of person who wanted to make sure everyone around him was content. I appreciated that he talked to me like an adult, even though I was only nine years old. "Sure," I said without a blink.
He gave me a green, khaki vest with shoulder pads (I still remember its unique smell) and a pair of head phones. He asked me to sit at the shooting table where he sat a rifle on a sandbag and told me to have at it. I loaded a bullet into the chamber. He watched the target through a telescope on a tripod behind me. My dad stood behind him not saying a word. I took a moment to adjust to the view of the target past the cross-hairs of the scope and then I pulled the trigger. BOOM.
The impact of the bullet hit my shoulder. It stung a little, but it was a pleasant sting as was the slightly acrid smell of the ignited powder. "Missed," he reported. "Try again. Remember to squeeze the trigger." I knew that basic firing rule well enough. I fired another bullet. BOOM. "Missed it. In fact, I don't see a hole on the whole page. It can't be the scope. I just calibrated it. You sure you're pointing at the target out there," he teased me with a grin. I was feeling frustrated because I thought I was aiming right for the middle of the target. BOOM. This time he didn't report the outcome of my shot.
He came over to me and said, "Listen. Why don't you try using your other eye?" "Huh?" He picked up the rifle slightly. I shifted a little in my seat and looked at the target, but this time with my left eye. BOOM. "Ah ha," he yells out. "Dead center. You're left-eyed." For the first time I saw a small hole in the red circle. All the other shots I made were just as accurate.
On that hot day along the Rio Grande, I learned to shoot with my left eye. And although I lost my fascination with guns and ammo, I use my left eye whenever I take a photograph.
Sometime later, my dad told me that his doctor friend had killed himself. He had been depressed for many years, my dad tried to explain. One day he simply had enough and shot himself through the head with one of his fancy pistols in his specially built bullet-packing room. My dad was asked to participate in the funeral at his ranch. He was to be buried under a mesquite tree. Dad and about 20 other friends of the doctor all carried their rifles to the burial site. When it was time to lower the coffin into the ground, they all stood around it, pointed their guns in the sky (at safe angles) and on the command of the doctor's brother, fired three shots.
When we got home, my dad put his hand on my shoulder and gently said with a little laugh, "Well, at least two of my three bullets worked today."
Murphy always knows when I'm about to go on another business trip—she calls them "workations." This time, she has requested a troll doll and for the first time, a non-toy object—a book about insects. I'm about to leave from home when she picks up a white rock—of the plain, crushed variety—from our driveway and tells me to put it in my bag. Which of course, I do—it's her version of currency and concern.
Later, I am listening to Will, a native American speaking at a conference. The topic is pictorial stereotypes that injure his culture. After his talk, he walks around the room holding many black strings with each one tied in a knot with a plain, gold-colored washer. I'm in the back of the room watching him give the present to each person who came to hear his talk. Some men in business suits sitting near me get up to leave and stop in a line to pick up their gift (afraid he might run out?). But there is no need to worry. He brought plenty of tokens. It suddenly occurs to me that he might like a gift in return. But what could I possibly give him that would equal the love and simplicity of his gift? And then, of course, I remember. I find the little, plain rock and squeeze it between my palms, close my eyes and make a silent prayer. When he comes to my row he gives a necklace to my friend Zeke sitting next to me. Then, I reach over across Zeke's chest and accept the man's gift in one hand and give him Murphy's gift with the other. His eyes turn bright and look into mine. He gently says, "Thank you," puts the stone in his shirt pocket and continues his giving. I take the string and put it around my neck inside my shirt.
Later, I am in bed about to go to sleep, face up with the gift on my bare chest. I try to imagine what it means. I decide that since the circle shape made out of metal is in the form of an ancient, vaginal symbol, it represents mother earth—from which we were all created and all will return. And the string on the inside of the ring and around my neck symbolizes my connection with the earth and that I should respect it as much as I respect myself. But then I realize there is another circle—my head—which symbolizes all people ever created on this planet.
Three circles reminded me how important that number is to me. I was born in the third month of 1953 and on the 21st day (2+1=3). Later, my Vietnam War draft lottery number in which men of my age would be the last group to actually be drafted, was thankfully, 300. Later, at the 30th annual photojournalism workshop sponsored by the University of Missouri (that resulted in me quitting my newspaper job in New Orleans and moving to Rochester, Minnesota), I too was assigned the number 30 so that when my film was processed the proof prints could be returned to me.
So I thought about the number 3 and for some reason thought of the children's song of no remembered title that went something like:
One two buckle my shoe. Three four shut the door. Five six pick up sticks. Seven eight clean your plate. Nine ten do it again.
As a child I learned to count and enjoy rhymes by singing the song. As an adult I couldn't figure out the meaning (pick up sticks—was that a reference to that game I used to play with my brother on the kitchen table?) so I rarely thought about it. But that night I realized that the few, well chosen words told a rich and complicated story about a person who gets dressed, leaves the house, collects wood for a fire, eats a meal, washes the utensils and in the morning starts the ritual of life all over again. And as the song celebrates the cyclic nature of life, it too is a circle that envelopes all the other circles around my neck.
The next morning at a coffeeshop in a mall connected to the hotel, I sip cafe au lait, look up and see my friend Zeke coming out of a restaurant. He sees me looking at him and smiles. I get up, walk over to him and we immediately embrace for the first time in our friendship. It was a long, loving hug in a sleepy food court in which we both celebrated and appreciated the circle that brought us together.
For about three months, I was a volunteer at a hospice unit within a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hospice is a philosophy and a place. It is an example of a real merger of theory and technology. Hospice workers believe that a person has a right to die with dignity—which usually means not resorting to extraordinary measures to prolong a person's life through mechanical hook-ups. How that is accomplished is through concerned, observant and patient care (an interesting turn of the word "patient," who is the guest at a hospital and who is expected to remain patient despite (usually) not fully understanding all that is a part of a hospital stay).
Dignity is also maintained with a lot of drugs. At this hospice, patients and their family members understand that they only have six weeks or so to live. Drugs are used to ease the pain that inevitably comes when our bodies hurry the steady journey toward death. Dosages, however, are expertly measured to relieve any suffering and yet keep the person conscious—that's how someone dies with dignity—not with a whimper, but with a bang of self-realization with time for a bit of house cleaning in order to erase all past regrets. A person who is aware of the last moment of their life has the time to think what their life means, can clear up long-standing misunderstandings or feuds with others, and can look forward to the one great mystery soon to be solved.
Thinking about death always reminds me how lucky I (or anyone) is to be alive. I did so many dumb things as a kid that I really should have been killed several times (when my daughter was born in Orlando in 1989, a friend with a son in college gave me this mandate: Your job as a parent simply is to make sure that your child doesn't kill herself). The list of potential lethal activities before my 16th birthday is almost endless, but includes: playing with a fallen, live electrical wire, setting part of the garage on fire, playing war with BB and pellet guns, making homemade bombs with firecrackers and later with my dad's bullet-making supplies, getting lost when I was four on a beach in Galveston, hanging from a dangerous ledge during a hike, daring older boys to a fight, jumping out of a second story window with a sheet over my head thinking it would act as a parachute, and so on. But what I remember most are the innumerable summer, late night bicycle wrecks with my friends since we enjoyed playing tag on our bikes in the dark.
Years later, I found myself walking behind two dripping surfers at the beach at Huntington and it occurred to me how similar we with our banana seats, high Harley handlebars, Aces stuck in our spokes with a clothespin to complete the illusion, and our tough talk about near misses, crashes and scabs were to these twenty-to-thirty-something surfers. The one doing most of the talking still had his Body Glove wetsuit pulled over his shoulders (the other guy had the chest portion flapping at his waist). The older, talkative one carried a larger Shoreline board with one tail fin (the other guy had a three-fin Becker). I could only hear a bit of their conversation. "That was my chance to finally kill you," he said with a laugh and "there was no way out but the way I went." Kids of all ages on bicycles, skateboards, roller blades, motorcycles or surf boards regularly find ways to take a dance with death and celebrate their momentary lead with genuine laughter.
When I turned 16, the list expanded to include car wrecks. The first weekend I got my driver's license I had a wreck. My 15-year old buddies and I went out in my mom's yellow Impala convertible to the local truck stop to get chicken fried steak dinners and pretend we were high school seniors. Backing out of my parking spot, I crashed into a parked car. I stayed up all night worried about telling my dad. But I could have slept—his only reaction was to break out in uncontrollable laughter.
But later, I had a serious accident that totaled my Ford Pinto. I ran into the back of a pickup truck whose driver had stopped to see another pickup upside down in the medium strip of the freeway. The highway patrolman said that if I had been going any faster, I would have been decapitated. As it was, the impact broke the steering wheel of my car. My chin caught the jagged edge tearing it open in the form of the letter "J" (in the mirror it's an "L"—my initial). When the emergency guy at the scene saw me, he said, "Wow" and asked if I wanted to take a look at my exposed jaw. I politely declined the kind invitation.
The ambulance was so crowded with the guy in the upside down truck and a pregnant woman in the truck I hit, that I had to sit up front with the driver. The only thing I remember about that late night ride was how excited he got when he got up behind a car, blinked his lights and forced the driver to move over to the side. He let out a yell of victory each time and even let me do it a couple of times and I must admit, it was a bit of a rush. I understood the joy of being an ambulance driver that night—you are thrilled by being possessed by the power to move heavy mechanical objects by your strength of will.
But probably the closest I ever got to death was when I was going to college in Austin in 1975. I almost drowned. I never learned to swim probably because I never was coordinated enough to synchronize my breathing with my head, arm and leg movements. I have never felt comfortable in water over my head and I don't enjoy water sports on television. I go to a beach or a hot tub for the sun, smells, sounds and people—not the water.
A few miles outside Austin, near the birthplace of President Lyndon Johnson, is a state park called Pedernales Falls. The "Falls" is actually a wide, rock slide that empties into a large natural pool fed by the Pedernales river and an underwater spring. Fran, Joseph and I packed up lunches, towels and floats and drove to the park. When we arrived, a park ranger warned us to be careful. Yesterday's rainstorm added considerably to the water running down the rock slide. When we passed through the short, wooded trail, I was transfixed by the scene. What was normally a gentle, slow-moving stream was now a raging current. I made a "whoop" yell, took one of the flat floats and ran for the top of the slide. When I got there, I immediately jumped into the water on my blue float. Big mistake. Like a roller coaster that lulls you into complacency with the slow ride to the crest, I didn't anticipate (nor did I notice that no one else standing around on the rocks were waiting to join in on the ride down) how my short, exciting ride would end. Because of the angle of the rocks and the flat water pool, when I reached the bottom of the slide, I was immediately thrown from my float into deep water. The float was caught above the circular, churning water while I was on the other side.
I dog paddled around and could see the float through the spray. I wasn't panicked, simply amused by this unique situation. I looked over and saw Fran and Joseph on the bank about 50 yards away standing and watching me. I waved at them and they waved back. I soon realized however, that it was taking all my energy to stay above the water. The whirling water created a downward current that was trying to suck me underneath. I still felt relatively unconcerned since I was so close to the float. But even though I was only ten feet away form it, I needed all my energy to stay vertical—I couldn't move horizontally.
Probably the closest humans ever get to primal, pre-historic emotions is through panic. When you are in the throes of panic, your intelligent mind shuts off and you are reminded that you are, in the end, simply a self-centered, life-loving animal. Since I didn't possess the "right stuff," I panicked when I grew exhausted and water splashed down my throat.
I could still turn in my spot on the river and see that the float was of no help because it was still on the other side of the three-foot high wall of circulating water. I turned to look at my friends. But this time I waved to try to get them to come save me. I yelled out "help," but the water down my throat only allowed a hoarse and nearly inaudible bark. Even if I could have yelled with all my might, I doubt if anyone could hear—the noise from the falls drowned me out, so to speak. I turned around. Again the float was useless to me. One last time I turned and waved to my friends. Exhausted and in a deep panic, I simply gave up and quit paddling. And then, something magical happened.
The only way to describe what happened next is that the scene before my eyes—the water, the trees and my friends on the bank—quickly faded into an overall, white glow. It wasn't white like a white, metal table reflecting the noonday sun, but the white, not unpleasant color of an early morning foggy day. I also noticed that I wasn't panicked anymore. I could care less that I was drowning. In fact, I was quickly forgetting I was even in the water. But then, something happened that snapped me out of my hypnotic state. A calm, older man's voice, as clear as I've ever heard anything, but definitely not coming from outside my eardrums, said five words I have never forgotten:
TURN AROUND ONE MORE TIME
I followed the instructions and managed to move around. The float was right behind me. I hugged it like a long-lost friend. I gently let it take me to the middle of the large, calm natural pool away from the noisy cacophony of circulation. When I regained my strength, I walked toward my friends who were sitting on a blanket eating lunch. I stood before them dripping, coughing, and holding the float. Fran looked up and said, "Looks like you were having fun out there." I asked Joseph how long he thought I was over by the falls without my float. He said, "Oh ... about half a minute." I realized that they had no idea what I had just gone through in those 30 seconds that seemed like 30 minutes. I never told them what happened and rarely tell anyone.
That near death experience started me on a path that I still find filled with wondrous discoveries. I began corresponding with my great grandmother about the meaning of life and death. She lived to be 100 years old. She was the second woman lawyer in the history of the state of Kentucky and a long-time educator. When she was 80, she taught herself how to paint. When she was 90, she was made a Kentucky Colonel and got a letter of congratulations from President Nixon (a few years later, I asked her if I could see the letter and she said, "Naaa. I threw it away." Grandmama was a life-long Democrat). Just before her 100th birthday, she wrote me letters in which she tried to find the linking coincidences in her life that helped explain why she had lived so long, had seen so much and possessed an active, curious mind that could take it all in. The closest she got to an answer was when she told that "We are all put on this planet to love and to learn." She felt that her entire life had been dedicated in one form or another to the pursuit of those two interlocking goals.
I began to read books written by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and happened to attend a lecture she gave when I was living for a summer in Charlotte, North Carolina and working for IBM (she definitely writes with more passion than she lectures). I began to hear of after-life and near death stories. One book by a Dr. Moody was a collection of stories told to him by people who had clinically died on operating tables or through accidents and had somehow been revived. Their tales were strangely familiar to mine. This path led me to investigate a practical, everyday version of Zen philosophy detailed in the writings of Baba Ram Dass, Jack Kerouac, Charles Burkowski, Gary Snyder and Robert Pirsig. This path also led me to become the editor of a student-produced magazine as part of a course at the University of Minnesota in 1980.
Each year a group of writing, photography and design students, taught by a team of three professors, conceive and publish a magazine on varying topics that are sold in the bookstore on campus. It was agreed that this year's topic would be on the subject of death and dying. I was the only one who volunteered to be editor. Stories in the magazine included a boy who sleeps in a coffin, a woman who makes paper rubbings of gravestones as a hobby, a nurse who is in charge of the organ transplant department at the University hospital, two young girls with cystic fibrosis and a family coping with their husband and father in the late stages of Huntington's Disease. As part of my research, I volunteered at the hospice in St. Sam.
Every volunteer had to go through an orientation program that not only prepared us for what we would experience in the hospice, but would determine if we were suitable for the job. After a two-week training session, I surprised the woman in charge on the last night. She explained that she wanted to know "where we all were with death" after everything we had heard during the sessions. She passed a sheet to all 15 of us. Below is a reproduction of what was on the paper:
She asked us to mark where we thought we are on that line (Why don't you do that now?). We passed the papers back to her and she showed them to the entire class. If you were in your twenties, your mark was somewhere in the first third of the line. If you were middle-aged, the mark was somewhere in the middle, and so on. But when she came to my sheet, she stopped and looked puzzled and asked if the person who wrote this mark would explain. Without hesitating, I put a line as close to death as I could get it. I explained that since death can happen at any time, knowing how near it is helps you to live each day as if it were your last. Despite her doubting looks, I was accepted as a volunteer for the hospice.
With my journalism background, I soon realized that I could be of service to the patients by recording their life stories, typing up a transcript, and giving it to family members. Although I was always nervous about asking someone, I never had any trouble or needed to explain my motives—everyone I approached immediately understood what I was offering—a way for them to be immortal—to live on past their upcoming death.
I met at least two extraordinary people while working at the hospice, or I should say, I realized that we are all extraordinary, but I mostly remember only two people I met. One was Mary. She was eighty-something. She was a tiny, frail woman who couldn't get up from her bed without help. Her cancer caused her to have a tracheotomy to allow intubation, or a tube into her throat. Although she couldn't speak, she said volumes with her bright, blue loving eyes and a pad and pencil she always kept on her lap.
Her doctor wanted her to continue to travel to another hospital for additional cancer treatments. But the trip was exhausting and made her ill. She told me that she didn't want to go anymore. She was ready to die. We both explained this wish to her doctor and he respected it. He must have thought we were quite a pair. One time I was sitting on her bed like I usually did with both of us licking popcycles. I would chatter away and she would interrupt me every now and then to make a comment or ask a question. This time she wrote on her small pad, "Do you like to dance?" just as the doctor came in. He naturally assumed she was holding out the note to give to him. When he read it, he gave me the strangest look—he was completely and utterly baffled by the question. When I read it, Mary and I broke out into huge fits of laughter over the doctor's embarrassment. Mary died quietly in her sleep I was told. I've always thought that someday I'll hear her voice.
The other person at the hospice I remember is Sam. Maybe it was because we shared the same name, but the day I met him we instantly got along. Like Mary, he couldn't rise from his bed, but his strong voice told me all the key events in his life. Most of his stories involved growing up on a farm in Iowa, being in the Navy during the Second World War, and his wife of many years, Irene. He talked with loving affection how he met, fell in love, married and lived with Irene in total bliss until she died three years ago. He became especially animated when he described how he and Irene loved to go dancing every chance they got. They would arrive before the band started to play and always stayed until the last song and the lights of the hall were turned on.
When I arrived at the hospice the following week, the head nurse, in a quiet, serious voice, told me that Sam was in bad shape. When I entered his room, I was shocked by his transition from a funny, sensitive story-teller to a man at the last stage of death. He was turned on his side toward the empty chair where I sat. His breathing was rough, strained and hoarse. At first I didn't know what to do, but then I remembered. I gently rubbed his forehead over and over and in a strong voice said, "Sam. This is Sam. Let go, my friend. It's okay. It's okay. Soon you'll be dancing with Irene." For several minutes I repeated this mantra. His breathing gradually slowed. And then he gave one long, last exhale.
I was looking at his face the moment he died. I actually saw a kind of veil lift over him that changed him from something alive to something dead. I walked out of the room, tears streaming down my eyes, walked into the nurse's break room, and uttered in a shaky, but clear voice, "I just killed Sam. He's dead."
Later that day, I found myself riding my bicycle across campus. Fellow students must have thought I was crazy because each time I saw a new face I yelled, "You're BEAUTIFUL!" I could see the absolute beauty of each life-filled face because I had been there to see the light of life fade and be replaced with death's cold glow.
And now, whenever I want to see faces filled with joy and beauty that comes from life's light, I go dancing.
After a long and tiring educator conference in Washington DC, a journalism professor friend of mine, Chris, was picking me up from the hotel at six to take me to his parents' lakefront home where he promised non-stop gabbing, beer drinking, and water-skiing. I hadn't water skied since I was 12. My uncle had a house on Galveston bay and my brother and cousins and I would ski, burn, cry, and play gross out games with our popping blisters all in one weekend. Needless to say I was looking forward in reliving some of those childhood memories.
I was waiting in the lobby a little before the appointed time. But there was no sign of Chris. No problem. I went to the piano bar where I had spent many-a-hour during the past week. The waitress even recognized me and asked, "Guinness?" I said, "Erin Go Back There," and pointed to a table where I could see the whole lobby area.
An hour later and I'm getting anxious. I don't have a room for the night. At the end of the last song in Liz Phair's "whip-smart" album I was listening to with my portable CD player and oversized headphones, I decided to go to the front desk and ask if there had been a message for me. But since I had checked out of my room earlier that morning, there was no way anyone could leave me a message. It was now a quarter to eight and I was forced to consider Plan B. If Chris wasn't coming, I needed a room for the night. But the next convention booked the entire hotel. There were no extra rooms. I started to feel a little sick to my stomach and wished I hadn't had that extra Guinness.
Just then, the woman behind the counter did an extraordinary thing—she went out of her way to help me. She checked the messages still in the hotel's file on the computer and found one message I hadn't heard at the bottom of the playlist. Since I had left the room early, I had never heard it. But because I checked out, the only way for them to retrieve the message was for the hotel's operator in a back room to listen to it and then recite it to me. About five minutes later the operator came out to the desk and read the message from notes she made on a torn, white envelope. I saw Chris's name and immediately felt better. She said that he forgot to account for the traffic from the beach and would be running late. He'd pick me up around eight. Just then I felt a slight tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw his smiling face. He was standing there with his son Lon. "I'm saved," I yelled. We hugged. I thanked the entire hotel staff and we walked out into the hot, muggy, Maryland air.
I knew there would be trouble when I saw Cindy's face. Chris's wife was frazzled. She had head out early in the morning with their two sons, Lon, 10, Micky, 4, and their golden retriever, Phoebe to some beach in Delaware in their aging, light-blue Volvo. Not wanting to leave so early, Chris followed a few hours later in his parents' green Taurus wagon. Both cars were parked in front of the hotel against the curb so that agitated cab drivers could still squeeze through. A young, blond, and uniformed bell captain patiently stood to one side of the revolving door watching. I said hello to Cindy and she smiled weakly and immediately complained to Chris that ever since crossing the Bay bridge the car had been making a "funny noise." Chris popped the hood and we stood over the hot engine looking helplessly like men have done since cars were invented. He decided that she and the boys would ride in the Taurus and we would try our luck with the Volvo.
Everyone was hungry and cranky. The boys didn't want to move. Cindy yelled out at one of them, "SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP." The bell captain offered to get us a gallon jug of water for the car, but Chris didn't think we'd need it. We rode out of town following the Taurus. It was hot in the city even with the windows down. Chris didn't want to run the air. I could hear the dog in the back breathing heavily with her tongue almost touching the dirty brown carpet, but otherwise she seemed okay. We could hear a funny noise coming from the engine, but it didn't seem like a major problem.
About 25 miles outside of DC, Cindy turned off to an exit with a bunch of fast food restaurants. My heart sank when she stopped in the parking lot of a Wendy's. I feel it is unnatural for hamburgers to be shaped like squares and have always refused to eat at Wendy's. But we were all hungry and I didn't care where we ate.
It immediately became apparent that this particular Wendy's was in a bit of a crisis. There seemed to be nothing but high school students skidding around the greasy floor behind the counter desperately trying to get orders filled. But the lines didn't move. The place was packed. There was a father alone with three small girls in line trying to keep them happy while figuring out what to order for them. There was a young woman carefully counting the coins in her hand while her husband held their happy and quiet one-year-old daughter. There was the usual sunburned and tired travelers with their noisy kids. Two emergency paramedics in uniforms and squawky radios ordered sacks of food to go on the way to their next car wreck.
I quit looking around and noticed that I was alone with Chris and Cindy's two sons. Where the hell were their parents? Lon and Micky were busy having a grand time discovering the under-the-counter secrets of the ketchup and mustard dispensers. They were damned annoying.
Suddenly, Chris busts in line in front of me. He's mad. At the place where they got gas the last time, Cindy must have left her wallet on the front seat when she went to the bathroom and it was stolen. Since Chris didn't have any cash he asked, "could you pay for dinner?" "No problem," I replied. I gave him twenty bucks. But then he asked, "Do you have another ten? "I want to fill up the Taurus before I give it back to my parents." I started to feel bad about going to the lake house. We were in line for a long time. When we got closer the reason was clear—the soft drink machine wasn't mixing the syrup and the carbonated water correctly so everyone who ordered a soda was bringing it back for a substitute. When Chris reached the counter, the young girl with long, brunette hair was exhaustibly trying to satisfy him and those cutting in line with new drink orders. Chris was either not as observant as me or simply focused on taking care of his family above all other concerns. After he received two kids' meals he loudly complained to her that the toys were missing. She told him that they were out of toys. He asked her, "What's the difference in the price between a kid's meal with and without a toy?"
Meanwhile she was interrupted by the father of three with his sodas in hand, "Can I substitute these drinks for two chocolate Frosties?" She nodded distractedly his way and took the bad drinks from him much to the annoyance of Chris who was waiting for his answer.
"Okay, how about this," Chris offered. "How much is a hamburger and an order of fries?" We both looked up at the brightly colored menu and came to the same conclusion—it was still cheaper to buy the kids' meal than to order ala carte. She left again with Chris standing there. I watched as she struggled to reach the sacks of happy meals above the frantically cooking french fries in their bubbling yellow grease pit. She looked through each sack until she finally found two kid's meal toys. She returned and gave Chris two small, red balls each in their own plastic wrapping. Chris paid his bill, but didn't thank her.
I was next and kept my order simple. She left and came back with two chocolate Frosties for the man next to me. He asked to pay the difference, but she let him have them without extra payment with a brief wave of her hand. When she came back with my order, sliding on the brown, greasy tiles, I looked her in the eye, touched her brown arm, and thanked her. I was rewarded with a beautiful, if much too quick smile.
I sat down with the family. The boys were busy with their toys and occasionally noticed their hamburgers. I devoured mine. It was a surprisingly damned fine burger, even if square.
Amid the noise in the restaurant and Cindy's commands to her kids to eat, I glanced at the father spooning ice milk to his girls and then over to the young family sharing one burger, an order of fries and a single drink—an iced tea—with their daughter who mostly ate the fries. When the decision was made to head back out on the road, I was happy to leave that much too bright, sad little place.
We were about to get back into the cars when Cindy, the keeper of their dog, remarked that maybe she should have bought a burger for Phoebe or at least "let her stretch her legs." But she didn't get an answer from any of us and she got back into the Taurus. Chris and I returned to the Volvo. I looked over at Phoebe and she seemed okay, if a bit tongue weary. I also noticed that the portable stereo that had been sitting on the floorboard of the passenger side was missing. Since the original plan at the hotel was for me to drive in the Taurus, all of my bags were safely locked inside of it when we went to Wendy's. The only thing of value besides the rapidly panting dog in the back of the unlocked Volvo was that stereo. With it missing, I had a lot more room for my feet, but when I told Chris, he quickly looked down at the floor, said "SHIT," grabbed the steering wheel tighter with both hands, stared straight ahead, and didn't say a word for several miles. I began to think seriously that I shouldn't have come on this trip.
Back on Interstate 95 with Chris in the funny sounding Volvo. About thirty minutes out of Wendy's, night seemed to soften our moods. We talked about journalism, spiritualism and spirit photograph
y, what we learned at the conference, the Civil War, baseball, and water skiing. The funny sound seemed to be fading, as if the car was healing itself, because the high-pitched whine was much less noticeable the louder we talked.
Without mentioning the noise, we both were optimistic that we would reach his parents' house without further delays. But then, inevitably and predictably, the night had other ideas. BANG. Something hit the inside of the hood on my side of the car. "Shit," Chris muttered as he briefly swerved to the right shoulder out of the lane. "That didn't sound good," I offered weakly. It was followed by a sound like when you squeeze a filled balloon with your fingers letting the air out. We were about a mile from the next exit and although there was panic in our minds, the car seemed to be rolling along as if nothing had happened. Incredibly, the annoying high-pitched whine was gone.
The first gas station off the exit was a BP. Sixteen pumps of neon-lit salvation. But of course in this era of self-service and convenience, service stations with their oil stained garages and smoking mechanics were gone. The BP employee knew as much about cars as we did. But we were at least able to pop the hood and act like we knew what we were doing. We could easily see sitting on some foreign engine part an eight inch piece of blackened fan belt. We could tell that it probably wrapped around the front end pieces. Chris said something about the belt being connected to the compressor of the air conditioner. I gave him a manly assurance that he was correct, although I don't know a compressor from a compactor.
Cindy and Chris devised a plan. Since the car still ran, let's move it to a real service station. We piled back into the cars and traveled down the main drag until we came to a Texaco. But this station was another convenience store that incidentally sold gas. At least the counter clerk knew of a place down the road a half mile where we could leave the car to get fixed.
Now the plan was to move all of the stuff from the Volvo, including the camper shell on top with all the beach gear crammed in it and Phoebe, their sleeping, 75-pound golden retriever. We emptied the sandy blankets, towels, tarps, tents, and digging tools from the white camper shell and the back seat of the Volvo. Micky and Lon sat in the front seat of the Taurus parked directly behind with its headlights on watching and staying out of the way. I took it upon myself to stack all the gear in the back of the Taurus. But when Cindy saw what I was doing she told me to make sure and leave room for Phoebe. The dog had been so quiet that I had forgotten about her. I stacked the stuff a bit higher so that there was just enough room for the dog. After all of the food, clothing, and odds and ends were transferred, it was time for the last family member to make the move. Chris whistled softly and said, "Come on, Phoebe. Time to go." The dog was still sleeping. "Phoebe," he yelled, "Let's go." Still no response. Cindy was in the front seat of the Taurus watching as Chris and I went up to the old girl. He poked her on the back a few times and then put his face up close to her mouth. He turned around toward the glare of the headlights and made a sad shrug of his shoulders.
Phoebe, as they say in a "Monty Python" skit was "gone, deceased, passed on." She was an ex-dog.
Cindy jumped out of the car. I learned later that she had found Phoebe 12 years ago and raised her from a pup—she was Cindy's dog more than any of the others. She put her hand gently on the soft, golden fur and rubbed her neck and ears. In the neon glow of the Texaco, I saw tears in her eyes as she turned and got back into the car. Chris and I looked at each other briefly and then spontaneously bent down and lifted Phoebe up and over to her resting place in the back of the Taurus. We closed the two hatchbacks.
I slithered in the back seat of the Taurus. Cindy was in the middle of a lie to her boys, ". . . just sleeping, is all. We've all had a long day and she just wants to sleep." They seemed satisfied with the answer. I sat quietly as we followed Chris to the garage. He borrowed my pen and a sheet of paper to write a note and dropped it with the keys through a slot in the door. We were off again with hopefully no more detours.
You might imagine that the rest of the night's drive crowded into the overpacked Taurus would be a nightmare of awkward and fractured conversations guided by the unspoken hope that NOTHING ELSE WEIRD WOULD HAPPEN. And you would be correct, except for one minor detail-the boys were wired. Since they knew nothing about their dog and had confidence in their parents, a car breaking down was simply a wonderful adventure. These guys sitting in the front seat with their mama were happy and wanted to sing. Cindy was grim behind the wheel. But when Lon started a family sing-along favorite, even she joined in. "We all live in a yellow submarine. A yellow submarine. A yellow submarine." Songs that followed were the same ones I sang as a child.
"John-Jacob-Jingle-Heimer-Smith," "Old MacDonald," and "This Old Man." When I offered "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" as a joke, of course, Chris gave me a quick panicked look that said, "DON'T teach that song to my kids—they might sing it all the way to the end." Okay. How about, "Show Me the Way to Go Home," which they all knew and which I sang with gusto because I REALLY WANTED TO GO HOME. All of our spirits improved with each song until Micky offered one of his favorites. And although we sang the tune to the end, Cindy was quiet and I could see a long, slow tear fall down her left cheek. "B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-Oh."
Thirty more minutes of driving in the dark and we were there. Chris's parents had left the porch light on for us, but they had gone to sleep. I saw Chris whisper something to Cindy. She took the kids and walked them to their room while Chris and I gently picked up the family dog and carried her around the lake side of the house. Chris opened the screen door of a storage room and we placed the body on the floor near a Ping-Pong table set on sawhorses, floats of various sizes and colors, and other, smaller items contributing to the room's general clutter. Chris looked at me with a sigh and said, "We'll figure out what to do with her in the morning." But he didn't have to say it. He took me upstairs to the "green room," as he called it. It was his younger sister's room when she lived here and I could see her dolls and acting trophies on a shelf preserved like in one of the Smithsonian museums. I took off all my clothes, turned down the bed, turned off the light, and slept the sleep of angels without dreaming or waking until late the next morning.
I walked downstairs the next day and all seemed relatively normal. The kids were sprawled in front of a large television set in the living room watching an old Three Stooges short. I soon discovered that this activity consumed almost all their time when they came to the lake. Who needs water when you have cable?
I walked through the cheerfully painted kitchen to the dining/living room area and found Chris's parents sitting around the table reading the paper, smoking long, thin Eve cigarettes, and drinking Bloody Marys. Cindy was sitting on the couch in the living room quietly working on a TV-tray size jigsaw puzzle of a flower garden. I noticed that she had just about completed the outside edges of the picture and that she didn't look up when I came into the room. Chris was outside swimming. Chris's parents were friendly, hospitable, and attractive. I could tell that in their younger days they must have had a lot of friends with their out-going personalities and good looks.
Chris's mom, Delores immediately welcomed me and asked if I wanted some coffee. "There's a mug waiting for you on the counter. Pour it yourself." Chris's dad, John looked up from his crossword puzzle and said, "good morning." I looked around their kitchen and was struck at how familiar everything was: the pot holder hanging from a hook by the window, the percolator-style coffee pot, and the white, ceramic mug with a yellow daisy. Even the pantry was filled with stuff from my childhood: a huge can of Crisco, a box of Life cereal, a large package of spaghetti, and a loaf of white bread. I sat down at the table. There was a box of powered sugar donuts on the table. Delores saw me notice them and said with a smile, "Help yourself." I did.
And then it hit me why I felt so comfortable. If my parents had kept their lakelot, built a house on it, and stayed together, this would have been their life as retirees—drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, entertaining friends and family, and taking the boat out. In a wonderfully weird way I was given a chance to see another path. I was grateful for the opportunity and enjoyed it thoroughly.
John had been a career man in the Navy. My dad was also in the Navy during World War II. John's main duty during that war was to run the USO entertainment on Guam. When he retired, he went to school and became a civil engineer. He supervised and built, with his family, the lakehouse in 1980.
Delores was active in the theatre and raised their three children. She acted in several theatrical productions in Guam and helped John with the few celebrities that came to the island. My mother and father both performed in little theatre productions when we lived in Laredo, Texas.
John told a story about Bob Hope. It seemed that the legendary entertainer of the troops once had too much alcohol to perform. When John refused to let him on the stage, Hope made trouble for him for many years afterward by complaining to his bosses. But engineering, not theatrical management was his main passion.
"John is the only certified civil engineer on the lake board," Delores said proudly. "Yea, and I tell ya," he responded. "We've got a huge problem with the levee." He went on and on about a drain that's deteriorating in the levee and unless it's replaced, the whole earthen dam will collapse, flooding the land downstream, causing the lake to dry up, and their property's value to sink. I briefly considered the events of the previous night, but ignored the thought that maybe during my stay the dam would give out.
The relaxed mood of the morning changed when Chris walked into the room still dripping lake water. "I've decided what we're going to do with Phoebe." We all turned to listen. Even Cindy was distracted from her puzzle. When I heard his plan I must admit that my first reaction was one of excitement. What a great idea, I thought. The others must have thought the same thing because there was hardly a word spoken in opposition.
Without saying a word, Cindy walked to the living room to tell her boys the truth. Chris, John, and I went downstairs where the dog was stored. Chris and I each got two heavy rocks from outside in the garden. John found a dirty, yellowed canvas tarp and dusted it off. Chris and I lifted the dog and placed it on the sheet with the rocks. We each took a corner of the tarp and wrapped it around the body as tightly as possible. Chris tucked the legs in close to her chest. John brought out a huge roll of silver-gray duct tape and started wrapping the entire package. I noticed the boys were standing behind me watching all of this quietly. Cindy and Delores were behind them. Now it was a total family affair. I stepped out of the way to give the boys a better look as Chris and John tightly wrapped tape around the tarp. When the job was finished John said, "We'll take her out to the middle of the lake." And then he added for the boys, "She'll like that."
I heard Delores whisper to John about fuel for the boat and heard his brief answer, "Well, the marina doesn't open until two anyway. But I know I've got enough to go out there and back." Swim suits and loose-fitting tee-shirts without shoes was the standard attire for cruising the lake or attending a funeral. We awkwardly carried the heavy dog to the boat with everyone in the house following in a silent procession. It was crowded, but we all fit. John was behind the wheel. Chris untied the ropes at the dock and we were off.
Although it was cloudy earlier, the sun had burned through so now it was sunny, hot, and with a cyan-colored sky. I sat in the back next to the strangely taped package laying next to my legs. I thought of all the dogs I had in my life.
Since my mom raised German Shepherds, I had five that I remember. Jason, the last one, was the most memorable because he was considered my dog. Jason would sleep on the rug next to my bed every night. When my parents divorced while I was away in college, I was told by my mom that dad gave up the house with all its furniture—just left it unlocked for the finance company or the new owner. He cruelly, I thought, delivered Jason to the pound where he was killed, of course. In a strange way, this funeral was for Jason, a dog I had for about 12 years, as much as for Phoebe. This gathering could have been my family had the path turned a bit differently. I looked up into the sky as we gently bounced over the water to the middle of the lake and I gave thanks for this magically connecting moment with the past.
But then, Mr. Jinx slowly raised a finger out of the water and touched our boat. In about the spot that John wanted to stop anyway, the engine sputtered briefly and then immediately stopped. "Damn it, John," Delores cussed. "SHIT," John yelled, sounding just like his son. The word echoed from the tree-lined shore. We sat there silently, gently swaying for a few moments.
Cindy suddenly got up and said, "Let's do it." I was startled because she had been so quiet since the night before. But she took charge as only a loved one can. "John, Chris-hold up Phoebe. Lon, Micky—stand here," she barked. Delores and I didn't have to be told. We stood in the front part of the little ship. I had to grab her shoulder briefly when I lost my balance. We shared a smile.
"We are gathered here to say good-bye to our friend, Phoebe," Cindy started. She told the story of finding her in a litter with eight other dogs. Then, she invited each of us to tell a story. Chris talked about a walk he had with her through the woods. Lon told a story waking up one morning with Phoebe's tongue on his face. Micky was too embarrassed to speak. John said that Phoebe loved to go swimming with him in the lake. Delores liked to feed the dog leftovers from the dinner. Since I had only known Phoebe with her tongue hanging down to the floor, gasping for breath in the first stages of a heat stroke, I kept my mouth shut. Chris and John coordinated their swing and tossed the dog over the side. It splashed with a huge cannonball and immediately sunk. After a few moments John said, "Someone will be by to give us a tow."
We waited there for about 30 minutes. The boys got restless and wanted to go swimming. It sounded like a good idea to everyone so before I knew it I was alone on the boat with six heads bobbing around it. I explained to Chris that I just wanted to stretch out and soak up some sun. He seemed satisfied with that answer. But there were two other reasons. I didn't like swimming where I wasn't sure how deep it was. Plus, I didn't like the idea of swimming in the same water where the dog had just been thrown. It gave me the creeps. Another 30 minutes and a fast motorboat with a skier came by. I stood and waved. The others yelled. The guy came over, causing the skier to fall. John knew the boat owner and sure enough, he towed us back to the little dock in front of their lakefront home.
The rest of the day I kept to myself either reading or floating on the lake on a large canvas float. Chris's parents were organizers of a monthly bridge game that night with 40 other people living around the lake. They were busy with last minute substitutions. My parents also played bridge a lot when I was a kid, but like golf, it was a game I never did get. When the player list was completed, there was time for some relaxation. John seemed surprised when I said "Scotch on the rocks," to his question if I wanted a drink. He wanted to put 7-Up in it, but I wouldn't hear of it. We all sat around the table with Delores and John chain smoking their skinny white Eve cigarettes. After a while, Delores fixed us a huge spaghetti and meatball meal with garlic bread, an iceberg lettuce salad, and brownies-from-a-box for dessert. As we were eating the pleasant thought again came to mind that this could be my family—my mom, my dad, and my brother—sitting around the table enjoying this same meal. Maybe it was the scotch as well, but I really felt comfortable in this environment. This was a home I knew.
The parents went off to their bridge game. The boys went off to their television set. Chris and Cindy started working on a new jigsaw puzzle—a 400-piece panoramic view of the Grand Canyon. I felt tired so I apologized and went up to my "green room" where I read, napped, woke up, and started writing the events of the last two days.
Another breakfast of coffee and powered donuts. My plane didn't leave Washington until 12:30. John said we'd leave around nine in his car because he had to run a few errands in the town afterwards. The Volvo was still being worked on—something about a part that was ordered. It was fine with me to travel with someone who had built his own lake house and knew that his lake would eventually turn into a giant ditch. I forgave him for running out of gas in the middle of the lake. These things happen. Besides, what else could go wrong?
I stuffed my clothes and papers back into my bags and placed them in the back of the Taurus. I got Lon to take a picture of all of us on the second floor porch of the house. Cindy said good-bye and apologized for all that had happened. Delores gave me a big, friendly hug and said, "Come back. Anytime." And I knew she meant it.
Chris and John got in the car with Chris behind the wheel. John smoked an Eve while Chris held an ugly looking brown cigar stub between his lips. I checked the fuel gage. It was resting on empty. But he stopped at the first station and filled up. The ride to the airport was smooth and gratefully quick. I said good-bye to John in the car. Chris came out and opened the trunk for me. We shook hands and smiled without saying a word. I took my bags and made my way to the gate for check-in, confident that this little detour after the annual journalism conference would be an overall pleasant experience.
As I came up to the main counter, I was rested, happy, and finally felt good about my decision to spend a couple of days with Chris and his family up until the time I remembered that on the metal-frame patio table in the "green room" I had left my airplane ticket.
Now it was my turn to yell, "Shit." But when I turned around, I saw Delores's smiling face miraculously holding my ticket. After we had left, she went up to the bedroom to get the sheets off the bed and found my ticket on the table. She was almost right behind us in her car when I was left off at the airport.
We hugged and laughed together like two long-lost family members.
"Daddy? Do boys ever faint?"
We're walking hand-in-hand in the parking lot of a Home Depot where we later filled the trunk with three bags of sandbox sand, three bags of bird seed and three bags of small, white landscaping pebbles for my Japanese rock garden dug in the same aspect ratio as a high definition television or a motion picture screen.
My daughter's question on this hot August afternoon is an example of how the most seemingly inconsequential question can trigger unexpected and wondrous mental associations and insights.
The year before I casually asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. "A nurse," she answered immediately. Her quick answer was not totally unexpected. She had two operations in which tubes were placed in her ears to stop her infections. Although a minor procedure, the thought of her being put under with drugs was a frightening experience. I can't totally imagine what it must be like for a parent who's child needs a serious operation, but I can understand somewhat the emotions that run through your mind because of Murphy. She had recently been visiting many nurses and doctors.
But when she answered my question so rapidly, a tiny alarm bell went off in my head. "You can certainly be a nurse, but you can also be a doctor," I replied assuredly. She immediately started laughing as if that idea was the funniest joke she had ever heard. "Girls can't be doctors," she explained. "Oh yes they can. And boys can be nurses." Again, she erupted into a fit of laughter. It is almost always a pleasure to hear her laugh, but this context was an exception. Although television conveys many harmful stereotypes, the concepts conveyed by many programs and commercials merely serve to confirm what she observes in her life.
Murphy was born in Orlando, Florida on January 23, 1989, ten minutes after she was scheduled. She is in the high school graduating class of 2007. For Joanne and me, Murphy was our first child. We were both 36 years old. Joanne needed a cesarean section because her birth canal was too small. And although all those nights in Lamaze class at the hospital with all the younger couples were a bit of a waste, I found it quite civilized that we could schedule our baby like you would a restaurant reservation. "How does 12:30 PM sound?" "Great," we both answered. My only request was that she be born on January 23. Since my birthday can be written as 321, I thought it is be fun for her birthday to be 123
Joanne and I were introduced at Nick's English Pub in Bloomington, Indiana by a mutual friend named Tara. I was going to school and Joanne grew up there. Her father, James, was a construction worker who had worked on many of the buildings on campus. He had died of a heart attack while eating a dinner in a restaurant a few years before I met Joanne. Both our fathers were dead and both had the same name.
When we met, I had a broken left wing. When Tara moved into her new house the previous August, I went around to the backyard and saw this great, old tree with a tire swing tied to a big branch. I made a little yell, ran for the rope and stood up on the tire. Suddenly, my world crashed down on me, literally. The branch that the swing was tied to was dead. The main log was huge and heavy with a diameter of about a foot. If it had landed on my head, I'm sure I would have been killed. As it was, it hit my left arm between my wrist and elbow and crushed the bones. A smaller branch glanced my face and broke my nose in two places.
Whenever you get hurt badly, there is a strange calmness that comes over you. I was in no pain. I was not frightened or concerned. I was actually amused watching my friend deal with this emergency from this unique, ground level perspective. She immediately checked on me and ran inside and called for an ambulance. A man happened to walk by at that moment and saw me on the ground. He knelt beside me and asked if he could help. He did not speak English well. He sounded like he was probably from an east European country. When Tara came back out, she asked him to call our friend Greg and let him know I was going to the hospital (I never found out why it was important for him to know right away, but it was good seeing him later at the hospital. We had played music together at a local bar—him on the piano and me on the guitar—and we briefly had a radio talk/music show until I decided that it wasn't good for my studies to be up past one o'clock).
Tara told this passing stranger Greg's phone number and he dutifully completed his mission. Later, Greg told me that he got a weird phone call from someone he didn't know. All he could get was, "Your friend. Sam. Hurt. Very bad. Much blood. Much blood. He needs you to hospital." We laughed and I said that I was glad he didn't call my mother with that message.
My arm required surgery. I was naturally apprehensive about it, but after a shot of Demerol and a cute, blue Librium tablet, I would have happily let the guy in the bed next to mine perform the operation.
I was in a cast, from the middle of my hand to my shoulder, for nine and a half months. Each month, I would get the thing cut off (with an amazing, pressure-sensitive saw that can somehow tell the difference between plaster and skin) and a new, tighter cast was put on. I learned to stick pencils down it to scratch my itchy skin. I also learned to continue my life despite this momentary inconvenience.
One coincidental occurrence that happened to me as a baby helped greatly in my writing of research papers for my Ph.D. seminar classes. My grandfather, father and myself were all born as "lefties." But because my dad had the opinion that "it's a harder world if you're left-handed," when my parents noticed that I grabbed objects with that hand, they slapped it slightly until I learned to use the other hand. I currently consider myself right-handed, but with a creative, left-handed spirit. I have the best of both possible worlds.
After Murphy was born I noticed that she too grabbed her bottle and colorful toys with her left hand. No need to slap her. I like that ancient, familial link we share.
It was indeed fortunate that ma and pa made me a "rightie" because with such a large cast on my right, writing arm, graduate school would have been a nightmare for that year. As it was, I learned to adapt (as we all do) rather quickly. I was soon out jogging around an indoor track and probably amazed slower runners who noticed my creamy white arm piece.
I was looking forward to the last time I visited my doctor (who I never did like, probably because I think of medical doctors as glorified and over-priced car mechanics). I always felt, despite me trying to assert my intelligence, that he thought I was just another knuckle-head. But I should forgive him because after all, the only people he ever meets professionally are those unlucky or dumb enough to fall out of their bathtubs, get in a car wreck or, if like me, unknowingly make a tree swing safe for humanity. The major event for this last visit was the cutting off of the last cast. I set up a little surprise for my doctor, but when he cut it open, all the confetti I had stuffed down it simply stuck to my arm in a sweaty mess. He muttered something like, "What the hell is ...." And I happily, thankfully, never saw him again.
I've had no problem with my arm, only with my wrist. Although it was undamaged, being in a cast that long tightened it up. I can no longer flatten out my hand as I can with my right. This limitation is only a problem when receiving change from a clerk, especially at a drive-through window. But it also makes guitar and piano playing a bit painful. My history of trying different musical instruments is one in which I needed to adapt from one physical ailment to another. When I got braces on my teeth at 15 and couldn't play the cornet, I switched to the guitar; when I cut part of my thumb off in shop class, I learned the harmonica; and when my wrist became a bit frozen, I learned to play the mandolin.
So, it might have been the cast, the pounds of dark beer, or just plain nervousness, but I was, as I thought about it later, overly willing to please. I have never really been attractive to women the culture deems beautiful. Beauty for me comes from natural intelligence, an easy laugh, a giving spirit and a not too obvious ego. Those traits translate not in a particular hair length or color, body size and height, but in bright eyes and a quick smile. But for me, the most aesthetically pleasing part of a woman's body is not the usual physical attributes. One of the first things I notice about a woman is her nostrils. Anyone I am attracted to must have well shaped and thin nose openings.
The first girl who ever gave me have an orgasm was named Ann. She was my high school girlfriend for a short time and was, in all respects, a classical beauty. She was tall, blonde, athletic and friendly. My parents were obviously excited and pleased when I came home to introduce her, but I didn't really think we would have a long relationship. We just weren't each other types. Her mother worked in the concession stand of the local drive-in theater. We could get in free, but her younger sister had to come along with us. That arrangement worked out fine (except when she complained of the windows fogging) because she was content to sit up in the front seat with popcorn, candy and drinks and watch the movie. We were happy to lie in the back seat and make out. We always kept our clothes on—having actual sex was still unthinkable for me. I was too afraid that I would get a girl pregnant and I would never become a dentist. But rubbing around with me on top of her eventually produced a most unexpected result. Although I had heard of the wonderful feeling of coming, I never knew what the older boys were talking about until I suddenly came in my pants during one of our extended make out sessions. I said something like, "Wait a minute. Something happened. I'm all wet." She matter-of-factly replied, "You just had an orgasm." I immediately realized that she was much more worldly about these sorts of late-night emissions than I was. And she proved me right when shortly after she broke up with me I learned that she married some guy who was in the Marines.
Joanne laughed, genuinely and long after all my stories and jokes. Tara wisely excused herself from the bar and we continued to chatter. When it was time to go, we walked to her car and I promised to call her. After several dates, we made love all night on my mattress on the floor of my bedroom in a house I rented with two other students and a big sheep dog. When the morning light came streaming in, she got me up and we did it again. But there was a complication to our passionate first night. Although officially separated, I was still married to Katie. This fact prevented Joanne from getting any closer. Over time, we became friends.
When my divorce came through, I needed to get away so I said yes to a friend who was driving up to Alaska to work in a salmon processing plant. I spent that summer chopping heads off salmon. I estimated that during each night shift I separated about 5,000 fish from their heads. The guy who worked next to me from California said, "Bad kharma, man." I drank boilermaker pitchers with the local roustabouts, ate halibut right off the dock and took a lot of pictures. When I came home, I fell in love with Debbi, the woman who lived next door from the house I shared with Mike. Through it all, Joanne remained a friend I could always talk with.
When I finished graduate school, I got a teaching job in Orlando. We started writing letters back and forth. Gradually, they became more passionate. When she came down for a visit, we spent most of the time in bed—still on a mattress on the floor. A little later during Spring Break, I came up to visit her in Bloomington. We took a train from Indianapolis to Chicago and spent the weekend in the Palmer House, a high class hotel in the heart of the city. It was in the Palmer that she asked me to marry her while standing nude before me in our small hotel room. I said yes immediately.
On the train back, I noticed that she was scribbling on a newspaper. Since this was to be her first marriage, she was practicing her new signature with her new name along the outside edges of the two feature stories on the page. We both noticed that each story featured two different artists (one a musician and the other a playwright) who both had the last name of Murphy. We decided that our child's name would be Murphy. When Murphy was born I had the newspaper page framed.
We know with 100% certainty that Murphy was conceived in a log cabin in the middle of the Brown County State park outside of Nashville, Indiana.
My mother once confessed to me where she thought I was conceived. After my parents were married in Houston, they took a long drive through the South and up the east coast to New York City, where my Dad was to start a new job at the Shell Oil Company. My mom was expected to raise their future family and somehow fit into Long Island, Queens culture with her east Texas accent. On the way there, they stopped for a few days in New Orleans to party. After having "all the gin drinks on the menu at Pat O'Brien's in the French Quarter," my mom said I was conceived on the second floor balcony of the bar. Thanks for sharing. Twenty-four years later I walked up to that balcony with Monica, but we decided against it.
On the train trip home from Chicago, Joanne's period started. By the time we ran around to obtain a marriage license, set up a ceremony by a justice of the peace for our sudden decision to marry, tell our Bloomington friends, get married (under a big oak tree in a city park with a group of middle-ages enthusiasts watching who momentarily stopped beating each other with swords and maces), have a party and drive to the cabin, one of Joanne's eggs was ready for my fastest, smartest sperm. The next morning, I had to drive back to Orlando to return to work. The only time she would have been impregnated was during our woodsy honeymoon—a much better story of conception than my urban sprawl. We lived apart for about three months while Joanne finished a couple of projects she was working on for a computer software company. It was over the phone that I learned we were pregnant. Joanne called about completing one of those home pregnancy tests. We both were excited and absolutely, inequitably happy. Finally, there was someone who wanted to keep my baby.
Before the appointed birthing time about nine months later, the plan was for me to suit up and stay with Joanne throughout the whole process and offer support in the form of hand squeezes and encouraging phrases. She briefly considered being depressed about not having a traditional, 12-hour, excruciatingly painful labor experience, but when I described that possible scenario using the words that began this sentence, she accepted her present fate. But as soon as I started to pull on the light, pea-green smock and white booties for my shoes, an old, familiar feeling started to make itself known. I knew I was only moments away from fainting.
I first remember feeling this nauseous, hot and totally uncomfortable feeling when I was six years old back in 1959 living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My dad took the whole family—all four of us—to see the movie Ben Hur, starring Charleton Heston in the lead role. For someone my age, the movie is basically a yawn until the exciting chariot race. To keep me entertained, my parents satisfied me with a variety of treats including several different kinds of candy, popcorn and soda. Nevertheless, I was a bit bored until the famous scene. It almost seemed I was riding along with Lon with my little, six year old retinas making the movie screen appear even larger than it was.
Go Ben Go. Watch out Ben! Ben wins. Hooray for Ben! Whew. Okay, now I can start eating again.
But then, Ben's enemy, who was trampled by horses because of his own evil ways, lies on the ground with medical guys around telling him they'll have to amputate his legs. He orders them to wait until he talks to gentle Ben. During their conversation, I see blood and worse of all, I hear his screams of agony. Suddenly, that nauseous feeling overtakes all other events on the screen. I didn't know it then, but I was about to faint.
But instead of fainting, I do something that makes me feel immediately better. I throw up all that warm popcorn, chocolate covered peanuts, red licorice and soda all over the neck of a woman sitting in front of me. I remember to this day her horrible, muffled scream. My dad yanks me out of there and carries me to the bathroom where he hoses me down, dries me off, makes sure I'm okay and leads me back to my seat. The woman is gone and so are many other people who were sitting around us.
It wasn't until years later that I ever thought of this poor woman, forever banished to the back row of a movie theater for fear that another little kid might commit the same terrible deed. About 35 years later, I'm touring the Wax Museum in Buena Park with my mom who's visiting from Texas. We come across a beautiful re-creation of the chariot scene. I ask her if she remembers me vomiting, but she doesn't.
Movies have always been good stimuli for near and actual barfing exhibitions. A few years later in Mesquite, dad took us all out to see Bonnie and Clyde—good, wholesome family entertainment. I was doing fine until the scene in which D.W. drives the car while the rest of the gang moans over their gunshot wounds. Fortunately, I was able to make it to the bathroom.
Many years later, I planned to watch Platoon at a theater with my girlfriend Debbi and my roommate Mike. We had moved all of her stuff from Bloomington to Princeton, New Jersey where she had a job after earning her master's degree. After we had put her household items away in her small, second story apartment, we went into town to see the movie. I became immediately ill from the first scene and left. I spent the rest of the movie eating a lonely stack of pancakes and drinking lots of coffee at Uncle Van's Pancake House close to the theater. (Later, when I rented the video, I watched it at home without a problem. In fact, when I was a newspaper photographer in New Orleans, I saw just about every way a person dies—by stabbing, gunshot, car and plane crashes, drowning, electrocution and so on—and none of those terrible sights of bodies and grieving family members made me sick because I was looking through a viewfinder which somehow insulated me).
I almost had to leave during the opening of Dances with Wolves, but Kevin Costner's medical problem was quickly alleviated and so was my nausea.
Sometime during the eighth grade, it was a fad among all my friends (curiously, only boy friends) to make each other pass out. The "passee" would breathe in and out really fast several times and then hold his breath. The "passer" would lock his fists around the chest from behind and squeeze as hard as he could. In a few seconds the passee would go limp and was gently placed on the floor. The rest of us would laugh whenever there was an involuntary twitch. In a moment the kid would wake up and always complained of a tingling sensation throughout his arms and legs. This activity was before video games. At least we weren't taking drugs, although we all tried to get high from Coca-Cola and aspirins (which never worked).
This time period coincidentally (there's that darn word again), was also the time for two other fainting fits mainly among the boys of my age. I played the cornet in the marching band which, among other things, meant we all had to attend band camp in the hottest part of the summer in order to learn the routines we would need to perform during half-time ceremonies at football games. Once after a particularly lack-luster, two-hour practice, the band director, an unpleasant, overweight man, forced us to stand at attention wearing our full band uniforms under the extreme, Texas sun. After several moments (and I've read that a moment is a minute and a half), a few of my fellow band members crumbled to their knees and on to the dry, brown grassy field. I giggled with others thinking that was funny. I was waiting for the next one to fall when I became aware of my legs falling asleep. The next thing I remember was waking up to someone rubbing my face with a wet rag. Fifteen out of the 40 or so in the band fainted that hot afternoon, almost all who fainted were boys.
The next summer, as part of a driver's education training session, our class was forced to watch two of the most gruesome motion pictures I have ever seen. In an effort to remind us to drive safely, we were shown Signal 30 (the police radio sign for a death on a highway) and Mechanized Death. These movies were produced by state highway patrol personnel that showed the result of terrible collisions. Most of the boys were excited and joked about the movies before they began, but about halfway through, the loudest jokers were the first ones getting up to leave. I will never forget a scene in one of the movies in which a policeman is crying because he's carrying a completely burned, black-with-ash body of a small child. Although I didn't faint (three of the biggest, strongest players on the football team did) I was literally sick to my stomach for three days.
Four years later, when I was a senior in high school, my dad arranged for a blood bank in Dallas to give the science club a tour. About 15 of us took a bus to the bank. We were all excited about seeing something new and getting out of school. They showed us the lobby, the place where people give blood, and where they store the blood. I felt fine until I saw a conveyor belt carrying dark, rust-colored blood in bags that looked like clear, plastic pouches you dip in boiling water if you want a quick dinner. We were all standing in the hallway looking into this sacs-o-blood room when the nurse/tour guide turned to me and said, "I think you better sit down." Those are the last words I remembered.
I knew I was in bad shape because not only were my legs feeling tingly, my head felt that way too. I fainted dead away and she and my teacher dragged me to an empty examination room. When I woke up, I thought I was dead. The room had no windows, the light was off and the door was closed. I awoke to absolute blackness. And in my hazy, foggy, disoriented state of mind, I was sure that my Catholic friends were right—there is a limbo before you go to heaven or hell. I prayed really hard and promised to be good if only I would be given another chance to live. The door suddenly opened blinding me with light. It was my teacher telling me to come on. The bus was about to leave.
When I was trying to decide if I should remain as a pre-dental student at the University of Texas a year and a half later, it was this memory (along with the realization that I would spend my life inside other peoples' mouths) that convinced me that I should switch careers now while it was relatively easy. I changed my major to drama which set a new series of coincidences in motion.
While Joanne is getting prepped for her operation, I'm putting on the sterile clothing. I realize that there is no way I will make it through this. And rather than cause a potential health risk to her during the birth, I let her know that she's going to have to be by herself. Joanne didn't appear upset—she had much more on her mind than the possibility of me throwing up in her body after her doctor made the incision. One of the nurses led me to a viewing area on the other side of a glass panel where I could watch everything and take pictures. I stood there in the hallway, but with a three-sided drapery around me for privacy. I watched Joanne as she was wheeled in followed by, it seemed, way too many people necessary for an uncomplicated birth. With all those people, where was I suppose to stand if I had stayed with her?
The operation started and suddenly I wasn't alone anymore. A nurse with five of her students were huddled around me watching. It never occurred to me (as it does now) to ask them to leave. This nurse was giving a play-by-play description. At first I thought it was helpful because she let me know that it was normal for so many to be involved in a cesarean. But when I saw Joanne's blood spilling out on the light blue sheets of her gurney and onto the floor and the nurse behind exclaiming in an excited voice, "Oh, look. There's her uterus. And you see those yellow circles? Those are her ovaries," my old sickly friend was returning.
Although I was looking through my viewfinder taking pictures the whole time, I was feeling sicker and sicker. I really needed to sit down with my head between my knees, but I didn't want to miss seeing Murphy's birth.
After Joanne's first sonogram, when we first saw our Murphy as a fetus, one of the nurses at the time remarked that she thought we were going to have a boy. I couldn't make anything out of the grainy, confusing motion picture. The clichˇ, of course, is that every woman wants a girl and every man prefers a boy. But I really and truly wanted a girl. The reason was simple—I know boys. I used to be a boy. I know how they grow up, what they're interested in, how they think, all the ways they can get into trouble, and so on. But women have always been a delightful mystery and I thought by having a girl and watching and helping her grow from the ground up, I might be able to gain insights into the nature of women.
Our baby is out, the cord is cut, but I still can't tell the sex and I'm really close to throwing up all over this window. A nurse from inside the room, all smiling, carries Murphy over to the window so I can get a good look. Her face is one I've seen several times since—she was mad as hell at being yanked out of a place she was quite happy to be.
The nurse behind me proclaims, "It's a girl. You've got a baby girl." Hooray, I think. But at that instant I am exhausted and ill. All I could utter was a meek, "Okay." And almost like a slap in my face, the nurse, assuming I was not happy with an Murphy instead of an Elliott, sarcastically repeats my last word, "Okay."
Like a headline and picture that flash on a screen to be quickly replaced by another set of words and images, all of these memories, all of these past lives instantly raced through my mind when Murphy asked me the simple question of whether boys ever faint.
I put my hand around the back of her neck while we walk to the store and reply, "Yes, of course boys faint. They faint all the time. They probably faint more often than girls."
"Have you ever fainted," she asks.
"Sure, I've fainted. Let me tell you the time I visited a place called a blood bank where they take a bit of your blood so other people can use it ...."
I'm sitting in the third booth to the right as you come in Nick's English Pub near the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. To my right is a father drinking beer with his daughter and her friend. He's all excited about finally drinking beer with her (she just turned 21 and the waitress checked their IDs). The father and daughter, despite the other noise in the place, can easily be heard. It's as if I am sitting in their vacant booth spot. At this moment, they are talking about her friends who have gotten drunk. She explains quickly that had she been with her friend, she would not have gotten "alcohol poisoning." The father corrects her by saying, "No. She Oh-Deed." She quickly says, "No, she didn't. She got alcohol poisoning." "But that IS an O-D," the father loudly proclaims.
Their subsequent conversation topics include: A trip to Belgium and the languages spoken in various European countries—"Well, I know in France they speak French and in Germany they speak German, but what do they speak in Belgium?" "German." "Oh."; a favorite course in college (the history of the U.S. from the cold war on); families with a lot of children; the significance of the falling feather in the movie Forrest Gump; how beautiful the weather is today; [I'm distracted as the waitress calls for the bill at the changing of the shift and my name is being paged (for the first time ever in this bar) for a telephone call].
The exchange across the aisle makes me wonder if you can create future coincidences. Is that the basis for deja vu? In other words, I am naturally imaging drinking beer here with my daughter Murphy. If that should ever happen, will I have forgotten about this mental image so that when the event actually occurs it will be vaguely familiar?
This Miller Lite inspired dialogue beside me also allows me to consider the nature and purpose of dreams and how they fit into the spiral. I imagine dreams to be lighter colored and thinner threads that run along the main thread but yet have gaps between them. Dreams may be coincidences that your mind would like you to create. The ancient Egyptians never could figure out the purpose for the gray-colored organ that they found inside the skull so when they were selecting body parts to preserve that might be needed in the next life, they threw away the brain in favor of the gall bladder or whatever. Oops.
Meanwhile, while the father left to use the restroom, an old guy (in Andy Griffith's Mayberry, he'd play Otis) has started singing to the two women. When the father returns he looks bored and a bit annoyed.
I'm now outside on a bench waiting for a ride. On the street directly across from me is a shiny red GT Mustang convertible. I mention this observation, of course, because the father, daughter and silent friend combination naturally get inside the car and drive off without noticing my existence.
I'm sitting on a chaise lounge in the shade with the rich folks of San Diego at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. This is a perfect world in which various cultures all co-exist in harmonious, holiday-like enthusiasm. An African-American cheerfully greets you at the guard's booth, a Latina willingly brings you food, beverages and towels, a busy Asian-American trims the rose bushes and white-to-light-brown-skin members have lazy, sun-drenched conversations that include phrases such as ". . . the shareholders of Shell Oil . . ." and ". . . you see, an alliance is growing in this market . . . ," walk by holding large Federal Express, white-paper envelopes and Fortune magazines, and have children who sneer behind their backs when they're forced to go inside and have lunch.
It's 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon. There are two swimmers doing laps in the large, Olympic-sized pool. Beyond are several sets of luncheon guests sitting under turquoise-topped sun shades. Behind me is the familiar "pong . . . pong" sound of tennis balls meeting the sweet part of rackets and the "squeak . . . squeak" of tennis shoes slipping on the hard court. It is hot, probably a hundred degrees which is unusual for October, even in Southern California, but explained by the Santa Ana winds sending heat from the desert and through the mountains of central California.
A woman wearing khaki pants walks by.
"Why don't you have shorts," the guy next to me yells out.
"I didn't bring any."
"Want to buy some?"
"Yea, I do actually."
"I did. They don't have anything."
In the land of plenty, perhaps the men are used to barking orders while the women are used to not being satisfied.
Curiously, many of the men, whether in their twenties or eighties, have white, Panama hats. I wonder if members have to wear them because of some kind of rule that the club's cultural tradition demands—like wearing white shirts and shorts on the tennis courts.
Carol, a friend from Illinois invited me to conduct a workshop at a conference for computer professionals with her at the University of California, San Diego campus. We picked up our ID badges early in the morning and listened to the keynote speech. But since we weren't presenting until Sunday, we ducked out for the rest of the day because Carol's friend, Ceal, whom she has known since attending Stanford together, is a member of the club and offered to pay for our lunch.
Carol and I have a 30 minute reservation for a court at two o'clock. In the meantime, she took off to go swimming in the ocean. I decided to write a bit after seeing the ocean and being reminded of an earlier event in my life.
Earlier at lunch, we were the only customers in the restaurant the entire time. We sat at a table in front of a large, clean picture window, watched the kids play outside with the waves or pop huge, amebic bubbles a man made by pulling two strings apart after dipping them in a white bucket of soapy water. The tide is high with hundreds of brown, stringy seaweed lumps visible through the crashing, Hockney-blue waves.
I am suddenly transported to the overcast, brown beach on the Gulf of Mexico, somewhere south of Mobile, Alabama in 1977.
I had a particularly eventful week photographing an unusually high number of murder victims and their grieving family members for the newspaper. A spur of the moment impulse resulted in me getting up early on a Saturday morning and driving for about six hours from the French Quarter to a Holiday Inn to spend the night alone in order to unwind.
I should have known I was in for an unusual experience because my room contained the strangest object I have ever seen before or since in a motel. Although the room was ordinary in every respect, next to the television set on the dresser was a fly swatter. But it was the message printed on its handle that made me consider this everyday object so unusual. The swat part of the plastic fly squisher was colored red (signifying, no doubt, the death of all small animals unlucky enough to be caught under its force). Its handle was bright white. Printed in all capital, red, block letters was the message, "FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY." I instantly imagined a swarm of flies crashing into the sliding glass window reminiscent of the movie, The Birds. I also briefly considered the implied meaning of the message which prevents a motel guest from using the killing machine for casual, non-emergency purposes. But I shrugged off these thoughts and headed for the ocean.
Even though it wasn't sunny and warm, I was determined to enjoy the cool water to cleanse myself of a week of too much violence. I should have noticed that although there were many people walking along the beach, gathering shells and lying on blankets, there wasn't anyone in the water. But I didn't.
I walked, slowly and deliberately, into the crashing surf, ignoring the cold water. I stopped past the wave line at about chest-high and I turned around to look at the image of all the tiny people on the beach I left behind. I was about to submerge my head when it suddenly occurred to me that, "SHIT. I'M ON FIRE." A pain, similar to the spicy hot feeling that sits on your tongue after eating hot sauce spiked with chipotle peppers, covered every bit of skin that was under water. I looked at the surf around me and saw that it was filled with thin strands of seaweed. I was told later that I had happened to come to this stretch of beach during a phenomenon known as the "red tide"—an algae that produces a highly allergic reaction that invades the area a couple of times a year. I also noticed that there seemed to be hundreds of fish all around me going crazy—they were all frantically jumping out of the water in an unsuccessful attempt to escape this crimson hot sauce hell. I imagined that if fish could make sounds, the air would be filled with their horrifying screams.
The fish were stuck in the water, but I wasn't. I walked swiftly toward the shore.
I didn't own a swim suit, but was happy to wear a pair of loose-fitting, cut-off blue jeans until a fish about five inches long somehow managed to jump inside the back of my pants and get stuck between the crack around my butt-hole and the fabric. Now, I was in a panic. I immediately tried to pull it out by the tail fin, but he was too slippery. And each time I touched him, he wiggled his head. I worried that he might start biting my butt, so I left him alone.
When I got out of the water, a young boy, perhaps 12-years-old, was waiting for me. He started to say something smart like, "Hey, don't you know that you're not supposed . . . ." But I cut him off with an upraised, index finger to my lips and then up in the air that communicated silently, "Be quiet and I'll show you a magic trick."
He watched as I put my hand down the back of my pants and pulled out a silver, flipping, frantic and pissed-off fish. The kid's eyes opened wide and he ran off down the beach in terror. I threw the fish back into the ocean, sat down on the dry part of the beach and rubbed sand over my fiery legs until they quit stinging.
Carol returned from her ocean excursion with an out-of-breath message. When she tried to go swimming in the surf, she became frightened and ran when she saw small sharks swimming with her amid the seaweed. "It could be worse," I said with a secret smile to myself.
We played a "game" of volley-only tennis until the hot, dry heat got the better of me. On the way out of the Beach and Tennis Club, I happened to notice a store called "The Tennis Shop." Just outside the door, on the sidewalk, was a six-foot high rack filled with white, Panama hats. I resisted the temptation to buy one.
About ten miles outside of Bloomington, Indiana is a ranch (as I would say in Texas, although they call it a farm) of Phil and Brigit. Phil is an old friend of mine and when he's not working on an outside construction job or seeing a doctor about an injury, he's working on another of a seemingly endless series of chores on his farm. Brigit is one of the top horse riding instructors in the state. She's coach of the IU equestrian team. When she's not competing herself or helping students who are, she gives riding lessons and works in her barn. Currently, they have at least 11 horses. Except for the first horse mentioned, the list of horses below is in the order given to me by Brigit:
Blackie Joe Red Greg Versie Ike Junior Philly Studly Plucky
The first horse in Brigit's mind and the one standing next to us is a "medium aged" Appaloosa officially named Just-A-Jet, or JJ. But since he bucked her daughter, Elisa causing damage to her pelvis and spleen, the name was changed to Just-A-Jerk and is now, Butt-Head. Brigit explains that Butt-Head is the smartest of all her horses which is why he gives her the most trouble. Dumb horses, she says, will let you do anything you want to them. But a smart horse is always thinking how to get out of whatever you want. The Appaloosa breed is distinct from other horses because of three characteristics: spots on its coat, that can either be a "leopard" style (completely covered) or concentrated on the rump (more common), mottled, textured shoes (which I call hooves) and white sclera as in a human that gives the horse a mysterious and somewhat menacing appearance (the sclera of other horses are dark). The short mane of Butt-Head indicates that he is a direct descendent of the original Nez Perce Indian tribe (a longer mane means that the horse was mixed with other breeds). Elisa recovered from her serious fall three months ago and regularly rides Butt-Head. She has a room full of trophies. She enthusiastically explains that the reason you can find arrow heads down by the creek is because of this Appaloosa Indian tribe.
But the Nez Perce are from California, I later discover from a book in the school's library. The arrow heads are a result of many northeastern United States tribes moving to the area after being driven from their homes. By 1838, all of those tribes, including the Potawatomi, the last tribe to be evacuated from Indiana, had left the state.
Besides the horses, they also have a pet pig, several geese and an uncountable number of dogs and cats that run inside and outside their two log cabin homes (one is where Brigit's mother lives). The cabins are curiously connected to two different satellite dishes that seem oddly out of place in this land of trees and animals.
Murphy loves to visit because she gets to play with their kids—Elisa, Louisa (Lou) and Billy. In age, Murphy fits between the latter two. I drive us out and turn into the road where they live. Phil and Brigit's property is directly behind the rock singer, Phil Cougar Mellencamp's hidden, wooded compound.
Trampoline jumping is Murphy's first order of business for me. We both hop on the black, smooth surface and jump high. She says nothing. She only laughs. Suddenly, I am back in Mesquite, Texas in 1964. The neighbors two houses down from us had one in their backyard. All of us kids in the block hung out there and waited our turns to jump. After my turn, I always was distracted by the two identical and funny looking cars in their driveway. I had never seen a Volkswagen Beetle before they moved in. Again, I am drawn to the nature of coincidence. Did they have a trampoline so that I would not hesitate to jump with my daughter 30 years later? And was I sparked to buy Volkswagens (at various times I owned two Beetles, a camper van and a Rabbit) later in my life because of my curiosity with the funny looking car when I was 11-years old? Sure.
After my jumping (and double jumping) session with Elisa, I walk to the barn because I want to see the horses. I like horses a lot and think of them as big dogs. But I hate to ride them. I go up to one by the fence and take a big sniff of horse—it is like no other odor. Suddenly, I'm back in New Orleans in 1978 at the stables near Audubon Park playing tag with four horses who know the game while my girlfriend, Madison, who had bought and sold over 30 horses by that time, watches in wonderment and glee as I run back and forth in the corral with these giant, snorting, friendly and knowing horse-dogs.
I start walking down the trail from the barn. The plan is for the kids to eventually go riding after me. About 100 feet down a small road, the trees give way to a valley about 200 yards in diameter that is ringed with trees. The field is filled with yellow goldenrod and purple jimson weed plants, most over six feet tall. Although there is no aroma, the sensual richness of the green trees around yellow and purple flowers (especially since I have no allergies) on this clear, blue sunny day is an unexpected treat. There are also the sounds of bees, birds, Phil's use of a hammer or saw, dog barks and most prevalent, cicadas. I am now aiming my BB gun in Laredo, Texas in 1963 at a cicada sitting innocently on a branch of a mesquite tree. I shoot the insect and place the dead animal in my one pound coffee can with all the others. All the boys in the neighborhood will later show off our kills for the day.
I reach the tree line on the opposite side of the field, cross a low, barbed wire fence and am on the edge of a massive corn field with the plants all about eight feet tall. I'm back in a bar in Ottawa, Illinois in 1979 with my girlfriend Stella. She's leaning against the jukebox looking at the titles with the song, "Chuck E's in Love" playing through the speakers. She comes back to the booth, sips a beer and starts telling me the story of her adventures detassling corn during the summers around here. I just drink my beer and can't take my eyes off her.
Next to the fence and corn field is a long, fallen, barkless tree that looks like a perfect place to sit and write. I am now in a wooded area outside Austin, Texas in 1975 with my friend from high school, Joseph. We have been walking for a couple of hours when we decide to rest awhile. After a long silence he says, "If you're still and wait long enough, you can watch nature happen." And sure enough, insects, birds and an occasional squirrel share our space.
I sit on the smooth log and start writing in a little yellow book I always carry in my back pocket. I am startled by a sudden movement of the log. I leap up fast. My heart is pounding. To my right, I see a brown shape fall and hear the "thump" of its body on the damp earth. I am now on the balcony in Fullerton, California in 1992 drinking beers with my photographer friend, Bill. I'm listening to him tell his emotional and frightful story of when he got lost in the jungle one night as a soldier in Vietnam and thought he might not make it back alive.
I feel another tug on the log and see a squirrel jump up on the opposite end from me. Looks like I'll make it back alive.
Murphy and Lou have made it to the yellow-purple valley and are calling my name. I yell back. We continue this exchange until they finally make it to my writing spot. Lou holds the reins while walking Murphy on Blackie. Murphy smiles from finding me in this hidden part of the woods. But she's mildly annoyed with me and says, "Daddy. Next time don't scare us like that." She reminds me of the fossils in the creek next to where I am sitting, but I haven't forgotten. Having gone to school in this area, I know the creeks and lakes are full of fossils.
But I admit I was not prepared for the hundreds of geodes and small chrinoid stems and little worm fossils along the banks of this tiny, rock-filled creek. I pick up a tiny chrinoid fossil. It looks as if a stack of five, half-inch washers were somehow turned to stone.
The trick in finding the tiny worm fossils among all the other rocks is to walk slowly moving your head from side-to-side (being careful not to get hit in the face with a low-slung tree branch) and not look for them. Eventually, you will find so many that you will start to discriminate, evaluate and reject. With familiarity, we learn to judge the aesthetics of fossils, or any other object or concept.
I find a tiny example of a worm fossil and pick it up. I have briefly returned to the conference in which the native American man gives me a gold colored metal washer. I add the round yellow fossil to my washer necklace and put it back around my neck.
And as I crouch on the creekbed to write these last few words using my leg as a table, below me is a little brown millipede frantically running his tiny legs over the body of one of his ancient, larger cousins.
Being called for jury duty is the ultimate coincidental experience. When you're with a bunch of strangers at a grocery store, in a post office, or in a restaurant, you are there because you need to buy a gallon of milk, mail a letter, or eat dinner. Although you don't know anyone around you, there is a common bond among everyone present because you choose to be there. But no one volunteers to be on a jury. A computerized, random selection of voters and driver's license holders picks your name for a specified day and time. You have no control over how, when, and where. You are stuck in a room with several strangers for an indeterminate amount of time and the only way to get through it is to accept that there are forces beyond your control that mean for you to be here, now.
I arrive in the jury meeting room about 10 minutes before eight in the morning. I sit in one of about 150 gray, plastic classroom-type chairs. No one says a word. It is so quiet I have to strangle the urge to yell, "Hey. Aren't ya happy to be ALIVE?" But I look around instead. There is a fascinating mix of tee-shirts and business suits, thongs and cowboy boots, and newspapers and bibles. And except for a few Latino and Asian faces, the room is white bread white. The only sounds are the occasional squeaking of the door as someone enters the large room and the rustling of pages.
The last time I was called to be on a jury was in 1977 when I lived in New Orleans. I was excited because it was for the Grand Jury. I thought I would hear some interesting cases. But when I told them that I worked for the newspaper, everyone laughed and told me good naturally to "get outta here."
I am suddenly startled. The guy in his fifties sitting next to me asks urgently, "Would you like something to read?" He tries to hand me a bright yellow brochure printed by the "Fully Informed Jury Association" that has a large, sans serif, bold headline, "TRUE OR FALSE." "No thanks," I reply. "I've got this to read." I brought Bill Postman's Technopoly-a commentary on how machines, particularly computers, are changing society. The book seems appropriate since a computer was responsible for me being here. I am writing this story on the back pages. The man takes the brochure back with a sigh. On his lap is a huge book-at least 1,000 pages-titled, Upgrading and Repairing PCs. On his little desk is a well-worn notebook filled with writing out to the edges. He returns to his scribbling. No one has said a word and I'm sitting next to the one guy who wants to chat. Weird.
Barbara from the jury office steps up to a microphone, introduces herself, and starts another orientation session. She has the relaxed manner of a veteran teacher that helps ease the nervous feeling in all of our stomachs. "How many were here last year," she asks like an old friend. The woman sitting in front of me raises her hand. I then notice a thermos sitting on her desk and a purse crammed with Readers Digest magazines. I have a feeling that this will be a long day.
Barbara introduces a thirty-minute movie, The Jury, hosted by Daniel Boone himself, Fess Parker. It's a sprightly produced motion picture describing all the machinations of a typical case-a fictionalized civil suit against two women involved in a car wreck. The facts in the case are complex enough so that it's not clear which person should win-and the film doesn't tell you. The main message of the movie is stressed by both Fess and Barbara-the importance of our civic duty and even if we aren't picked for a jury, we are still serving the county. And then she adds, "You might feel you're waiting around too much, but believe me, we'll try to get you on a case as soon as possible. Another sign of a long day.
Barbara concludes in her perky voice, "Just sit tight. We'll call when we need you." And then, "Any questions?" A woman in the front row asks in a nasal voice, "Will it always be this warm in here?" So much for jury-related questions. But I have a question. When the film and Barbara's presentation are over, I walk past her assistant, Cindy who is setting up a medium-sized television set in the middle of the room. "So," I say in a friendly voice. "Are you going to tell us who won?" "What," she asks with a puzzled look. "The case. Who won the case?" She squints her eyes and really looks at me. Before she could answer I said, "A joke." She sighs in relief. I make a mental note not to make any more jokes.
Cindy turns on the TV, but not the sound. Curiously, the OJ murder trial channel isn't selected. I casually look up from my book to see a steamy soap opera. Thirty minutes later and its Bob Barker of "The Price is Right" receiving a kiss from an excited contestant. But all the swoons, yells, and revolving wheels are silenced in this purely visual world of jury TV. The show is much better without sound.
We've been here two hours and we're all going a little crazy. I go out the back door to enjoy the sun. This is where the smokers hang out. And unlike the quiet community room, smokers always seem to be able to find another person that talks. But even though we're outside, the smoke gets to me so I walk back inside and find a soft chair next to a couch, the vending machines, and the clerk's office. I enjoy hearing about the problems of my fellow potential jurors. "Here's my doctor's statement . . .," "Do you have change for a dollar," and "Here's your lunch money your sister brought you."
A nervous woman next to me thumbs haphazardly through a giant book, You Can Write Your Own Living Trust. Two guys on the couch look like they're asleep on opposite ends. An older woman sits patiently with her red-thread embroidery pattern. A young man punches a calculator, writing down his answers with a pen. Two blondes ignore the silence of the rest of us. They're about the same age sitting across from each other and talk almost non-stop. These two "friends" chat away like long-lost high school friends and seem to inspire the little group sitting around me.
One of the guys on the couch suddenly says, "What a waste of humanity. They otta have us cleaning streets or something." The other sleepy guy suddenly comes alive and starts telling us everything we never wanted to know about a boat race from Long Beach to Catalina Island and back. He came in second. All the time he's talking, Living Trust woman nods and says such phrases as "Oh my," "Gee," "Sounds horrible," and finally, "Well, congratulations. Second place is pretty good." I'm about to lose it when Barbara walks by and says sarcastically, "Time flies."
An hour later and we're still all waiting. Barbara walks up to the microphone and announces that all those in groups 201 and 202 must remain. Everyone else gets a long lunch break, but must be back at 1:30. The two couch guys high five each other. The Trust woman closes her book and stands up. One of the men says, "All right. Where are we going for lunch?" I remain seated. I'm in group 201. One of the couch boys gives me eye contact and says, "Sorry." They happily file out along with about 100 would-be jurors. The PC guy is gone. So is thermos woman and the calculator kid. Miraculously, the two friendly blondes are in the same group and continue in chat mode.
Bob Barker is gone. Another silent soap opera takes his place. Thirty minutes later Barbara walks out of the room carrying her purse. I take that as a bad sign. But Cindy flips the switch up on the microphone and says the magic words, "We have determined that we have enough jurors for the day. All of you are excused. You don't have to come back." There was a giant, collective sigh and we quickly shuffle out to freedom. I couldn't resist one last joke as I pass Cindy, "And that first group thought they were so lucky." I finally score a little laugh from her. On a whim I watch the two blondes as they walk out to the parking lot. They exchange phone numbers, hug, and leave in separate cars.
I decide to drive downtown to a music store to buy some guitar picks. I volunteer to the clerk behind the counter, "I was called in for jury duty, but I didn't get picked. I have a free day." He finds that confession slightly amusing and says, "Oh yea? Well, why don't you have some free coffee?" He points toward the coffee machine. I walk over to it and pour myself a cup.
Sam and _____ under a tree.
K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love.
Then comes marriage.
Then comes Sam pushing a baby carriage.
Somewhere in the curve of my brain's hippocampus is probably the place where all the old songs from childhood are stored. Tucked in with "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," "This Old Man," and "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" is "The Kissing Song." Like many of these deceptively simple verses, the meaning of the words is enormously complex. "Kissing" is no exception as it charts out a social path that a dominant culture would like all its good citizens to follow—a family is a family only after sitting, kissing, loving, marrying, and pushing. And as with most societal rules, much of the joy is removed from the above list of activities by guilt and social taboos.
I can think of almost nothing I would rather do with another person than kissing. No other activity combines the senses in such a pleasurable way. The look of your lover's open or closed eyes, the smell of hair, skin and breath, the sound of sighs and the feel of lips, the tongue and the gentle squeezes from hands all combine in this one, wonderful act. But as good as the stimulation of all the senses at one time feels, it is the addition of a spiritual connection, a feeling of love, with the one you are kissing that makes this form of communication truly special.
One of the worst feelings is to try to pretend that you enjoy kissing someone you don't share that special connection with. Kissing is a chore when you're forced to smack your strange smelling great aunt who has a red lipstick streak the size of a Buick. Kissing quickly on a cheek between friends acts as a handshake in some cultures. When big Ed McMahon kisses the always frantic Jerry Lewis on the lips at the start of the MDA telethon, no one assumes they are lovers, yet it is communicated, much more than through a handshake, that they love each other. That kind of kiss reserved for parents, siblings, children and some friends is nothing like the kisses when two lovers are sexually attracted to each other.
Kissing someone you love AND lust ignites a craving in which the act never quite satisfies the urge. When I get my friends who smoke to talk about their addiction, they describe it in about the same way. Kissing, like smoking, produces the desire for more, not less. It is as if every cell in your entire body is in motion (that tingly feeling). Whether in a park, a movie theater, or a crowded downtown bistro, watch two lovers kiss and notice the joy on their faces quickly replaced by the sadness expressed in their gestures when they know they must stop. For this yin-yang, combination of good-bad, pleasurable-not pleasurable and happy-sad is never so apparent as in the act of kissing and parting from a lover. Although time stands still during the kiss and all other distractions seem to fade, when the last kiss is made, the two lovers quickly and regrettably join the rest of the world in worrying about time. They suddenly become, unfortunately, self-conscious about their appearance to the non-kissing luncheon patrons surrounding them.
The first girl I ever kissed was named Jerri. We were both 12-years-old. It was on Halloween night in Mesquite in 1965. Jerri was a member of our little gang of neighborhood kids who first started to investigate our growing awareness of sexual urges. Jerri actually lived about three miles from my house, but she was best friends with Liana, who lived a block away with her older brother and single mother.
Jerri, Liana, Ryan, Danny and myself on long summer days or sometimes after school would get together at Liana's house, play "45" records, and dance in a circle. Our favorite dances were the Mexican hat dance, in which one of us sometimes was a substitute for a hat on the floor and a new dance inspired by Chubby Checkers, "The Twist." We all liked that dance because it was easy—just act like you're drying your back with a towel while crushing out a cigarette with a foot. The Twist's dance steps made us feel older and sophisticated. We were still too young to link its vague references to sexual pleasures with our after-school, innocent activity.
But we were certainly aware of kissing. And not the mother-son, daughter-father kissing you give to parents, but the kissing in movies that showed us how it should be done and what it must feel like. Since none of us had ever kissed romantically, we were all naturally curious. And although we were too shy to openly discuss the subject, we nevertheless put ourselves in situations in which the act of kissing would be more acceptable.
When houses started to replace the nearby creek, we would hang out in the unfinished structures after the workers had gone home, cram into an oversized closet, shut the door so it was dark as the inside of our eyelids, and sit in a circle, with knees touching, nervously giggling, but all wishing someone would MAKE THE FIRST MOVE. But no one did, of course. We just waited until sweat beads dropped from our foreheads and then quietly left.
Somehow Jerri and I made arrangements to meet at her house on Halloween night and go Trick-or-Treating. I was determined to kiss her some time, some where, somehow during that night. Actually, I imagined an elaborate fantasy in which I would carry a blanket with me to her house, walk with her to the nearby creek, smooth out the blanket on the wet grass, and sit with her and kiss until dawn. It never occurred to me to make love with her because at 12-years-old, I had no idea what that was.
It would be a year later when I would learn about masturbation from an older boy who shared a large tent with five of us at a two-week, YMCA summer camp. He amazed us with a fantastic story of using your hand and rubbing your dick until it grew and got hard and squirted out something that was creamy and white, but made you feel like you were floating on a cloud. None of us believed him and laughed, until we tried it later at home in our own, comfortable beds. Wow.
But at 12, I thought it would be the best feeling in the world to stay up all night, with my arm around Jerri, and kiss her whenever I felt like it.
A week before MY FIRST KISS, I suddenly realized that I really didn't know how to do it. From my parents and movies, I knew that it's not that hard—just keep your lips together and press them against the girl. Easy. At night before I went to bed, I practiced on my arm between my wrist and my elbow. By the end of October, I was confident I could do it. But when I found myself walking around the neighborhood with Jerri pretending to be interested in collecting candy, I could never have imagined a more difficult task for myself than simply taking Jerri's small hand, walking with her between two houses and kissing her gently, sweetly and memorably on the lips.
By the time we got back to her house, it was late. She had to go inside. I could see her mom through the window. Jerri looked annoyed with me. Had she been kissed before? I could feel the white-hot searing heat of embarrassment on my face and neck. And then, mercifully, she asked the magic word that finally got me moving, "WELL?" I leaned toward her, closed my eyes, pressed my lips against hers, waited a second, backed up and opened my eyes. Her eyes were still closed. Unfortunately, with all my parental spying and movie watching, I had never thought that I should also smack my lips. I looked into her eyes and said the highly UNromantic phrase (that I have NEVER repeated to anyone else I have ever kissed since), "That wasn't such a big deal, was it?" She didn't answer or nod. She just went inside.
I didn't know it at the time, but that was my one and only kiss with Jerri. Nevertheless, I was so happy, relieved and excited at finally getting my first kiss out of the way that I ran the entire three miles back to my home.
I liked Jerri all right—enough to kiss her—but I was really in love with her friend, Liana. She had long, brown hair and brown eyes and I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. She always smelled wonderful, too.
Twenty years after knowing Liana, I was exploring all of the sporting goods accessories on the second floor of the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine when an older, white-hair woman happened to walk past me. The air and my nostrils were suddenly filled with the same perfume that Liana used to wear. I was once bold enough to ask a woman the name of her perfume. She told me it is something called, Emeraude. Liana no doubt borrowed a few drops from her mother because I only smell it on older ladies. For several minutes in the store, I pretended to be interested in the same items as this older woman just so I could follow her around and enjoy a few more moments with my memories of being with Liana.
Although I was a year older, we would often ride our bikes together to the elementary school. We often stopped at a small, convenience store on the way there and back and buy an Icee and read the magazines. Back in 1965, the subject of the stories in the tabloid newspapers was not concentrated on the affairs of celebrities as today, but an unusual—almost always disgusting—collection of social and scientific oddities. The only headline I remember from one publication is:
BOY BITES OFF FRIEND'S NOSE AND EATS IT IN SANDWICH
The story also included a picture of the sad victim. Liana and I would giggle together after showing each other particularly offensive headlines.
Several months after my first kiss, Liana and I were spending most of our time together. Although we didn't know it at the time, we were going steady.
On a warm Spring evening, our gang of kids decided to have fun and ring the neighbors' door bells, run between the houses on the opposite side of the street, and laugh at the indignant responses of the house owners who opened the door to find no one there. On this particular night after the bell had been rung, I found myself lying on the cool grass next to Liana with no other friends nearby. We watched as the porch light came on and the resident looked around fruitlessly for a visitor. But when the door closed and the light went off, Liana and I didn't move to join back up with our friends. We both enjoyed the feeling of being so close to each other. We kept our positions in quiet anticipation of something—we didn't exactly know what. But I didn't want this moment to fly by without at least kissing her so I put my arm around her shoulder. To my relief, she didn't shrug it off. Just then, our friends, noticing our absence, started yelling out our names. I began to worry that maybe we wouldn't kiss after all. But Liana turned toward me, and even though it was dark, I could tell by the dim light of the street lamp on the corner, that the look on her face was telling me it was all right to kiss her.
Since my kiss with Jerri, I learned, through added practice, to kiss with a smack. I got nearer to Liana's 11-year-old lips, pressed mine against hers, sucked in slightly at the same time and pulled back producing a quiet smacking sound. It was a perfect kiss. We looked at each other, smiled and immediately jumped up and ran to be with our friends.
I've kissed and been kissed many times since that doorbell ringing magical night, but none have ever been quite so quick and yet perfect in every way.
Three years later during a late-night stroll at a summer band camp I experienced the worst kiss of my life. It was so bad I didn't even get a chance to kiss the poor girl. It was so terrible that she felt sorry for me.
I grew up in Mesquite, Texas, a small town that is known around the world for its championship rodeo. I met an auburn-hair girl with long legs and a perfect smile at school. I played the cornet in the junior high school band while she played the clarinet. She also rode in the rodeo. Her first name, appropriately enough, was Reins. I never will forget sitting in the stands one evening watching Reins ride out on a huge, white horse. She wore a turquoise jump suit and white hat and was lit by a powerful spotlight that followed her every turn. She also carried a large American flag in preparation of the singing of the national anthem and the start of the rodeo. I stared in amazement as Reins seemed the most beautiful girl in the world.
Every summer, North Texas State University in Denton, about an hour's drive from Dallas, sponsored a band camp for junior and high school kids in the area. One evening during the summer camp, Reins and I found ourselves walking back to the dorms together. At one point, you had to walk through a tunnel that led under the freeway. It was there that I planned to kiss Reins for the first time. But unfortunately for me, I couldn't stop thinking about how beautiful she looked riding her horse in the spotlight at the rodeo and questioning myself whether she was the least bit interested in me. I had mentally worked myself up so much that I became hot and sweaty and talked nervously. As we neared the tunnel entrance, all of my anxiety about making the first move culminated in a sudden gush of blood from both my nostrils. She screamed in surprise as my shirt quickly was covered with a red stain. I tried my best to stop the flow, but it kept coming out. Needless to say, I never kissed her that night or any other night, but she still lives fondly in my memory.
Many years later a lover asked me what excites me. I answered without hesitation that I liked kissing where you weren't suppose to kiss—in airplane bathrooms, across the table at restaurants, on a crowded downtown sidewalk, and in department store dressing rooms. Forbidden and dangerous kisses are the best because they are the most passionate. And although I still get excited just before I kiss a woman for the first time, nose bleeds are gratefully left to my teen-age memories.
But there was one series of dangerous kisses that duplicated that wild, innocent, free-flowing feeling first felt when the land between the houses in my neighborhood was dark.
Lorri was a public relations specialist working in the Communications Department of IBM in Charlotte, North Carolina when I was hired as a summer intern to write stories for the newsletter and monthly magazine, take pictures of various computer assembly operations, and develop a computer interactive program people could use in the plant's library. Lorri was an attractive, tall, suntanned, athletic woman a year older than me with brown hair and eyes, a firm handshake and a smile that hinted of not only her good humor, out-going personality, and willingness to try new experiences, but also revealed her deeply intelligent and caring approach to life. If there is something called love at first sight, we felt it during that introduction.
But love, being the unpredictable and rowdy animal that it is, often presents itself at inopportune times. Although my English wife, Wendy, and I were separated and soon to be divorced, Lorri was still comfortably, maybe too comfortably, married with two young sons. The thought of getting involved with another man—a summer intern at that—was far from her mind. Nevertheless, we did get involved. And our secret encounters, in which we would meet to kiss over the last two months of my summer employment, were the most romantic and passionate experiences of my life. And it must be made clear that it was also one of the hardest things I've ever done to say goodbye forever to someone I considered to be the One meant for me.
One of Lorri's jobs for the communications department was editor of the in-house newsletter. It was a bi-weekly, four-page, two-color cheery affair with photograph
s that contained upbeat stories about employees doing good work for the company. As an intern my responsibilities were negligible, but my duties were gradually increased as Lorri got to know me. I wrote stories that ranged from the retirement of a long-time corporate head to two brothers who escaped on a boat from Vietnam and who were engineers working in the same department.
Coincidentally, the photographer for that story was a woman named Lauren whom I had met 10 years earlier in Lebanon, Missouri at a photojournalism workshop sponsored by the University of Missouri. After I met Lauren I not only fell madly in love with her, but traveled up to her small upstairs apartment in Rochester, Minnesota where we made love all night and I went with her on her newspaper assignments during the day. When I eventually returned to New Orleans, I quit my job to live with Lauren and write a picture book on the town of Rochester, arguably one of the strangest cites in America because of its ties to the Mayo Clinic. I moved to Rochester, fittingly, in one of the coldest winters in its history. Lauren simply thought I was crazy to quit my job and wouldn't have anything to do with me. I eventually abandoned my picture story to concentrate on my three waiter jobs I had throughout the town.
After my father died, I began school at the University of Minnesota. Lauren got a job on the newspaper in Charlotte. She later quit to freelance and met a man, married and soon after had two boys. When I moved to Charlotte, I briefly stayed on their couch until I found my own place. She was happy when I called her to do the photograph assignment for IBM because she had recently underexposed some slides she shot at the plant and was concerned that they were never going to use her again. My call gave her another chance with the lucrative company.
Lauren was doing allright, however. She happened to take the last portrait of Jim and Tammy Bakker before the story broke out that Jim was not following at least one of the ten commandants with sufficient sincerity. The highly public couple immediately refused all photograph opportunities while Lauren's phone rang from editors around the world ordering her pictures for their magazine covers. She was able to sock away more than a hundred thousand dollars simply from one afternoon's work.
I also compiled the birthday names and dates of IBM company employees for the newsletter. I was once called into the security head's office for an unnecessarily stern lecture because during the previous night's inspection, the birthday list was found sitting on my desk in full view. God knows what the Russians, or worse, Apple Computer would do with such information. Sitting and watching this earnest security chief chew me out reminded me of when I worked in a bank in downtown Dallas and was called to the carpet for admitting on my employee application form that I had tried marijuana. When I told Lorri that I got in trouble with the IBM police, we shared our first, of many, laughs.
The big event for the summer I worked there was the five-year anniversary celebration. At this plant, inexpensive desktop printers were manufactured on various assembly lines by casually-dressed workers during the day and night. The site also employed daytime-only, white-collar engineers struggling to invent computer language codes and all kinds of other secret inventions. These two diverse cultures, the lower-paid, under-educated assembly-line and the white-shirt-and-yellow-tie college graduates were all to meet when the plant's operation was shut down for three hours in the middle of a June afternoon on the asphalt-topped back parking lot for barbecue and entertainment. Lorri and all of us in the communications department were busy writing stories and generally getting folks excited about the celebration for the plant's fifth-year of operation.
A few days before the GREAT EVENT corporate heads started to become concerned by the extreme heat wave that had gripped the area. The temperature for the special day, as all the days for the week before had been, was predicted to be over 100 degrees. Announcements over the loudspeaker and on the electronic mail computer communication system made it clear that workers for Friday's picnic were to dress in casual, weekend, non-church-type clothes. Short-sleeved, informal knit colored shirts WITHOUT ties were okay. Even tee-shirts were allowed for the celebration.
Assembly workers who wore such attire anyway were no doubt amused at the messages warning them of the dangers of wearing tight clothing to work that day. But it was necessary to make sure an announcement because of the conservative culture at IBM. Although never stated outright, this was a place in which there was a uniform. There was a dress code as strict as any I've experienced in junior or high school. Women had to wear dresses while men were discouraged from wearing facial hair and anything but a white shirt, tie, and dark slacks. To break this silent code was to risk raises, promotion, and their jobs.
Since I was an intern ready to return to my Ph.D. studies at Indiana University at the end of August, I didn't feel the same pressure to conform. I didn't own a white shirt. Nevertheless, I shaved closely every morning and always wore a tie—although I bought it at a second-hand clothing store that portrayed a colored bird on it sewn with actual feathers. To get the long-term IBMers to break their morning routine and not come to work wearing a tie was a vital part of the picnic preparations.
Friday arrived and I brought my camera to work so I could take pictures of the picnic for the newsletter and the monthly, four-color magazine. The camera had to be approved by the same security officer who had chewed me out for potentially reviewing birth dates to clandestine forces.
As predicted the heat wave was high. In fact, it was so hot that plastic folding chairs set on the parking lot were sinking a half inch in the asphalt. Lorri and I ended up walking around the grounds looking at the various attractions. There were a couple of stages where musicians performed hee-haw-type music, a huge tent with 20 smoky barbecue pits nearby where diners sat in the shade on picnic tables, strolling jugglers, mimes, comedians, and musicians, and the most popular—the dunk tank where you could throw balls at a small metal circle and cause your boss to fall in the water. Each time the circle was hit, there was a great roar of laughter. But I could tell that given the heat the managers didn't mind.
Although there was no reason for Lorri and I to spend so much time together, we both felt comfortable strolling the grounds by each others' side. It was obvious that we liked being together and also obvious that we were too shy to ever make our feelings known. But there was one thing I did that day and Lorri didn't hide her delight.
Despite all the warnings of the high heat and the messages that employees could dress informally, there were still a large number of white shirts and ties. I explained to Lorri that "some guys don't own casual clothes." She laughed out loud, so I continued, "In fact, some guys simply CANNOT wear a shirt without a tie." She laughs again. I pointed out to Lorri the few hearty souls, now appearing strangely iconoclastic, who still wore the white, starched shirts and ties with pride. Whenever I saw these fellows, I took their picture—I had found my personal story. I soon filled up an entire roll of 36 exposures.
The following week I processed the slide film and announced my slide show, titled "Guys with Ties," to the communications department. In a darkened conference room I showed the pictures to a dozen people including Lorri. There were guys with ties sweating in sunken folding chairs, guys with ties sweating while eating pork ribs, guys with ties sweating while listening to music, and even a guy wearing a tie in the dunk tank. After each picture, the long-time IBM employees laughed not only at the individuals pictured, but also at their own company in which the cultural rules were as strict as any military organization. At the end of the show, there was a big round of applause and everyone left the conference room. But Lorri stayed in her seat looking down with a slight smile on her lips.
After the last person was out of the room she asked, "Can I see it again?" "Sure," I answered quickly. "How about now?" I reset the slide tray and gave her the small remote controller so she could advance the slides herself. I showed her which button to press and our fingers touched slightly with a feeling that can only be described as an electrifying tingle.
And in that split-second gap of total darkness between each colorful tie on the screen, when I could fully concentrate on her light, lyrical laugh, I fell in love with Lorri. And I knew that this was a love that would last my lifetime.
After that day I noticed a substantial shift in the content of our E-mail communications. Although our offices were only down the hall from each other, we often found it convenient, as others have discovered, that we could answer questions, set up appointments, and flirt with this electronic medium. E-mail combines the spontaneity of a quickly scribbled postcard with the ease of a telephone and the asynchronous messaging of an answering machine, but in a keyboard medium that promotes insightful ideas and feelings.
Electronic mail is like talking to yourself and the person you're addressing the message to at the same time. Consequently, close relationships can form because secreted, highly personal thoughts can easily be turned into digital letters on a screen and sent to another.
All of our messages up until the slide show in the dark conference room were strictly formal and short bursts of business conversations related to the job at hand and nothing else. "Who's the printer at the east end of town that gave us a good price last time?" "What's the name of the guy in purchasing who's just had a baby?" "How many extra picnic announcement newsletters should I get printed?"
After the slide show, these same type of messages were sent by both of us, but now at the end of the message there was usually something else. "I enjoyed walking around with you at the picnic." "I liked making you laugh with my pictures." And then, "Why don't we go out for lunch together and celebrate my promotion?"
I stared at that last message for a moment, reading it several times, not wanting to take my eyes off of it. And there it was again — the tingly feeling.
It was difficult for anyone to go outside the plant for lunch. One of the main reasons is that we only had 48 minutes allowed for a lunch break. I never asked how the odd/even number was determined because it seemed so perfect for the way IBM was run. You also had to sign in and out with the front security desk to leave the building during the day. Finally, there weren't many places outside of the site to eat. The plant was built in the cheaper, wooded area north of Charlotte away from any distracting towns that would have a nice restaurant. And because the cafeteria served pretty good food with its weekly menus printed in the company newsletter (another service I performed that summer), everyone ate there without a thought for variety.
But Lorri was willing to go to all that trouble just to have lunch with me. My first thought when she asked me was, "I think she likes me." I addressed a message to her and typed out on the screen, "Lunch would be great—I'm sick to DEATH of cafeteria food. But where can we go around here?" About 30 minutes later, while I was working on a story, my computer beeped, telling me an E-mail message arrived. "I know a place. How about Thursday at 1:00?" "I'M THERE," I typed in all capital letters which is the same as shouting.
Before Thursday, I was nervous and anxious. We met at the main lobby and walked to her car. I sat with my hands on my lap. We didn't talk that much. But after we ordered, we both relaxed and started to enjoy our informal, subdued-lighting, out-of-the-way conversation. We realized the implications of two people, married to others having an off-the-site lunch, but we were enjoying each other too much to care that much.
As we walked back to the car, I was overcome by an incredibly strong desire to kiss her on the lips. We walked passed a gap between two buildings. I grabbed her arm and led her to a brick wall behind the restaurant. And to my great and joyful surprise, Lorri kissed me passionately and playfully with her lips and tongue.
Our first kiss was the best kiss of my life.
I was so excited afterwards that I pleaded with her to stop the car in the North Carolina woods somewhere so we could kiss some more. But she was the responsible one and knew we had to return to the job.
We vowed from that day to always have lunch together on Thursday afternoons. But soon we met two days a week for lunch. And then we met simply to kiss because who needed food when you're in love? We kissed in her front seat or in mine. We kissed in restaurant basements and parking lots. We kissed while riding elevators and on stairways. Once we kissed for 10 minutes straight in front of a closed store in a lower-level downtown shopping area. She came to my office or I visited hers for quick, passionate kisses between meetings. She tenderly wiped her red lipstick from my lips before we left each other.
Between kisses our E-mail heated up. We each wrote erotic tales of proposed meetings in which we would make love for at least 16 hours straight. One scenario involved a cabin in the woods, over-sized, cotton bathrobes, a rocking chair without handles, and lots of kissing. We typed of flying away together and living in a house overlooking the beautiful resort town of San Sebastian, Spain. During the day we planned to go to the beach, write novels, eat shellfish, explore the countryside, and at night, dance until we ached to make love once again. These E-mail messages stoked the flames of our passion until it ignited with sensual intensity whenever we kissed.
Each kiss was special, unique and better than any previous one because we were intent on living our lives together in that moment and none other. After our lips parted, we had to face the reality of our situation—a scenario that offered little hope for our E-mail fantasies.
Although we kissed passionately, we never lost control because we knew we must always be alert to accidentally seeing someone we knew. In that way, our dangerous kisses reminded me of my mother's situation.
One night while I was a senior in high school, my brother admitted to me, much too casually as I think about it now, that our mother was a lesbian. Although I was angry at Daryl for suggesting such a thing, I knew he was right. For one thing, he knew her much better than me. I was my father's son while he was a mama's boy. They had a special level of communication that I could never decipher. Perhaps it was because they were both homosexuals, but more than likely it was my isolationism from my own family that led me to ignore a key fact about my own parent. But there were other signs as well.
Mom was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, loud-talking intensely popular woman. My father and her regularly had barbecue dinners and parties with friends from the neighborhood and work. She regularly played tennis and volunteered her services at a local recreational center where she was always meeting new friends on the court or gymnasium. But as I think back, most of her friends were women with equally strong personalities. I never really liked the friends my mom brought home for beers around the picnic table in the backyard. She always seemed too interested in their ideas and needs. But at the time it would never occurred to me that they were lovers.
When Daryl told me the news I confronted her and to her credit admitted that it was true. I wish that I could type that I accepted this fact with love and understanding, but I became angry and disgusted. I wanted nothing to do with her. Coincidentally, it took the death of my brother to thrust us together so that I could confront my feelings about her sexual preference. Our rehabilitation began sitting next to the pool of her apartment complex a day before Daryl's funeral. We both felt a need to escape the well meaning comments and looks from friends and family and talk about Daryl. We soon were laughing and trading our favorite stories.
A few years later, mom and I had a wonderful lunch in which we talked for the first time about her being a lesbian. I had a list of questions for her and she was ready to answer them. It turns out that she knew she was attracted to women by the age of 14. Her first serious lover—her first passionate kiss—was with a woman a few years later. But the pressure to conform to the rules of society led her to marry twice—the second time to my father. And although he knew she was attracted to men and women, they were both willing to give their marriage a chance because they loved each other.
After my parents divorced, there was no need for her to continue to pretend that men interested her. And besides, gay lifestyles during the early 1980s were becoming more publicized and accepted. There were now bars where she could dance and meet friends. Although society was seemingly becoming more tolerant, there was only a handful of people in her life who knew her secret. Even her sister wasn't told when she had several chances to do so.
When my mom fell in love with a young, beautiful woman, they immediately decided to live together and purchased a townhouse outside Ft. Worth. But even though they were both single, as she explained during our lunch together, they had to be careful not to be seen in public staring in each others' eyes, holding hands, and especially, kissing.
And it was at that moment, amid the noisy lunch crowd at the brightly lit cafˇ, that we became friends. We were no longer mother and son, but two people with an understanding that transcended the years and experiences between us. My mother taught me that love is precious, sacred and makes you ache to your bones if you aren't able to express that love with a kiss wherever and whenever you want.
Lorri and I eventually found a magical place where we felt secure enough to kiss as long as we wanted. We could even walk together and hold hands with our fingers entwined. We stopped and kissed whenever we missed each others' lips, which was often. And if someone happened to walk or drive by, I simply lowered my head while Lorri gave me a strong, warm hug as if she were comforting a grieving family member.
It turned out that our perfect kissing spot was the local cemetery.
Several weeks later at the end of my internship at IBM, we said goodbye at that cemetery and kissed on a hill with a single oak tree overlooking a tree-lined river at sunset. But we couldn't let go so we decided to walk hand-in-hand along a dirt trail next to the river.
We ended up in an upscale neighborhood walking on the sidewalk in the dark trading stories of how we would make our house a special place where every corner would eventually have a memory of us making passionate love.
Suddenly, I had a crazy idea and grabbed her hand and yelled for her to run with me. She giggled uncontrollably while keeping up with me. I ran us to the nearest house where we stopped and quietly crept up to the porch, rang the doorbell, and ran like hell to the other side of the street. We laid in the cool, wet grass between the houses and laughed with each others' hands over our faces when the owner of the house stood on his porch and wondered who was out there.
And then we kissed as never before. We showered each other with a series of dangerous, passionate, loving, quick, and farewell kisses.
I've kissed and been kissed many times since that doorbell ringing magical night, but none have ever been quite so quick and yet perfect in every way.
Whether you realize it or not, you can tell the difference between the knock of a friend and one from a stranger. Not only the personality of the knocker, but your relationship and even the content of the message are communicated by the number, time between (or pattern) and strength of a knock. Someone you know really well may only have to knock once or twice while an insecure stranger may knock lightly several times, wait a few seconds and repeat the pattern. My dad taught me that a shave and a haircut cost six bits (I think a bit was a quarter when he was a kid). Upon hearing the secret code of five knocks—a space—and then two more knocks, a barber would answer the door holding his razor. If you want good luck to come your way, knock on wood. Tony Orlando and Dawn used to sing that if a woman in his apartment complex wanted to have sex, she simply needed to knock three times (it was never made clear if his backup singers were invited too).
The word knock is an onomatopoeia, which is a fancy name for a word that is pronounced how it would sound in real life. For example, bong, bang, boom are onomatopoetic words. Most likely when you say the word knock, you are thinking about the sound your fist makes on a wooden door. You rarely hear a knock on a window, a brick wall or someone's head.
One night, around nine, on a hot, central Texas August night in 1974, I heard a knock I will never forget. I was watching television with Fran in our back bedroom when four, loud and unfriendly knocks shook me out of my passive viewing. I immediately looked Fran in the face and she seemed to mimic my own expression—furrowed forehead, downturn eyebrows, squinty eyes, and open mouth combined to communicate a single message—dread. I knew that I didn't want to open that door. But the four knocks sounded again, just like the first set, only this time even more forceful. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. These were not knocks—these were gun shots.
I opened the door. Standing before me, bathed in the warm, yellow glow of the incandescent bulb from our kitchen, was a young, grim, short-hair man wearing glasses and an Air Force uniform. I feared the worse.
Although only two-and-a-half years apart, my brother Daryl and I were wholly different people. As a child, I played with my G.I. Joe. Daryl preferred his Ken doll. I played all kinds of sports whenever I could. Daryl liked to hang out with older friends, smoke cigarettes and ride in fast cars. I liked to play guitar in a rock-and-roll band because (back then) I didn't like to dance. Daryl was always the wildest, craziest dancer on the floor. I was a shy, awkward, quiet and serious kid. Daryl entertained the entire family so often that he ended up with the nickname "Moochie Crambone"—a funny, outgoing and unpredictable character. I wore the traditional teen uniform of blue jeans and dull shirts. Daryl always wore lots of colors and second-hand store combinations. I never used drugs—not even marijuana. Daryl tried just about everything. I was strongly attracted to girls. Daryl liked boys.
I probably always knew, but he confirmed the fact that he was gay during the same conversation in the front seat of my Dad's red and white '57 Chevy that he told me that our mother was a lesbian. I can't recall which bit of news upset me more. This was back in 1971 without the support groups homosexuals have today. And this was Texas, where in some places if you admitted being gay, it might be a death sentence.
But Daryl and my mother taught me that love comes in many flavors and once you love someone, you always love that person. That lesson was confirmed by my great grandmother. She always signed her letter with "All my love, Grandmama." I teased her once about it, not expecting and answer, "How can you give all your love to me? Don't you love anyone else?" She wrote back seriously, "Well, don't you know, Sam, that love is not like any other thing in this world? Love is infinite—it goes on forever. And because of that, you can give all your love to as many people as you want."
As I learned then and as I do now, all my love goes to Daryl.
But not everyone loved him. My father had a lot of trouble accepting his flamboyance. Part of the problem may have been that he was also having trouble accepting my mom's lesbianism. But we never discussed it. Once in Austin, Daryl drove down from Dallas and dad drove up from Houston to visit me and Fran. On the first night, we all went out to dinner and then to an ice cream parlor. One of the selections on the menu was called "Four on the Floor." Daryl couldn't resist and chirped, " Four on the floor—now THAT sounds entertaining." Dad immediately erupted and stormed out of the restaurant. I had to drive him to our apartment where he retrieved his stuff, got back in his car and drove home. Weird.
High school officials and bosses didn't love him either. He almost didn't graduate from high school because he would often talk back to teachers or not come to class. During his senior year, he somehow transferred out of a Mesquite high school and into one in Dallas that he liked much better. He graduated, but had trouble finding a job. The only place I remember him having worked was at a Jack-in-the Box, fast food restaurant. He told me how he once got robbed. Late one night, he was alone. A man came up to the counter and ordered, "Two hamburgers, a large order of fries, a large Coke, an apple turnover," then pulling a pistol from his pocket added, "and all the money in your cash register." Now, you or I might have peed in our pants and been so afraid that we couldn't move, but Daryl, being Daryl, didn't hesitate for a second and replied, "Hey. That's not on the menu." He filled the order and probably was lucky he wasn't shot. Service jobs that paid minimum wage was all he could get with his previous experience and high school record. Still, he shocked me when I learned he joined the Air Force. I was surprised because I knew he wasn't what I would call particularly patriotic or athletic. Plus, I thought that being gay might be a problem for him.
The last time I saw him was when he was home after completing his basic training. Although I was shocked to see him with his hair all cut off, he was beaming. He was happy and proud to get through that physical and mental ordeal. Besides getting shin splints, he told me how he once got beat up for giggling at a seemingly inconsequential order from a sergeant. The Air Force had finally taught him, as no one else had, how to get along in this world—keep your smart-ass mouth shut.
I've read his last letter to me, sent about a month before his death, many, many times and I still can't come up with an answer for his apparent suicide. He was stationed at Mathers Air Force Base outside Sacramento and living with a friend in an off-base apartment. He enjoyed California and his job—refueling jet airplanes. He was even planning to get married to a girl he met in Houston and seemed to look forward to his fall wedding. His last letter was typically upbeat and informal. It certainly was not the letter of someone a month away from killing himself, but then again, maybe it was and I never recognized the clues he left for me.
The young, uniformed soldier stood before me at attention and said something like, "Are you Sam Lester? Do you have a brother named Daryl?"
A pause, a car dives by, a deep breath, and then, "It is with regret that I must inform you that your brother was killed while stationed in California." It was obvious that this man had rehearsed this little speech and was relieved he had finally made it.
I understood his message and didn't need it repeated. I asked him how it happened. He said he didn't know, but someone would be contacting me soon with the details. I thought of my mother and how devastated she would be. Daryl was much more like a friend to her than a son. He was someone she confided in to help her through her problems with our father, their divorce and her alcoholism. I asked if my mother knew. He told me to wait for a couple of hours before I called her so that an Air Force team with a chaplain could let her know personally.
And then, I don't know why, I became curious about this messenger. I asked him why he was sent. He seemed confused at first by the question, but then caught on. "This assignment is on a rotating basis and it was my night." With a year to go until the end of the Vietnam War, I imagined that he and others like him must have made many of these gut-wrenching knocks on doors. (It now occurs to me that four, hard knocks are perfect for this type of message—any fewer or more and any softer would be too familiar. His knocks built a barrier between us as thick as the front door so that he could deliver his awful message without getting involved).
We stood in silence for a moment and then I said simply, clearly and in a cadence much like five, soft knocks on his door, "I feel sorry for you." His eyes widened and I shut the door.
I told Fran and she hugged me. We waited for an hour and a half when the telephone rang. It was my dad who I hadn't talked with in almost two years. He asked if I knew. He said he got my letter of reconciliation just yesterday and was meaning to give me a call. He asked if I thought he should call my mother. "NO," I said sharply. I knew that the last person on Earth she would want to hear that news would be from him. We hung up. I decided I couldn't wait any longer and called her.
Damnit. Damnit. Damnit. She answered the phone as she always did—cheery and outgoing. She didn't know. "Mom," I said (and by my voice she knew right away that something was wrong), "Daryl's been killed. An Air Force guy came by and told me. There's supposed to be someone there to tell you ...." But she wasn't listening anymore. She had gotten the knock. All I could hear was her crying and saying, "They're here. I'll call you back." She lived in a typical apartment complex in Dallas with a confusing array of side streets, parking garages and numbers. They simply had trouble finding her.
I never saw his body. When I asked to see it, the funeral director advised me not to, "He had been dead for three days when they found him. Believe me, you don't want to see him." But I wished I had been more assertive because in a strange way, I've never been completely convinced that he was in that flag-draped, shiny wooden box at his funeral.
Daryl died from an overdose of Darvon. At the funeral home, my dad told me that they found a note that read, "I've got to find myself." But that wasn't Daryl. He knew himself better than anyone. That sounded like something dumb my dad made up thinking it would make me feel better. Daryl knew a lot about drugs and probably knew how much Darvon he could take and get away with. But he also knew how much to take to lull him to sleep and then to death. I don't know if he killed himself (I never saw the "note"), but he died one day before his 19th birthday and when his roommate was visiting his family in Phoenix which lead me to consider the possibility.
But I would never love him or miss him less, one way or the other.
At the time I was wearing a large silver, turquoise and coral ring on my left hand. Like puka shell necklaces, it was the day's fashion. It was only after I returned to Austin from the funeral and casually noticed my ring for the first time, that I understood its significance. The pattern of the coral was in the shape of the letter Z which in Greek means, "He lives."
Over the years my mom and I shared all kinds of stories and feelings. Because of Daryl's death, we grew much closer and learned to love and like each another—two emotions that we were plainly short of when I was growing up. I also came out of my insecure shell. In fact, I am considered by many of my friends as the most flamboyant and outgoing person they know. One of the main sources for my creative energy is from my dear friend and forever companion, Moochie Crambone.
After finishing this story 20 years and 26 days after his death, I laid down on the couch in the living room where Murphy was watching TV. I was quiet, not really interested in the program. I turned to Murphy and said, "I finished a story about Daryl. It's called "Knock." She innocently offered,
"Daddy. I know a good knock-knock joke. Do you want to hear it?"
"Yes, Smoogie. I'd love to hear it."
"It's only a knock-knock joke. You don't have to cry about it."
The rain mercifully stops. I go for a walk. I have a vague idea of strolling along the boardwalk. I suddenly find myself leaning against a purple railing watching the Miss America Beauty Pageant Parade. High school bands from Maryland and elsewhere play a typical Maryland-and-elsewhere high school beat. Miss Montana yells how warm she thinks it is. Cops, firemen, and rescue workers wave back. Kids and mothers walk along the parade under "Hot Dog on a Stick," "Funnel Cakes," and "Seafoam Fudge" yellow signs.
Old ladies take snapshots as a Scottish band with kilts and bagpipes pass. They make me wonder, where the hell am I? They're really from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and have probably never been to Scotland. One beauty queen from Ocean City, New Jersey in a purple dress says she's tired to another in a blue dress. She stops waving long enough to massage her cheeks and jaws. It must be hard work to smile such big, wide smiles.
"Hey, let's hear it from Miss Iowa," someone from the crowd yells.
"Hi. How are you?" she answers.
A balloon man sells mouse face balloons. He sets up his shop in front of me. He inflates a big balloon which comes all the way from Taiwan. A streetcar float passes slowly with girls in ragged dresses and black, ashen faces singing, "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow ... ."
I hear a conversation.
"How much are those balloons?"
"I've got a dollar."
"A dollar and a quarter."
"A dollar and fifty."
"No. They're two dollars."
"A dollar and a nickel."
High school band members in a green uniforms wait without playing for the parade to start moving again. A portable stereo carried by a boy gives the crowd music.
"No wonder Georgia stole my heart," yells an old man to Miss Georgia.
All the misses are chauffeured in new, top-down convertibles. A flood lamp is attached to the center of the window giving each miss her own spotlight. I can see white waves of the Atlantic Ocean behind the parade. No one notices their constant rhythms. All eyes are focused on the smiling prizes—the prettiest girls in America.
My stomach is empty and hurts. I really should find a place to sit. Jet lag makes me think it's four in the morning. I don't know how this night and morning will end, but it somehow seems appropriate that on my first night back after two and a half months living with Ireland's simple graces, I am stuck in the middle of one of America's most curious institutions with a bad case of culture shock.
I've been walking the streets of Atlantic City for five hours. I have never been so tired. But, karma is karma. Someday soon I will get a new mattress. It's the room I'm having trouble finding tonight. Blah!
I have no money. My belly is empty. I gaze at the dancing holiday crowds saying their "oohs" and "aahs" for the last massive float in the parade. It is a casino-dreamo with body builders, prize fighters, dancers, two jazz bands, and Bob Eubanks from "The Newlywed Game." He tells everyone that despite how the pageant turns out, the prettiest women are always in the hotel he represents.
The police play with their sirens by making them screech and howl. It's all in good fun, but it's an eerie end to the parade. The sound drives people away from the boardwalk and out into the streets. I'm looking for a friendly face.
I start to see strange sights as I become one with the night. A man lies on the street as a woman cop stands over him. A sign on a building advertises quick cash. The store is called "The Happy Loner." I try to be that guy, but I don't feel happy. I see a button on a fellow's shirt that implores me with big, red letters, "DON'T PANIC."
I was supposed to stay with my friend John at his fancy hotel. He is a reporter for the Times-Picayune here to write about Miss Louisiana, but he hasn't checked in yet. My charge card can't give me a room, so I walk.
I find a spot near a playground. I lie in the sand with a cool, gentle breeze on my face. By the middle of the night I'm shivering from the cold. I try to calm myself. I move near a basketball court and lean against a wall that breaks the wind. It feels a little better. But my pre-natal position doesn't stop the shakes. And every passing car wakes me up with the fear I'll get caught.
But I make it through the cold night.
I get up, walk to the beach, sit on a bench, and watch runners pass. The sun is a brilliant yellow-red-orange color as it starts its journey through the Atlantic City sky. I feel its loving warmth on my chilled skin and like the idea of that yellow glow flooding my face. Two early morning hugging lovers are silhouetted while walking barefoot in the sand.
Last night was no great adventure. I was homeless for one night. It was rough and mean, but it was only one night. It taught me to see reverence in the beauty of the dawn's early light. No matter how bad it ever gets, tomorrow always arrives early. It is a fresh gift of beauty—the yellow, morning sun. I had to go through the black night to realize how wonderful is this bright light.
Thank God for loving mothers. I just finished talking with my mom on the phone. She sounded so happy and alive. When I told her I needed a hundred dollars to get me back home, she immediately started working on getting in touch with Western Union to wire me the cash. No questions. No judgments. No put-downs. Just loving concern.
There's nothing like having five, crisp twenty dollar bills in your pocket after it was empty for so long. I'm sitting down to an air-conditioned lunch of big, yellow French fries, a huge juicy cheeseburger, a large glass of water, and a Coke. When I get my check, I read that I'm eating in "The Jem, One of America's Famous Restaurants." I will certainly remember this life-saving, cheeseburger-and-fry-eating gem for some time.
I am happily enjoying the thirteenth or so hour of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary on the local public television station, coincidentally aired during the baseball strike of 1994. I didn't even mind the program's seemingly endless versions of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" because it made me remember going to my first baseball game. The documentary not only links me with the sport that would later become the only organized, team game I ever played, but also reminds me of my first memories of my brother, grandfather and father.
In 1958, when I was five-years-old and living in Houston, my grandfather, Grandpop, took me and my two-year-old brother to see a baseball. This was long before the Houston Astrodome, Astroturf, an exploding, fireworks-filled scoreboard, and, of course, the Astros. When the beer company complained about the use of their name, the team was changed to one that linked it with astronauts, outer space and success. This was major league baseball, but played in an intimate, outdoor, minor league field in which the fans sat so close to the first and third base lines that their names were known by many of the players.
Grandpop was a big baseball fan and would often go to afternoon games. He was the oil editor for The Houston Chronicle. Being a newspaper man, he could get away and attend ball games. His job was to report on the oil industry and feature new products with much the same gusto as a movie or food writer. The review that he was most proud of was framed and placed on a wall of his office at home.
As often happened, he was asked to evaluate a new gasoline produced by an oil company. He would simply get his car filled at the plant a few times and make up anything about its performance that came to mind. This time, my grandfather wrote a typical, complimentary assessment of a fuel supplied by the Humble Oil Company. But this story was different because it ended with the memorable phrase, "using this gasoline in your car is like putting a tiger in your tank." When Humble soon afterward became EXXON, the logo for their new gasoline was a tiger—all because of his review. After he told me that story, he looked me in the eyes and said with a little disappointment, "Yea ... and they never gave me a dime for it."
My grandfather knew most of the players because he always sat just to the left of the dugout so he could watch closely as the "batter-up" prepared for his next at-bat. When Grandpop asked if I wanted to go to the game with him, I almost jumped out of my skin. There was nothing, absolutely nothing in my life I would rather have done because I had only seen professional baseball on television.
One of the most pleasurable visual experiences is when you arrive at a stadium, finally make it up the ramp with your dogs, peanuts and drinks and see the biggest backyard in the world with its green grass that seems to run on forever. That sight always takes my breath away. And when you first make that visual connection with the ball park at five-years-old, that feeling stays with you a lifetime.
He took us to see a Friday night game. I was sitting between my brother who was asleep in his seat and my grandfather. He wore a big, white cowboy hat, smoked unfiltered camel cigarettes, like my Dad except Grandpop cut them in half and placed them in a tiny brown plastic holder, and easily chatted with the players, the batboy and the fellow fans around us. I don't remember anything about the game. I can't even remember who the Colts played.
But I always remember when magic suddenly strikes.
The batboy came right toward us carrying a bat that was taller than I was. He explained to my grandfather that it had been cracked. He asked me if I would like to have it.
I brought along my stiff, leather glove. Every kid did. We all had an almost desperate dream of catching a ball. But it never occurred to me to even hope that I would come back with a prize so special and valuable as an honest-to-God professional baseball bat. Who cares if it was cracked? I could barely pick the thing up. This would be a souvenir of this night with my grandfather. It would also be a symbol for my love for the game that I would pass on to my child.
I was speechless when I was handed the bat. The crowd around me noticed my awe and spontaneously laughed and applauded the batboy's generosity. For that moment, each person in our section was a joyfully, ecstatic kid.
When I awoke on Saturday, I casually patted the top of the bat that had been laying by my side the whole night. I gently stroked the rough edges of the tear in the wood like a father concerned about the wound of a child. But the spell quickly subsided and I rushed to get dressed and ran outside dragging the heavy bat behind me so I could show it off to the kids on the block.
And all I showed it to were dutifully impressed and a little jealous. Circles of children gathered around me to touch the wood and hear the story of how I was lucky enough to be given such a prize. Word quickly spread around the neighborhood of my treasure. Kids on bikes that I didn't know—older kids—came by to take a look at the bat. I was the happiest and most popular guy in town.
But then, I was shown some objects that, as improbable as it sounds, were even more special than this bat.
An older boy, probably 12-years-old, whom I didn't know, took me aside from the crowd of kids and said he had something in his pocket that was even better than my cracked bat. I laughed at the idea of anything that small besting my bat. But when he reached in his pocket and pulled out five, black, rectangular stones, I suddenly quieted. These magical rocks not only would stick to each other, but if you turned one around, it would somehow push another stone away. When I tried this trick I could feel that there was some kind of force inside of them. These rocks were alive.
"Where did you get them," I asked in utter amazement.
"I found them in my garage. Do you want them?"
"Sure," I replied quickly.
"Then," the boy said as he stood up straight, "you'll have to give me your bat."
And I did in all innocence and without hesitation.
I immediately ran home with the rocks in my sweaty little hand. I couldn't wait to show my father. But he didn't seem as impressed with these magic stones as I was. When I explained to him that I traded the bat for them, he erupted in anger.
"YOU TRADED A PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL BAT FOR FIVE GODDAMN MAGNETS? NO ONE IS THAT STUPID."
He was mean and unforgiving. He took my magnets out of my hand and threw them out an open window.
"That's what I think of your magic rocks," he sneered sarcastically and stormed off. I crumbled in a heap and cried on the floor.
I've often thought of those two days early on in my life. I regret that it is the first memory I have of my father, and yet, I still manage to smile at its similarity to Jack and the Beanstalk. I've forgiven my father for his unthinking cruelty. I found out much later that he had recently lost his job and was trying desperately to find another.
The memory taught me to make sure that anything my daughter shows me—no matter how seemingly insignificant—will be the best and most magical thing I have ever seen because you never know what set of coincidences will become a permanent memory for someone else.
I'm sitting at a table at a large food court connected to the Union Station in Indianapolis. The lunch crowd has not quite filtered in, however there are a few businessmen eating huge platters of shredded cheese smothering tiny hot dogs. There are also a few tourists strolling by in their bright, casual clothing with their annoyed children. This place is a bit like a refurbished Coney Island without the rides because of its noisy arcades and fast food shops (from "Nature's Table" to "Peanut & Popcorn King").
Earlier this morning my friend Mike, whom I lived with while attending Indiana University, and I had breakfast in Bloomington. It was the waitress's first day on the job. We could tell because she didn't know the numbers that went with each order and she kept giving us too many little containers of half and half for our coffees.
Suddenly, I'm back in Rochester, Minnesota in 1979 working at the White House Cafe, a forty-seat affair, directly across the world's largest private hospital, St. Mary's. Almost all those that eat in this place are either getting medical check-ups or are visiting those across the street. Consequently, I liked to keep my customers laughing, although sometimes my jokes didn't work. For example, when a woman once ordered prime rib and asked what the au jus was, I replied, "you know, it's just like a sneeze." When she looked confused, I faked an "au choooose" into my cupped hands. No tip. But I never will forget a woman sitting alone. I casually asked her how she was doing and she replied, "The danger in asking someone that question is that they might really tell you." True. You should always give and take truthful communications. The White House was also the place where I met my Chicago girlfriend, Stella, when after eating a hamburger and noticing she left two pickles on the plate, I asked, "Whatsamatter? You don't like pickles?" She replied, "No I don't, but you can have them." I picked them up and ate them right in front of her. I kept her laughing until a few years later and both of her parents died and she had a nervous breakdown.
Rochester is the home of the Mayo Clinic and there is not one aspect of the town (consistently voted one of the top cities to live in the U.S. despite its winter climate) that is not somehow connected to the world famous medical institution (which makes the point that objects can have their own coincidental connections).
Mike drove me to Indianapolis in his truck. He works for the Nature Conservancy, a private, environmental preservation company. He has grown tired of spending so much fossil fuel and time during his hour long commute. Although he loves the small town life, he will move to the big city in about 10 days. On the drive up I read him my ideas for remembering dreams.
He tells me that after returning from a business trip of several days, he was surprised that his cat, Wayne was not waiting for him in his house.
I am distracted as I write Mike's dream because presently (actually, presently I am typing these words into a computer, but never mind) there are three heavily armed and muscled security guards standing directly in front of me about 30 feet away at the food court under a shop sign that reads "Art Factory." They are all staring right into my eyes. I return their gaze uninhibited. When one moves his hand slightly, all three walk down the row of shops out of my view.
I am now crossing under a highway overpass in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1980 after having come from an IRA funeral for Joe McDonald, an Irish hunger striker who starved himself to death in protest of British rule in his country. At one point the funeral procession stops along the main street in Andersonvilletown in west Belfast and IRA soldiers with their dark green hooded masks fire three rifle shots over his flag-draped coffin. Soon afterwards, all hell breaks loose. Soldiers are waiting for the men and when they attempt to arrest them, a riot takes place—my first and hopefully my last. Real and plastic bullets are fired into the crowd. Three men were killed and many were injured. I managed to run between two houses with a group of boys and escaped around the back to rejoin the funeral march. A young man saw me panting and said, "You're from America. Take this back and show all your friends." He gave me a plastic bullet. I held the creamy white, but scarred ceramic hammer head in my hand for a moment. At about 150mph, these weapons have killed and maimed hundreds of people, mostly children (because it is mostly children who are involved in the rioting). I put the bullet in my back pack and didn't think about it until the British soldier who stops me later under the bridge searches the pack and finds it. I look away from him and see a chilling sight. Another soldier about 50 feet away from me points his rifle directly between my eyes. His finger, I am sure, is on the trigger. I could be dead in a muzzle flash. I suddenly realize why police, food court officers and gang members have guns and unblinking stares. The soldier interrogating me took the plastic bullet explaining that it was "British property" and let me pass.
Back to Mike's dream. Wayne, his cat is missing. The night of Mike's return from a business trip he dreams that Wayne comes through the window and walks across his bed. The next day, there is still no sight of Wayne. That night, he dreams that his cat is on his bed all bloody and beat up. He gently holds Wayne in his arms saying, "Oh no, Wayne. You poor cat. Oh no." Later that day, he discovers Wayne's body and buries him in his backyard.
When we get to Indy, we look at potential houses for him to live. He stops to let me use a telephone. I call an E-mail friend, Colleen who lives in Lafayette. We have never met face-to-face, but we have known each other several years. We have agreed to meet at Union Station at 12:30. She asks if its okay to bring her sister who she is helping move from Indianapolis to a small town outside of the city. I say of course and smile to myself over the fact that we're both helping another move, but in opposite population densities. I tell Colleen that we will meet in the atrium next to an Italian restaurant. Hopefully we will be able to pick each other out of the crowd.
I am now sitting at a table in a quiet cafeteria in the basement of an Indiana state government building. In an hour I will be meeting with Rita, wife of my close friend, Lee. There must be over 50 tables in this cafeteria, all with half-filled salt and pepper shakers and brightly colored government employee public relations material. But only one table also contains a bottle of Kikkoman's soy sauce. Since the cleaning woman has finished this section, I can only conclude that she either failed to notice the black fluid bottle or intended to leave it on the table.
This observation and the thoughts it promotes make a valid point—if you think of life as a constantly running mystery with an unlimited supply of clues, you can't possibly get bored playing the game. With a detective movie, television program, book or board game, once the murderer is revealed, much of the joy of solving the whodunit is eliminated. You may watch a detective movie or read a novel over again in order to see how the clues were initially presented, but only a handful bother.
There is always a constant you can be sure of about life: Something always happens. And although you may discover the clues that give you the meaning of your life, there are countless other games to play—countless other mysteries to solve. I once overheard a father tell his daughter who was looking out of an airplane's window in amazement that "Life is about the best thing that will ever happen to you." And if you think you know all about your life, pick any other life you happen to notice (even the life of a soy sauce bottle) to analyze and learn from. When I was leaving the cafeteria, I told the cleaning woman that she had left a bottle of soy sauce on one of the tables. She kindly thanked me and explained that she did not see it.
Rita is a lawyer for the state. She takes legislative ideas from Congressmen and determines if they can be legally enacted (most of the time, they can't). Lee runs the journalism school at the Indianapolis campus of Indiana University (the school is a joint venture with Purdue and is abbreviated, IUPUI and is pronounced, much to Lee's disgust, oo—ee—poo—ee).
My lunch went well. Colleen and her sister Natalie arrived in the foyer of the train station a little later than scheduled, but they were driving from Lafayette. Coincidentally, I would not have met Colleen today if they were not already planning to be in the city. Natalie is moving to Batesville to be a guidance counselor at a middle school there. Batesville, she tells me, is a one-company town with the product being coffins.
I am immediately transported to Columbia, Missouri in 1991 where I am attending a week-long ethics workshop. The hotel where I am staying is also holding a convention for funeral home directors around the state. With some free time, I go investigate the exhibits in the main hall with Denison, who later became my forth AND LAST wife. Caskets rule the day, some you can get in your favorite school color and mascot. But I'm intrigued with the make-up and embalming fluid table. At first I thought the generic typeface bottles were AMWAY-type cleaning products until I looked a little closer.
At lunch, we talk about meeting in cyberspace and of not being disappointed in a face-to-face luncheon. Colleen is funny, bright and plans to return to school in the fall for a bachelor's degree in computer sciences. She flatteringly brings a book I wrote on photojournalism ethics with her for me to sign. I write what I write to everyone who asks, "You're the most ethical person I know."
We start talking about all the coincidences that brought us to this spot and Natalie's eyes suddenly flash and in a low voice says, "Shrimp plate shrimp." I haven't a clue what she's referring to so she tells me that it comes from one of her favorite movies, Repo Man. Since it is one of my favorites too I ask her for more details. She explains that the lead character (who ends up riding the car/space ship) tells the young recruit that the world can be created by your thoughts. For example, if you were to think hard on "shrimp," you would soon see a shrimp or some reference to it. A little later in the movie, a sign on a wall says, "Shrimp plate $3.95." Natalie says "shrimp plate shrimp" whenever talk gets around to coincidental events.
I wonder out loud at lunch if I will have shrimp tonight with Lee and Rita.
I'm now settled in the bedroom of Lee and Rita's daughter, Keri who is away at college. Having this room allows me to do a coincidence exercise. The room has an old-fashioned feel mainly because of the furniture in it that has been in their family for many generations. There is a wood dresser, a small rocker, a table for the lamp and a four-poster bed. On the dresser is a music award from her high school (she plays the clarinet), a theater award that is composed of a woman carrying a torch high above her head (she acted in high school), a little hand-painted duck (she was born in Minnesota), and a terrarium filled with sand, shells and dried beach plants (where she would like to live). On the walls she has the "happy and sad" theater, ceramic masks, two large and signed prints of wolves by the photographer, Lee Brandenberg (an early interest in hers) and one color photograph closest to her bed that she took herself. It is a close-up of a Hyla Chrysoscelis or tree frog that is clinging to a stem and looking right into the camera (her present research interest).
I was a bit startled after getting up to use the bathroom, turning on the light and almost tripping over their 120-pound black Lab named Duke sprawled out on two white area rugs. I am now back in Mesquite, Texas in 1968 in my bed with one arm over the side scratching the back of Jason, my German Shepherd who always slept on the floor next to me.
Earlier in the evening Lee, Rita and their son Glenn (who will start as a senior in high school soon) and I had a lively conversation at a restaurant. From finding typos in the menu to playing other word games, we were mutually entertaining. For example, Lee told of a woman he knew who had blue, clip-on fingernails, but she constantly bit them. I wondered aloud what would be the equivalent for another part of the anatomy and came up with a man wearing a fake beard and nervously pulled hairs out of it. "Next," I say to Glenn to begin the game. We are all silent for a moment when Glenn says, "You could wear a fake ear and get this out of it." He pretends to have a big glob of ear wax from his fake ear. Lee breaks out in his characteristic, deep and loud laugh. Conversation easily glides from one topic to another. We discuss the concept of duality of time as noted in the book The Wu Li Dancing Masters and in the movie Terminator 2. Glenn asks for a pen and busily creates an informational graphic on his napkin to explain how a being from the future can change an event in the past to correct a problem in the present.
(According to Bryan, SKYNET, an organization composed of robots that rule the world, split normal time into two paths when it sent the first robot back to the year 1985. One of those paths was then divided into two time lines when SKYNET and the rebel forces sent their own robots back in time to 1991. That action resulted in three possible versions of normal time. In the first Terminator movie (T1), normal time was first split while in the second movie, the three possible paths were created. Through the actions of the lead characters in Terminator 2, normal time was reinstated with SKYNET ceasing to exist).
Service was slow, but we didn't mind. We were too busy talking and playing games. It was particularly joyful for me to be with Lee and Rita together since this was the first time I had seen them both after Rita's double mastectomy surgery. Although I had regularly E-mailed with Lee during the trying time, I had not heard from Rita. She looked great and happy and so was I. Earlier, as we were leaving her car to go inside the house, she gave me a small, brown acorn for no apparent reason. I thanked her. She simply said that I could give it to Murphy as a souvenir of Indiana. But later as I was walking along campus with my hand in my pocket, I grasped the acorn and knew why she gave it to me. Whenever I touch it I will always think of her and make a little prayer that she stays healthy. It now sits with many other blessed, magical objects on top of my computer modem that allows me to be connected coincidentally with others throughout the world from my office.
Rita admitted that her most frightening episode from "The Twilight Zone" television series was about an earwig that bore into a victim's ear, entered the brain and drove him insane. Although she said that such an insect does not exist, I interpreted her admission as a metaphor for her present medical condition. I immediately started telling a story about the time I regretted shaving the hair on my ears because I am now a bit self conscious that people can notice that the stubble is spiky and unattractive. I ask my dinner friends if they have ever heard where I might get an "earwig" to cover up all the little shaved hairs. They all groan immediately.
Toward the end of the meal, the manager apologizes for being late with our dinners, although we hardly noticed. He offers to give us each a free dessert. When he leaves, I ask if it is ethical to accept such a gift when we didn't ever think there was a problem. No one answered my question, but never mind. It was answered for us. When the waitress returned and we couldn't decide on a dessert, she solved the ethical dilemma for us when she said that she would bring out her personal favorites (key lime pie, chocolate and strawberry creme pie and a Mississippi mud pie in which Glenn and I dug a tunnel from either side of the wedge).
We all had a delightful end to our dinner spooning from each other's plates. And yes, I did have a shrimp plate for dinner—what would you expect I would order from a place called "Fisherman's Dock?"
Somehow I missed the class in which everyone else learned how to pee standing at a urinal beside another guy.
Over the years there have been many words invented to describe the universal function of urination—for example, pee, piss, whiz, wee wee, and number one. (In England, to be pissed is not to be angry, but to be drunk, or filled with piss). Slang terms for defecation include poop, shit, a load, butt bombers (shit with a fart) and number two. But all those terms are preferred over the clinical, hospital term of void, as in "Mr. Jones voided himself today."
Children prefer the number system for bathroom duty identification: 0 = fart only, 1 = piss, 2 = shit, 3 = piss and shit, 4 = fart, piss, and shit and 5 = well, you really don't want to know.
One Saturday, I took my daughter to the first showing of the day of Disney's, The Lion King. The two of us got there late and had to sit close to the front. Since I consumed a lot of coffee just a couple of hours earlier, by about the middle of the picture, or after the emotional death scene, I couldn't wait any longer. I whispered to Murphy that I needed to go to the bathroom and she had to come with me. She just waved me off and told me to go alone. But I insisted and she followed me up the dark, hushed aisle. Suddenly she says in a much too loud voice, "Daddy. Number one or number two? Daddy. Number one or number two?" I told her to be quiet and marched quickly up the aisle with many parents laughing out loud.
I blame my father for not teaching me the basic, manly secret of public urination, although I must take some of the responsibility. I was just too shy, I guess. This personality quirk sometimes led to elaborate ruses. In a crowded bathroom, I would pretend I had to poop. If the stall was occupied, I'd have to nervously wait, sometimes with other men, outside the stall of my choice pretending not to notice anyone else in the room. (By the way, when I'm at an airport carrying a bag, I always go in the disabled person's stall—it's always available and I get so much room, I could live in there. Also, when I'm driving outside of town, I always use the bathroom at a McDonald's. The toilets are always clean and I can lock the door and have the urinal, toilet and sink to myself).
Men's bathrooms, like elevators, are places where conversation, even among friends, is frowned upon. I've been told that in women's toilets, conversation is not only socially acceptable, but encouraged. Strange.
Once in the stall, sitting down and finished peeing, I would grab several sheets of toilet paper and wipe my butt so that no one in the other stalls or waiting to take my place would suspect that I was only in there to piss. If I'm the only one in the bathroom, I try to go ahead and piss in the urinal. If someone comes in while I'm trying to pee, I flush quickly, zip up, wash my hands (to complete the illusion) and go find another toilet somewhere.
One time when I thought I was alone, I spit my gum in the urinal and made machine gun and explosion noises, while aiming my stream at it. Suddenly, an older, Korean gentleman emerged from one of the stalls. Our eyes briefly met, he made a slight bow as he walked past and I detected an almost imperceptible grin.
I highly recommend hand washing—not just for restaurant employees, but for everyone. A friend of mine once told me that someone analyzed candy mints sitting in a tray by a cash register and found a high percentage of urine in the sample. Apparently, men who don't wash their hands leave a bit of piss on the mints. Yipes. (That story reminds me of an old joke that sets two, feuding cultural groups at odds. Since I graduated from the University of Texas, the joke goes like this: Two men are standing next to each other pissing in urinals. One man finishes first and opens the door about to leave. The man still pissing indignantly says, "Graduates of Texas A&M are taught to wash their hands after they pee." The other guy responds, "Graduates of the University of Texas are taught not to pee on their hands").
I even had trouble going in portable potties. In 1982, I ran a 26.2 mile marathon race from Two Harbors to Duluth, Minnesota. Moments before the race, I had to go to the bathroom. Although there were 20 portable toilets, each one had a long line in front of the green, plastic door. But when it was finally my turn, I was too nervous or self-conscious to do any business. The poor guy who thought he was next eventually got fed up and started pounding on the door. I patiently explained to the bladder-filled gentleman (from the other side of the closed door) my need to feel relaxed and unhurried by yelling out the phrase, "In a minute." When I finished pissing, I opened the door and there wasn't anyone around. The race had started and all the runners—even the last one—were already over a small hill about 50 yards from the starting line. Family and friends were milling about on both sides of the roped-off road when I finally showed up to begin the race. When the crowd saw me, many started clapping and yelling for me. I raised both hands up high and thanked everyone for coming as if I had won the race. Twenty-six miles later, I couldn't have lifted both arms on a dare.
Since I have no trouble peeing in front of people I know well—men roommates, girlfriends, wives and even Murphy (although I draw the line at my mother), I figured that I could learn how to urinate like everyone else if I were to practice and risk embarrassing myself a little.
One night, after an hour of drinking beer with some friends in a crowded bar, I discovered the simple secret for peeing next to a stranger.
I always waited to pee after the first awkward urge because if I start, I'm trapped in a "20-minute cycle" because I "broke the seal." Once you pee, you have to go every 20 minutes. If you're like me and have to wait for a toilet, it's a lot of trouble to go through three times an hour.
I'm off to take a whiz when I discover that in this bathroom, there are no walls for privacy around the toilet. Where you sit to shit is right next to a guy trying to piss. Sitting, looking down between your legs, and wishing you were anywhere else in the world is a most unpleasant toilet experience. But I can't wait so I stand at an empty urinal next to a tall, scruffy, older man. Even though my bladder is about to burst, nothing comes out and I start to panic. How can I possibly hide the fact that I can't pee when there's a guy right next to me?
To make matters worse, he starts talking.
"I hate peppermint," he exclaims to no one in particular. I notice that his mouth muscles are moving in order to dissolve the piece of candy probably picked up from the dish beside the cash register. "But if I get stopped by a cop," he continues, "I'd rather him smell peppermint than beer on my breath." I stand there not knowing what to say. Finally I come up with, "Thanks for the tip. I'm sure that will fool him."
And then, as if on cue, I pee a gallon's worth of piss in that little urinal.
At this bar, the owner purchased a set of spinning wheels that sit on top of each urinal's drain. If you aim properly, you can make the thing spin. When you finish, the arrow points to a phrase around the circle. All of the little messages relate to your prospects at meeting and going to bed with a woman in the bar. "Ask Her," "Your Lucky Night," "Loser," and "Breakfast in Bed" are some choices. (I never can imagine a guy returning to the bar and saying to a stranger, "Hey baby. The wheel in the pisser said this is my lucky night, how 'bout it?") My little spinner was going around so fast the arrow blurred to a solid line. When I finally stopped pissing, my message read, "Try again."
Having learned that the secret to pissing in public is to simply hold your pee until you can't stand it any longer, I certainly am ready to try again.
Although my parents met at a single's get-together (they had both been recently divorced) at the St. Sam Methodist Church in Houston (which is why they named me Sam) and I was baptized in that same church, I do not consider myself a Christian. I believe in a positive life force that unites us all that many refer to as God and I agree with the Judeo-Christian philosophy of not causing harm to others (although it is impossible to live up to that maxim). I do not attend church because I prefer to study on my own by reading, running or noticing the eyes of a happy, giving person. Overly outward displays of Christianity make me uncomfortable. I don't like to put Christmas decorations on my house.
Suddenly I'm back in Mesquite on Christmas morning in 1964. My brother and I come down the stairs all excited and drowsy. Although we have already opened an discovered most of the presents that have been under the tree for the past several days, we always hope for a few surprises. We find one—it is a sight I will never forget. As a joke, my father paper-clipped 50, one dollar bills to our aluminum, tri-color flood lamped tree. This object becomes an icon for me of all the crass commercialism. It is probably the reason I once sent a picture of a benign Santa Claus postcard one Christmas to all my friends and relatives from Orlando, Florida in 1989 and which on the back I wrote, "SANTA SATAN THINK ABOUT IT." But in 1964 when I was 11 and my brother Daryl was 9, we had a ball ripping the ones from the tree (my Dad made sure that afterwards we each got 25). I don't remember anything else about that or almost any other Christmas from my childhood.
If I do go to church, it's a Unitarian which doesn't make you conform to any one way. They don't have all the smug answers and don't pretend that they do. I don't like traditional and conservative churches because all the symbolism makes me uncomfortable. Crosses, for example, make me uneasy because they are icons that stand for the instrument of a man's death. Maybe it's because my father was killed by a handgun, but I don't like to see murder weapons worn around a neck or proudly displayed in churches. Imagine if Jesus had been shot with a pistol. Would the Ku Klux Klan burn giant guns in the front yards of people they don't like? But the main reason I don't like to go to church probably stems from a single memory at Sunday school.
I'm in a classroom in the basement of the Methodist church in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1960. I am seven years old. There are about 15 kids around me sitting at the desks. Each one of us are told by the teacher to read a brief passage from the Bible. But I soon catch on that this exercise is not about learning a Bible lesson—this is a reading class. I am nervous just before my turn, but I get through the paragraph without too much trouble. The kid next to me wasn't so lucky. It was obvious to all of us that he could barely read. He stuttered badly when he tried to sound out each syllable of each word. Because of our own nervousness and ages, we all laughed uncontrollably and mercilessly teased him after each fractured pronunciation. The teacher wasn't helping the boy. She made him stand up (we had all read our passage sitting down) in front of us all. She insisted that he finish his Bible paragraph despite his obvious discomfort and lack of reading skills. With tears streaming from his eyes, he couldn't take it anymore and ran out of the room. Later during the main service our eyes met. His expression was mixed with embarrassment and hatred. I turned away from his gaze and never saw him again. As I grew older and thought about that day, I became ashamed for joining the crowd and laughing at the boy who really wasn't that far behind in reading skills than the rest of us. I also came to hate a teacher and a system that instead of teaching us positive stories from the Bible, used the book as a weapon to convey a fundamental, societal lesson—you had better be a member of the crowd and not an outsider or you shall surely suffer the consequences. That Sunday school class, I now can see, started me on a path of questioning authority, thinking critically about religion and society, and helping me become an individual in a crowd of conservative copycats. I also concentrated on improving my reading skills.
All these memories and thoughts are a part of me when on the day I return from a week-long business trip, I watch my daughter perform in her last class of vacation Bible school. Although I am tired and cranky, I don't want to disappoint Murphy who wants me to be there. This is small town America—Bloomington, Indiana. And although it is the home to a world-class and large university, the people from the town like to think that the school doesn't exist (except during basketball season, of course).
Driving over to the church, I am back in Houston in 1959. For some reason my parents enrolled me in vacation Bible school at the local church probably as a form of daycare. But it so happened that the day I arrived, the teachers were planning a performance for that evening much like the one I was about to see. The other kids had been rehearsing for several days and I naturally felt left out. But one teacher came to my rescue. The grand finale of that night's program was that we were going to sing "Jesus Loves You" with each child from my class carrying a letter printed on cardboard. The plan was that we would begin the song with all of us in a row holding our cards against our little chests. When one of us revealed a letter in order, a little passage out of the Bible was recited to prove our love for Jesus. I was given the third "s" in the row and a paragraph to remember. For the rest of the day, I went over the paragraph again and again to memorize it. That evening my parents brought me to the church and sat with the other parents in the audience. We all listened to the pastor and prayed and sang a few songs until we were ready for the last bit. Everything went well. All the children turned their card around to reveal their letter and easily and clearly stated their memorized phrase. But when it was my turn, I turned my card over and froze. I couldn't think of a thing to say. I felt the hot pressure of everyone expecting something from me, but I couldn't deliver. Gratefully the teacher whispered to the "Y" child and I was saved. And as with other events, that little memory is all I have taken with me from that Houston summer church.
When we arrive at the Free Methodist church, my worst apprehensions are soon justified. I am uncomfortable with the home-made tee shirt my daughter and all her classmates are wearing filled with crosses, smiling suns, rainbows and "I (heart) Jesus" phrases. I am uncomfortable at the huge, wooden cross in the back of the hall and all the little crosses die-cut in the golden metal lamps on the ceiling. I am uncomfortable that we happen to be sitting next to a stained glass reproduction of "The Cruxifixtion." But I am mostly uncomfortable that in this church gathering of over 200 people, I only see white faces—there are no Asians, no Latinos and no African Americans worshipping here. Strangely, I find comfort in the fact that I feel discomfort.
Murphy sits in front with her Bible friends as the program starts. There are many introductions and words of thanks for the volunteers for "this week's VBS" (Vacation Bible School). There is a man dressed as a shepherd who introduces himself as the apostle Sam who guides us through the program. He asks us to stand and pray with him. I stand but do not bow my head. After the prayer, the songs begin and I see him.
Standing in the middle of the front row, two spaces apart from the other kids so he appears to be alone is a black boy about six years old. I look around the congregation and still don't find any other black faces. As the songs begin, I concentrate on this child. He's tugging at his shirt and his pants. He's looking around at the other kids on the stage. He's looking out in the audience. He's folding his arms. But one thing he's not doing—singing. He doesn't appear to know the words of any of the songs. He doesn't even the always popular "Jesus Loves Me." I realize that he is fidgeting nervously because he's embarrassed at being up there and not knowing how to participate. When all the songs are done, one of the VBS leaders announces that she has diplomas for each child. The first name called is Ricky Washington and this child I had been watching the whole time walks over, accepts his blue VBS diploma, steps off the stage and sits on the lap of a young, blonde woman in the audience. I marvel at the coincidence of him being called first but then I realize a darker plan. Ricky is a token. And as a token of this congregation's progressive views, he is allowed to participate, but he is not really welcomed. And by calling his name first, he is the first to exit leaving the stage filled with all-white faces.
Eventually, all the children are called and reunited with their parents. With Murphy at my side, we hear one last sermon from "Apostle Sam" who, without naming President Clinton, nevertheless claims that times will get worse "as long as the world is run by a sinful man." The political message is obvious—let's vote the sinner out and we won't have drugs and crime and unemployment and so on. When he asks us to pray one last time, again I stand and again I look straight ahead. But his time, Murphy is yelling up at me her face red with rage, "Daddy. Bow your head. DADDY. BOW YOUR HEAD." But I'm a stubborn guy and smile, pat the back of her head and look straight ahead.
With the last "Amen," we all slowly file out of the great hall. I let my daughter go on ahead with some friends while I linger a bit more and watch the people who have shared this time with me. I find myself in the back of the church behind all the kids in wheelchairs being rolled by their parents. At last I join the main group exiting from the center aisle and happen to find myself right behind little Ricky and his mother/guardian. He is holding her hand. I notice that she is wearing a gold wedding ring. In the lobby, people are talking and laughing, but no one talks to them as they near the front door.
As the two are about to leave, I pick up my pace and gently brush against Ricky's right arm with my hand. When I feel his skin on mine, I say a quick, little silent prayer. It is the only one I made in that church.
On a plane trip to New Orleans, I decided to test my theory that there is a reason why anyone is put together in a cabin with strangers from all over the world. If you can muster the energy to be curious and inquisitive, you have a better than average chance of discovering the meaning of all these seemingly meaningless coincidences of time and place.
Some people, although perhaps unknowingly, have figured out that secret and can talk for hours to strangers. I have a friend who always says when asked her occupation that she's a rodeo clown. She's researched the job a bit so she gives a convincing performance. No doubt, any surprised business person who happens to sit next to her has a story that will be told many times to friends for years to come. And the next time a real rodeo clown is seen performing a dangerous and necessary stunt to distract a pissed-off bull away from a fallen cowboy, there will be respect for the person under the make-up and bright clothing.
I look at my boarding pass. I'm in seat 18B on the aisle. A well-dressed older woman is next to the window. I sit down and say a quick "hello." She looks at me in the eye and shyly and softly repeats the same greeting. We don't say a word to each other until we are passed little baskets filled with a cookie, a bag of chips, and a super-heated turkey and cheese sandwich in a foil wrapper. The meal is so hot that I have to blow it off. But I'm hungry and take a big bite not minding the heat. With little fingers raised at precisely 45-degree angles, she carefully holds her sandwich. Just before she takes her first bite, she stares at it and says in a whisper, "Mine feels like it's been nuked." I answer back, "Right. These will no doubt glow in the dark." And then we're off.
It turns out that she is from Minneapolis where she received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. I got my master's degree there and spent five winters in that part of the world. I tell her that what I loved about Minnesota was the first sunny day in the spring when it was just warm enough to walk around outside without a heavy jacket. It seemed to me, I explained, that we were all bonded by this collective sigh of relief that we had made it through another winter. And because of that, Minnesotans are the warmest and most thoughtful people I had ever known. She replied, "that's funny you should mention that, but that's my favorite time of the year too."
Later, at the Napoleon House, one of my favorite bars in the French Quarter, I'm telling this story to Collin and two of his fellow faculty members from Thibidoux State. I met Collin the summer before in the hot tub of the hotel where I was attending a journalism educator's conference in Atlanta. Over the E-mail system on the Internet, we arranged to meet in New Orleans when I would be there attending another conference. I talked with Collin and his friends about this book and they each told me their favorite coincidences. After six or so sazerac cocktails, we decided to get something to eat.
I lived in the French Quarter 20 years before. I started as a summer intern for the newspaper. One of the old-time photographers, Ralph, surprised me one day when he asked me if I had ever had oysters. I said I had never tried them but I was curious. He drove me down to the Quarter for lunch that day to one of his favorite oyster bars, the Acme Oyster Bar on Iberville. He taught me how to mix up the sauce, how to eat them, and even how much of a tip to leave on the bar (a quarter was enough back then). Since then I love a good oyster and never feel comfortable sitting down eating oysters at a table. They are meant to be eaten standing up at a bar.
I tell Collin that I want to get a dozen at Acme's. He doesn't know where it is so it is left to me to lead this troop of local boys though the noisy French Quarter neighborhood.
The place is how I remembered it. It is crowded and hectic with the bar filling the entire right side of the place. We walk in and look for space at the bar. Sure enough, there are four empty stools toward the back waiting for us.
"What a coincidence," Collin exclaims in amusement.
I move the stools out of the way so we can stand. Collin goes to the bathroom and from the attractive brunette I order our first dozen. When he comes back, I catch him staring at the bartender. "I know you," he suddenly says. "You're Charlene." Her face fills with a smile and they give each other a brief kiss. They went to high school together and haven't seen each other in 15 years. She mentions a friend's name and says she couldn't go to his wedding because another friend of hers was getting married that same day in Boston. "Did you go," she asks. "I was the best man," he replies with a smile. They continue their catching up while I'm busily eating all the oysters. The best ones are slightly salty. Collin taught me that you can tell which ones they are because the smooth inner shell is dyed a rich purple color from the iodine in the salt.
After our appetizer, we head out for dinner. I can tell that Collin's spiral thread is glowing after meeting a high school friend. We stop briefly on the sidewalk and he asks if I know what the reason of the coincidence of meeting Charlene after all those years is.
"Haven't a clue, my friend," I answer quickly.
We are all halfway down the block when we suddenly hear his name. "Collin. Collin."
We turn and it's Charlene walking toward us holding my camera. I had left it on the bar.
"That's the reason," he says. "You would have lost that camera if I hadn't known Charlene."
"Yea, you're probably right."
I gratefully thank Charlene, take my camera from her, wrap the strap around my shoulder, and head into the night ready for more adventures.
I wanted to go running, but could only find one running shoe. I turned the house upside down looking for it. I had recently returned from a long vacation and I feared I had left it behind. My dad once told me that you can tell everything about a person by the kind of car he drives, his spouse or girlfriend and the shoes he wears (He also said that you can accurately evaluate a restaurant by the quality of the salad they bring you, and that tip has proven to be true).
I have, like most people, thrown out many an overly used pair, but it hurts to lose a good shoe to carelessness. I immediately decided to go to the sporting goods store and buy a new pair. I easily found my brand and size and walked to a checkout lane. The woman at the register rang up the bill with her laser pistol and lamented, "I can't believe how much tax is added." (It was about seven dollars). I said, "Well, we need to pay a lot of those taxes." She looked at me for the first time and said, "Yea. I know. My father's a policeman and they had to lay off a bunch of his friends because the city didn't have enough money."
Whenever I'm friendly to a cashier or waitress, whomever I'm with thinks I'm flirting. But really, I'm simply increasing my coincidental network (I can picture the infomercial on a late night cable channel—"Join the Coincidental Network. All you have to do to be a member is to see this commercial, but be sure and call the Coincidental Hotline so we can make money from you").
I told the cashier that I teach at the local university and we need all the tax money we can get. She replied that she was going to go there, but the classes she wanted were already filled (victim to the state's lowered tax revenues). I asked her what was her major. She said, "Communications." I laughed and told her to come see me and I'd do what I could to get her into the classes she wanted. Magic.
The next morning I awoke early and found myself driving 25 miles to the Bolsa Chica State park to run along the sky blue Pacific Ocean. I couldn't wait to try out my new shoes for the first time. Although bigger and heavier than my old ones, I liked the way they feel—a perfect fit.
Running along the ocean on the wide, asphalt path is a special treat about living in sunny, southern California. But there is one problem. Although the posted speed limit for bicyclists is five miles per hour (which is actually slower than I run), riders regularly pass me at much faster and dangerous speeds. Runners and bikers traditionally do not get along. Runners feel that bikers are wimps for having to resort to a machine to move along while bikers feel that runners are arrogant sports fanatics that shouldn't be in the way. I could hear that two riders were approaching because the wind began to howl. One yelled out to me, "On your left." I replied in a calm monotone, "I care."
I said that exact phrase in that way because it could be interpreted two ways—it's a sort of test for these runners on wheels. Although I'm actually yelling (in my mind), "Who gives a shit you miserable, egotistical, bike-riding buffoon?," "I care" also means thank you for warning me of your presence—a sort of positive energy prayer.
But the biker chose the former mental message. He screeched his brakes to a halt and waited for me to catch up to his definitely unfriendly face. I had a few seconds to think of a course of action. I certainly wasn't going to challenge the brightly colored gentleman to a duel, so I needed to think of something clever to say. My plan was to simply jog past him while looking him in the eyes and with a smile on my face say something like, "Thank you," "G'day mate," or the always popular, "Decaf." But I quickly dismissed all those options as somehow inappropriate.
And then it hit me what to say. As I ran by, I pointed down and said as friendly as I could, "Nice shoes, huh?" And I was never bothered by him again.
I met Cynthia on a blind date. I was working in New Orleans as a photographer for the Times-Picayune newspaper and she was a student attending Tulane University. She was called Cindy when I met her. We went out to dinner with two other friends. When we dropped her home I asked for her phone number. I called her the next day and we went dancing. And that was it—we were a couple. Simple.
After we made love for the first time on my futon mattress on the floor of my pre-Civil War apartment in the French Quarter with the sounds of the street and the river floating through the wall-length open French windows, I looked into her brown eyes and asked if I could call her Cynthia. She said I could. Her friends and her family all call her Cindy, but she's always Cynthia to me.
Cynthia was born in Hobbs, New Mexico, the daughter of an oil executive who often moved his family because of varying job assignments. They lived for a time in the Midland-Odessa region of Texas and eventually settled in Houston where she graduated from high school. We had that early, rambling Texan childhood in common.
I was born along with my younger brother in Flushing, New York in the borough of Queens on Long Island (early in my high school dating I tried to intrigue girls by wistfully admitting that I had been born on an island in the Atlantic Ocean). My Dad worked in the public relations department of the Shell Oil company. When he was transferred (or was fired—I never found out which) we all moved to Houston when I was four. We moved a few times in Houston. At one point we lived in a fancy neighborhood. My father was part owner of the Riverbend Country Club. Today, it is quite exclusive and well known. There's a picture of me somewhere wearing chaps, a vest with leather straps and a cowboy hat holding a large, silver shovel during the ground breaking ceremony for the golf course. But somehow, my Dad lost his stake and we were forced to move to a smaller house. Since both of my parents were from Houston before they met, all my relatives—from both sets of grandparents all the way to my cousins—lived in that bayou city.
It was always a sore point that was mainly communicated non-verbally that me and my brother were Yankees. After all, on my mother's side, I was a direct descendent of George T. Wood, the second governor of Texas. My father tried to do what he could to soften the blow. He arranged for the governor, Price Daniel to issue an official proclamation proclaiming us "adoptive native sons of Texas" with all rights and privileges as anyone born in the state. The framed document is on a wall of my office.
The only time I remember a reference to my birth from a relative was when I was about 10-years old and was caught scooping up syrup with a strip of bacon after I had finished my pancakes. Grandpop looked over at me, shook his head and muttered, "Yankee" like it was a cuss word. This memory is probably why I became a big Yankees fan, collecting all the players' baseball cards and storing them in several shoe boxes in my closet. This was the era of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (my favorite). Sure wish I had kept those cards over the years. I also never picked up a Texas accent, despite my parents having strong ones. When someone asks me now why that is I simply say, "I never wanted an accent." Later in Ireland, a stranger I had been talking with said, "You're from America." I thought I was fitting into the culture so I was surprised and asked him how he could tell. "Because of your accent." And all this time I thought I didn't have an accent.
We moved around a lot before the sixth grade—from Houston to Tulsa to Laredo and then to Mesquite—a suburb outside of Dallas where I graduated from high school. Being a Yankee sometimes caused problems with my friends. They would all like me when we first moved in, but when they found out I was born in New York City, they would sometimes get weird. One time my little gang in Laredo discovered my secret in the kitchen of one of their homes. They all spontaneously started throwing silverware at me. I took off running and they chased me on their banana seat bicycles. When I realized that I couldn't outrun them, I picked up some rocks (in Laredo, most of the streets were unpaved) and threw them. I hit one kid in the head who was about 50 feet away. He fell off his bike. I remember his brother yelling, "He's bleeding." They quit chasing me so I made it to my house and hid under my bed panting frantically. I have no memories of ever seeing that kid again. I used to worry that maybe I killed him and nobody told me for fear of upsetting me.
So, Cynthia moved around because her father was an oil man, and I moved around because, as my mom later confessed, my dad made bad bets on sports teams. That might explain why we always moved in the middle of the night.
Although we never lived together, Cynthia and I saw each other almost every day and spent the night together on the weekends. All was well and good until her former boyfriend returned from an extended vacation in Spain. Steve recaptured her heart and I was tossed aside. But it didn't take long to recover in a town known as "The Big Easy." And although we were still friends, I missed dancing with that Texas girl.
A few years later and I'm drinking Guinness in a pub in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I'm working on my master's project from the University of Minnesota. It's the summer of 1981—the Hunger Strike Summer—in which 10 Irish Republican prisoners, beginning with Bobby Sands, a member of the British parliament, starved themselves to death to protest British rule in their country. I'm mostly taking pictures and trying to understand how anyone can live with all the daily acts of violence around them. I found out how they do it—with humor, a spirit of giving, a sense of community and perhaps more importantly, with the human capability that we all have that allows us to adjust and adapt to almost any situation. Once when I was riding my borrowed bicycle through west Belfast—easily the worst section of the city—I needed a place to store my bike so I could walk around and take photographs. I knocked on a random door on a random house on a random street. An older gentleman answered and I asked if I could keep my bicycle here for a few hours. "Sure, sure," he says quickly and directs me through the house out past the back door to a little bricked area. I leaned the black bike next to a wall that partially hid their outdoor toilet. Upon my return, him, his wife and their pretty, red-headed Irish daughter were waiting for me with tea and sandwiches. We talked for hours about the "Troubles" in Ireland and about America. Their dream was to somehow rent a caravan (a motored house on wheels) and see the USA they had heard so much about.
When I first arrived in Belfast, I was totally unprepared for the normal look to the downtown area. From daily front page and magazine cover story reports, Northern Ireland was on the brink of civil war with no place to hide from the violence in the streets. But on this sunny, summer day, the downtown (or city centre) looked like any outdoor shopping mall in any large city (if you overlooked the barbed wire that ringed the area and the security checkpoint you were forced to go through to enter downtown). There even was a tourist office staffed with overly zealous ladies with British accents that were keen on telling me where the pleasant sights were located. Soon afterwards, I was taken in by the folks that worked for an organization known as The Peace People. Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 and used the money to buy an old house in order to help with basic social services (alcoholism, domestic violence, homelessness, and so on), relocation for religiously mixed couples who had been physically threatened by one side or the other, and to organize annual retreats to Norway for groups of Catholic and Protestant kids so that they could get to know each other as people and not as cultural, symbolic enemies. The Peace People also organized peace retreats. The first weekend of my arrival, Mairead invited me to go to the northern coast town of Ballycastle for a retreat. I heard the folk singer James Paxton, sat in on discussions concerned with stopping the violence, and met Mother Diane, who was the keynote speaker. Her topic was forgiveness—that although it is impossible to forget, it is possible to forgive—and that is the best hope for Northern Ireland.
For making lunches and tea and taking out the mail every now and then, they gave me a place to live (I roomed with a big-hearted American named Dan. He was from Boston and was the coach of a local, semi-professional basketball team), a bicycle (important for getting around the city easily), a darkroom already set up on the top floor of the Peace house, a 12-string guitar to help me soothe my mental state after taking pictures of rioting, and unqualified and unrestricted friendship the likes of which I have never experienced since.
Mairead Corrigan is a bright, articulate, passionate and beautiful person. She became involved with the Peace movement after some of her sister's children were run over and killed by a carload of suspects being chased by soldiers. Her sister went insane and killed herself. Mairead raised her remaining children as her own and sparked the movement that won her the Peace Prize. It so happened that the summer I was there was also the summer Mairead and her sister's husband, Jackie were planning to wed because they had fallen in love. There were late night parties and many music sessions in connection with their happiness that more than countered the grim realities outside the door. I had dinner in the house of Mairead and Jackie my last night in Belfast. Their living room was filled with familiar objects—a sofa, an easy chair and a television set. On a bookshelf there were the usual array of personal treasures—a few classic and paperback books, family photographs, a Nobel Peace Prize, and a collection of Irish spoons. Mairead asked me if I wanted to hold the medal (a question I was certain she had asked other dinner guests). I couldn't refuse. I felt its heaviness in my hands—not just from the bronze, but from its importance as well.
But on this late, multi-Guinness pub night with a group of Irish friends, I'm holding a pint of the black-as-night brew waiting for Cynthia who had been touring Ireland and decided to come up to see me. I left a message with Dan where I was and sure enough, I turned around and there she was in her baggy, khaki pants, a creme-colored Aran sweater and with her long, curly brown hair and bright eyes and large smile. We hugged for a long time it seemed and were together for a week.
I eventually returned to Minneapolis and Cynthia went back to New Orleans. We wrote a few letters and made a few phone calls over the next several months. Over the winter break, I drove home to Fort Worth to see my mother. Cynthia and I had made arrangements to meet on my way back north after my visit at a cottage in the Ozarks she had rented with a group of New Orleans friends. When I found the lodge in the early evening, I was tired from a long day of driving. But when I entered the main hall, I immediately saw her sitting next to a burning fireplace in an overly-stuffed chair with a shawl wrapped around her and reading a book. I stood before her. She didn't seem at all surprised to see me. She simply closed her book, stood up, kissed me on the cheek, took my hand and led me to her room where we spent, it seemed, the next two days.
But despite all of our love-making, I always felt that our moment had been lost back in New Orleans. Although we tried to reunite in several different places, it never felt completely right. Perhaps I was still hurt over losing earlier to Steve, or maybe it was more fundamental—perhaps our spiral threads weren't meant to become entwined. But for whatever reason, we again asserted our friendship and love for each other, but we made it clear we are still on separate paths.
When I started school again, I began dating a wonderfully colorful and zany woman from England named Wendy. Two weeks after our first date (which was on St. Valentine's Day), we decided to marry. Having spent a wonderful summer in the British Isles, it seemed right to marry someone who could say my name as I had heard it pronounced in England. I wrote a letter to Cynthia telling her of my plans to marry Wendy. She never wrote me a reply.
Wendy and I were married in June and once again in August—once in a county courthouse in downtown Minneapolis and once in a 13th century church in the heart of dear, old England. Although none of my relatives or friends could make it to the ceremony, I was taken in as an "adoptive native son" of England and truly felt what it was like to be an English man. We were married for three hectic, insecure and terrific years. After our divorce, she went back home where she felt more at ease (she's now working and living in the Finehorn community in Northern Scotland). I continued my studies toward a Ph.D. in Bloomington.
Eventually, I got Cynthia's address from her parents living in Tulsa. She was teaching high school English in Richmond, Virginia. We talked on the phone like old times and I came out to see her during Spring Break. We went out to dinner that first night to an Italian restaurant. From the service hostess to the busboys, everyone was overly eager to please because this night happened to be their first in operation. I felt annoyed by all the service. I just wanted to eat and get back to her second story apartment. Later, we were sitting on her couch. But before we started kissing, I could tell she was bothered. She admitted that she needed to tell me something.
On the day that she returned from a doctor's appointment when she found out she was pregnant from our Ozark inspired love-making, she opened a letter waiting in her box that was from me, forwarded from New Orleans. In the letter I told her that I had fallen in love with an English girl and planned to marry her. She briefly considered calling and telling me of her condition, but decided not to in order to keep me happy. A little later, she went with a friend to a clinic and had our fetus aborted.
I was stunned into silence. We hugged and cried. I suddenly imagined a different ending to her story with a little four-year-old running out of another room to meet and hug me. I imagined the three of us together trying to make our family work. But that was a thread that was not meant to be.
The last time I saw Cynthia was from the rear-view mirror of my car the next morning driving away. She was standing on the front lawn in a white robe—just standing against a green, southern tree until I made a turn.
On the drive back, I had to stop every 30 miles to vomit on the side of the road or in a restroom if I were lucky. I had caught a case of food poisoning at the new Italian restaurant. It seemed appropriate for the mood I was in.
Years later, I'm living in Southern California. Cynthia's brother, Freddy, his wife Heather and their three children live about two hours from me in Bakersfield. Freddy worked for Shell Oil in New Orleans when I was dating his sister and is an oil man like his dad. We became friends and I was asked to be in their wedding. But we lost touch over the years as often happens. When we all finally got together, it was like coming home. Freddy and I naturally slipped into the same, familiar rhythms. I asked how Cynthia was doing. Freddy told me that she married a poet and she's going to school in North Carolina. But then he got quiet and confided, "Say a little prayer for Cindy. She's had two miscarriages and is pregnant again." I made that silent prayer and kept silent about my fetus with his sister. I shuddered to think that it may have been the abortion that's causing her problems now.
But sometimes there are happy endings. Cynthia's last fetus stayed inside until the end of its term. Sometime later when we were all together, Freddy told me that she had a healthy, 15-pound boy. "His name is Martin." I looked at Freddy and said, "That's my middle name." "I know that," he shot back smiling. He winked and slapped me on the back.
I knew by that slap that I didn't have to tell him about me and Cynthia. He already knew.
My father's shoulder was hurt when he was pinned under a pile of players during a football game in high school. When he complained about the pain, his coach laughed and sent him back into the game with the cryptic command, "Shut up. You're not hurt." Ever since, he could never touch his shoulder with his right hand.
When I started junior high in the seventh grade, most of my friends were planning to play football. We had all been active sandlot players changing games to coincide with the professional seasons. The only organized team sport I ever played was Little League baseball. I was the catcher. It was easily the worse position. I always had to worry about my gear when our team was batting, I constantly jammed my fingers from fast balls, the umpire, who rested his face right behind mine always had bad breath, and I had to hear the batter's parents berate their sons for swinging at bad pitches.
When the neighborhood kids played football in the vacant lot behind my house, I was an end because I was fast. I liked running for a "bomb" even if the ball wasn't thrown my way. My role model for the position was Bob Hayes of the Dallas Cowboys, "the fastest man on earth" who always seemed to catch the passes from quarterback Don Meredith. Back then, the Cowboys were the team to beat in the NFL, as they are today.
When I brought home the release form that allowed me to play football at school, my Dad refused to sign it because he had been hurt. This was the first time I ever got really mad at him—and I stayed mad for several weeks. But I would never have made even an average football player. I was so scrawny that I never wore shorts as a kid because I was embarrassed about my skinny legs. I just wanted to stay with my friends. At this Texas junior high, there was a rule back then that if you didn't play football, you couldn't play any other sport. My friends went on to play for the team and I eventually found a new set of friends playing in the marching band. Now I can play music and run while many of my football friends have bad knees, backs and shoulders and can't carry a tune. Dad was right.
Probably to make up for his stern ban on football, my Dad became my personal trainer in running and playing tennis. We would run together along the streets in the neighborhood in the evening. He always claimed that running "drove the smoke out of his lungs" since he was a three-pack, unfiltered Camel cigarette smoker. I still remember him telling me to rest my thumbs slightly upon my index fingers as a way to relax myself, which I still do today.
He knew a lot about running because he was on the track team in high school. I once looked at his yearbook and was amazed to learn that, besides running track, he was also a member of the football team, a cheerleader, played trumpet in the band and wrote a column for the newspaper.
I still love to watch track meets and have raced in countless 10K events and have finished three marathons thanks to my dad's training.
But through the years, tennis had united us like no other sport or activity. From practice volleys when I was young, to games when I got better, we would find an empty court somewhere and play for several hours at a time. He not only taught me the mechanics and strategy of the game, but more importantly, he taught me to always be polite to my opponent and others on the adjacent courts, to never cuss or throw my racquet and above all, when playing doubles, to never, ever tell your partner you were sorry you missed a shot. But like my father, I never liked to play doubles.
He also said something once when we were changing clothes in the locker room of the tennis club where we played, "You never lose if you play for fun." It is an important lesson that applies well beyond tennis.
As I grew older, I began to play rock-and-roll guitar more than tennis. But my Dad continued to play. My Mom played too and the two of them would meet their friends every Saturday. I went with them once, but didn't enjoy it. Playing tennis was okay, but afterwards, they would all spend several hours drinking in a bar. I would just sit around bored and angry.
When I came home from college on some weekends, we would sometimes play. But I would grow frustrated with him for going easy on me. He was an excellent placement player who always made me run from side to side to scoop up a ball. Because I was fast, I could get most of them back. But every now and then he would show me that he was just toying with me and would hit a beautiful passing shot on the line. I almost always finished a match mad at him for letting me win. I could stand to lose, and often explained that to him, but I didn't like to win and end up feeling like I was a loser. On some occasions he would play flat out and I always lost 6-0 or if I were lucky, 6-1. But those were always the best games. Even when he showed me up once when Arthur Ashe was visiting the club and watching us play from a balcony. Although, that time I wished he would have let me win.
We didn't speak to each other for a year and a half after I switched majors from pre-dental to drama (my advisor at the University of Texas said that to his knowledge no one had ever done that before) and he refused to pay for my college. I had to quit school and get a job in a bank in downtown Dallas. I also married my high school girlfriend, Fran (he was not invited to our wedding) who quit school along with me. We vowed to save money and return to school, which we both did.
But after not hearing from him for so long, I wrote a letter and explained that what I missed most about our family feud was not playing tennis together. Coincidentally, a week after I mailed the letter, we were united at the funeral of my brother.
The last time I played tennis with my father was when I was on my way to Minnesota from New Orleans. I stopped in to see him and his third wife, Ione at their Houston condominium right next to a tennis court. The next morning, we suited up in our whites and battled each other through three, hard fought and equally skilled sets. Neither one of us was letting up on the other—and that's what made this match special. When we were finished, we met at mid-court and gave each other a long, strong and loving hug.
About a year later, I found myself riding up an elevator with his brother, my Uncle Ronnie to the intensive care unit of the hospital where my Dad was staying after being shot four times by Ione. As we rode the elevator, Uncle Ronnie started telling me a story of when he used to play tennis with my father when there were kids. I was expecting some uplifting tale to make me feel better, but you never knew what you're going to get from Ronnie. Since my Dad was three years older, he always won. My Uncle Ronnie talked of one memorable game in which afterwards his brother jumped over the net to his side and laughed right in his face. I was stunned by this mean-spirited story. But when the elevator door opened, I forgot all about it.
The hallway was dark, yet filled with strange machines, noises and smells as I walked to my Dad's room. I saw him for the last time lying on his bed. Except for the machine that was breathing for him, he looked like he was sleeping. He needed a shave and I teased him about his whiskers, "You look like an old wino," I quietly told him. I bent down to his ear and reminded him of our last tennis match and how much fun I had being with him. "Some day," I whispered, "We'll play again." After a few, quiet moments, I kissed his forehead and left with my uncle.
When the call came telling me that he had died on the Ides of March, I was back in Minnesota. I didn't return for his funeral. I had already said good-bye.
A few weeks later I went to the driver's license bureau to replace my Louisiana plate for one from Minnesota. When I saw the letter/number combination I was given by the clerk, I burst out laughing. I looked up into the clear, Minnesota sky and quietly said, "Thanks, Dad. I needed to know that."
My "randomly" assigned number was EZX 315.
I interpreted that message as saying, "an easy death on the Ides of March."
And the score is tied at love.
The dream was always the same. Ever since my father had been murdered by his third wife, the Dream never wavered in its content—never failed to play. The Dream always disturbed me—never failed to startle. Every morning, regardless of how bright the sun was shining, how loving my bedside companion, or how good the job I was to go to, the Dream awaken me with feelings of depression and loneliness.
But I loved that Dream.
I loved that Dream because it gave me the clearest visual memory I had of the face of my father.
I had recited it so many times to friends and analysts over the past decade that I often joked that I could tell it in my sleep. Wherever I slept, the Dream always had me sleeping on a couch. Like a camera operator on a crane, I would watch, without the possibility to change the outcome, the Dream from a high vantage point. I would see myself asleep on the couch of a living room somewhere trapped in my childhood's memory. The camera would move down to take in a wider, eye-level perspective. Suddenly, the wall of liquid, shimmering light would appear behind the couch cutting off the foreground from the living room in the background. The gentle wave-like motion of this watery wall gradually made me stir until I would open my eyes. The camera now would cut to a low, subjective perspective. Looking up from the couch, I could see this shining, dancing wall of light surround the couch and as high as I could possibly see. Frightened, but curious, I would slowly rise and walk over to the wall. At first there was nothing to see except a wavy reflection of my own body. Soon, a figure could be seen walking toward me on the other side of the light barrier. The figure appeared to be a man about the same height as myself. He came right up to the wall so that we were face-to-face. At that moment of recognition I took a step back. I realized that this man on the other side was my father. I regained my courage and took a step toward the light/water wall, almost touching it. My father on the other side, although a bit out of focus, could be seen smiling with his arms outstretched as if to signal that there was no need to feel fear. I watched as he slowly pushed one of his arms through the wall. Now I could see the right hand of my father as clearly as any object in real life. The gesture the hand made was one of wanting to shake hands. I put out my hand and I felt his firm grasp and we moved our arms slightly up and down for several seconds. I felt a further tightening around my hand combined with a tugging motion. I looked at his face through this curtain of moving light and saw that the pleasant smile was still there. The tug on my hand increased. My father wanted me to come through this watery barrier. I noticed that my arm was not resisting the firm, insistent tugging. When I saw that my arm was through the light wall up to my elbow, I resisted the pressure. I wanted to see the face of my father one more time before I decided to enter this unknown chamber. Again I saw the loving, comfortable face of a man that could be trusted. Slowly, I dipped my head slightly, closed my eyes, held my breath and moved through the light curtain. When I opened my eyelids on the other side, I was amazed to see my father dressed in casual clothes seemingly floating in a space with no reference points—no props—like the empty stage of a theatre. I studied this strange, undefined surrounding until the grasp around my hand tightened to a point just short of intense pain. When I looked at my father to complain, I was frightened at how the smiling, loving face had changed to a sinister, threatening smirk. My father's eyes were now filled with hatred and the desire to get me through, for some unknown reason, over to his side. I knew this was not a place where I wanted to visit. I used all of my strength to back away from my father—back into the living side of my Dream. But my father was strong and persistent. With my left hand, I managed to grab the backside of the couch and slowly win this terrifying tug-of-war. My head came back through the wall. My arm returned still being held by the hand of my father. The constant pull of the hand made me worry that maybe I would eventually lose my strength and again be forced through the wall. But just when that thought was finished, the hand released me and returned through the barrier of watery light. Through the screen, I could see my father turn and move away until he became too small to see. The camera moved out of the subjective mode and back up to the objective view from a corner of the living room. I returned to my original position on the couch and was almost relaxed and asleep when I heard the whispered voice of my father say softly, "Sam. Sam. Sam."
Sometimes hearing my name in the Dream happened early in the night. Sometimes the sound occurred just before daybreak. Sometimes I was alone. Sometimes I was sleeping with another. But no matter when or with whom, the effect upon hearing my name for the third time was always the same. I shot up straight off my pillow and shouted, "What?" And then a softer, "What? What? What do you want from me?"
"YOU RUN AS IF SOMEONE'S chasin' ya," said the Voice in a friendly tone.
I stopped on the track. I hated to stop running before my workout was over. I often thought that even if my own mother, if she were still alive, were somehow waiting for me around one of the next turns, I would wave at her, but not stop until I finished my scheduled distance. But three factors about the Voice made me rethink such a strict personal directive. First, the sound of the Voice was friendly and casual—like that from an old friend that I might have known, but have now forgotten. Second, there was no one else near me that could have uttered that phrase in such a clear manner. Third, and more importantly, what the Voice said to me was true.
I looked around just to make sure no one was pulling a trick on me. I wiped some sweat that had collected on my eyebrows and rubbed it on my tee-shirt, shrugged off the Voice as a glitch of my own heat-stimulated imagination and regained my six-minute mile pace. I had three more laps before my five-mile, fast-paced run was over. For the rest of the workout, I could then take a slower pace that would bring me home and into the waiting arms of my sweet Denison. She loved it when I came home all hot and sweaty in my little blue running shorts. We often made love when I came back from a run until she was as sweaty as me. The thought of her at the door grabbing for my shorts and slowly pulling them down made me smile and run just a little bit faster. But then there was that damned Voice again.
"I said," the Voice sounded like it had a slight edge of annoyance this time, "you run like somebody is chasing you."
I stopped again. I looked around to make sure no one else was near. There was Dan doing his stretches while sitting on the track, but he was 100 yards ahead of me. A couple of older women were walking together along the inside lane, but they were 50 yards behind me. On the opposite turn from where I stopped, there was a woman was jogging. The Voice came from no one on this track.
The Voice did not come from my imagination as it had a different tone and texture than my own voice. Whenever I thought to myself, I never thought in someone else's voice. I did not do impressions of famous or ordinary people inside my mind. My mental activity was limited to a single, familiar stream of thought with a single voice. That mental voice was my conscious mind speaking, as I presumed most peoples minds' worked—without accents, inflections and company from someone else. That is precisely why this Voice disturbed me. It was not a conscious effort on my part to sound different within my mind. The words chosen were not those I had been thinking. Although upon a second's reflection to the meaning of the phrase as it related to my running style and the way I ran my life, the short, simple sentence summed up the key element to my training method that bothered me the most—running for me was not an altogether pleasurable act. I was never totally content with running simply for the sake of running. I ran to be faster, better and farther than anyone else. No matter how long I had been running, how tired I was or how much I wanted to stop, if a new runner entered the oval and challenged me, I would have to keep running to prove that I was the best runner on the track. When I allowed myself time to think about this trait of mine, I considered it a serious character flaw that I promised myself that I would work to overcome one of these days.
One time a man about my age challenged me on the track by running behind me for a couple of laps and then passing. I sped up slightly matching my pace step-for-step directly behind him. I used a form of self-hypnoses by concentrating on the back of the runner's shirt. This challenger, annoyed that I was right behind him, looked back and then veered to the right to enter another lane. But I moved along with him across the white line and stayed right behind. The runner tried another tactic. He sped up slightly thinking that I would tire. But I waited for competitive challenges like this runner offered and always found new energy sources within my strong, thin body to propel me just as fast as this runner's pace. Why not simply pass this runner, I often asked himself. Because of the next step a runner in this situation always faced—the breakdown. I always felt extreme personal satisfaction whenever a runner who had challenged me broke down and had to stop. I could always sense when a runner was about to quit.
The man ahead of me looked back at me one last time. But this look was not one that included the question, "Do you want to pass?" This look was an angry animal's glance just before his legs and lungs can't take the pain any longer. This runner suddenly stopped and moved slightly to the right to avoid being run over by me. But I was much too observant to let that happen. Anticipating this last step in the challenge, I had already moved slightly to the left and passed the runner. But this anonymous athlete had the last word—the word that disturbed me because like the Voice from inside or outside my mind, this word was also true. As I passed, the defeated runner uttered, "Asshole."
For the next lap, I thought to myself how close to the truth that runner's curse word had been. I ran faster because I wanted to catch up with him to apologize for my rude training method. But it was too late, as most noble, yet after-the-fact thoughts are. The runner had left the track and disappeared behind the door of the locker room. Asshole. Indeed. But it kept me running. It kept me fast. It kept me healthy. So what if some unknown guy gets his feelings hurt about being left behind by a faster runner, I thought to himself.
"Because, ASS-HOLE," spoke the Voice obviously angry, "you will never reach your goal with an attitude like that."
"Yes I will," I answered forcefully, assertively and loudly, but inside my mind. With that response, I thought, a wall was hurdled. By answering the Voice, by responding in such a forceful manner, I was acknowledging the existence of its source as separate from my own mind.
I suddenly wondered if that same Voice I heard years ago at the Pedernales State Park outside Austin that saved me from drowning was the Voice I was hearing now.
"Yes, Sam," replied the Voice. "I am one and the same."
I smiled and thought, "Glad to meet up with you again, my friend. I hope you can stay a little longer this time."
The cheerful greeting so surprised my mental visitor that he gave a hearty, belly-aching laugh. "Yes," the Voice answered between chuckles, I plan to stay longer."
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
"So what should I call you? Do you have a name," I asked cheerfully.
"Please call me Philip."
"Do you have a last name? Every supernatural spirit needs a last name."
"Yes, Sam. My name is Philip Diaz."
"No. Spanish, I think. Although I was never quite sure of the circumstances of my birth."
"No," Philip answered stretching out the 'oh' sound as if lingering on the unpleasant memory. "I was found abandoned on the steps of a wealthy man's house. But instead of taking me in, as I guess was intended, he took me to the police. My parents were never found so I grew up in a crowded orphanage."
"I'm sorry," I said out loud. "What happened when you got too old for the orphanage?"
"When I was 16, an Army recruiter came by the Home and asked for volunteers. I jumped at the chance to see more of the world than the high walls surrounding our orphanage even if it meant that I would probably die in a battle."
"Were you killed?" I was now interested in this tale of Philip's life.
"I died allright, but from natural causes. It was discovered early in my military training that I had a talent for running. I loved to run and I could go faster and farther than any of the other boys. Naturally, I was assigned to the messenger corp."
"Didn't they have radios?"
If I could see Philip's face, I would have noticed his slight smile. "No. They didn't think of radios. I guess they preferred the unambiguous communication of face-to-face contact. I was trained in the skills required for long-distance running and schooled in the art of memorization so that I could recite exactly and with the same inflections the messages of my commanders. I eventually was able to run up to 50 miles at once with little water and only a few coca leaves."
"Cocaine. We chewed it for added strength."
"Cocaine? Where was this?
"When did this happen?"
"Many, many years ago."
"How did you die?"
"A silly mistake. All of the runners were busy delivering messages between command groups during a fierce battle. But in the end, we won. My group captain, aware of the exhaustion felt by all of the messengers, asked for a volunteer to carry the news of our victory to the people of our town. I was young and emotional so I stood up first to have the honor of delivering this wonderful message.
"Although the route was less than 30 miles, my joy at the news I carried made me forget the ache in my muscles. It also made me forget to take water with me. I sped through the rocky and waterless route toward the town where I grew up. I was nearly exhausted and stopped several times, but I ran on, pushing myself past all previous tests of my own endurance. My spirit was raised as I saw the first buildings outside the town's center. When I reached the square, hundreds of people were waiting for news of the battle. They crowded all around me, their faces all showing the same, anxious look. A pain in my chest almost made me forget the reason for my arduous journey. I tripped on a stone and fell into the arms of a man who caught me and gently sat me down on the road.
"'Back off,' he told the crowd. 'Go fetch this poor soul some water,' he told a young boy.
"The pain was growing. I felt I would soon lose consciousness. The man who had caught me, unaware of my pain, asked me the question on everyone's mind. 'What is the news from the front?'
"I whispered in his ear. My voice was hoarse and sounded as if spoken inside a long, hollow tube. I only had enough strength for three words, rejoice, we conquer. When I told him that, he yelled the message to the crowd, "Rejoice, we conquer!"
As if controlled by a single mind, they all yelled in unison to express their happiness over the victory. But I could not join in their celebration. The boy with the water took some of the liquid in one hand and rubbed it on my forehead, but it was too late. I had already died."
Several minutes passed before I could think of how to respond. All I came up with us, "Wow. That's some story."
"Enough about me," Philip barked with authority in his voice. "I've come to be your coach. I've come to teach you."
"Will you be here every time I'm out running?"
"I'll always be with you, but I'll only talk with you if you ask for me or if I think you need some help."
"Like in the Texas river?"
"Yes. That was a well-timed message if I do say so myself."
"Okay. I'm ready. When do we begin?"
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
"First off," Philip said suddenly, "I will tell you all you need to know about running. But because I am telling you this lesson, you will not learn it. In fact, soon after I say it, you will completely forget it. But, I am hoping you will learn this lesson on your own so that it will become your lesson and not mine."
"So what is this lesson, oh great master of the ambiguous phrase," I said sarcastically.
Philip slowly and solemnly uttered, "Simply put, embrace thoughts and actions that are natural for you. Avoid thoughts and actions that are not."
"Okay. Will do."
"Tell me how you get ready to run," Philip said ignoring my attitude.
"Simply put, I put one leg through my shorts at a time."
"That's nice to hear. What else?"
"If you're talking about a training run, I like to go out early in the morning before the cars come out and the pollution gets high. When I get up, I use the bathroom, take my blue, nylon shorts off the top of the shower and put them on. If some white socks are laying around, I'll use them again. If I don't see any, I'll pull a clean pair out of the drawer. I have ten pairs of running shoes in my closet. Two pairs of racing flats and the rest training shoes. Most of them are old. I hang on to them in case I ever want to resole them. I guess my first pair goes back about six or seven years. I've tried a lot of different brands, but I've pretty much settled on one that I feel most comfortable using. I keep the newest pair by my bed. I put those shoes on, find a tee-shirt, again either on the floor or in a drawer, look for my house key, tie it to my shoe, and I'm out the door.
"If it's raining, I have a light, rain-proof top that I can pull over my tee-shirt. If the temperature is around 70 degrees, I'll put on some cotton sweat pants. If it's below 50 degrees, I'll also slip on a sweatshirt over my tee-shirt. My limit for running in cold weather is 15 below zero. When I lived in Minnesota, I would put on three pairs of shorts with a jock strap just so my dick wouldn't freeze and drop off, two tee-shirts with a sweat shirt, white cotton gloves that add a touch of elegance, my rain-proof jacket and finally a cotton hat I can pull over my ears. I was wearing so much sometimes it was hard to move.
The only real problem in extreme cold weather was watching out for ice patches. But when I ran in the snow, I would never fall. I slipped a few times, but I never fell while running on snow. Ice is a problem especially with people who don't shovel off their sidewalks and let the snow turn to ice. That can be dangerous. I usually avoided the issue all together and just ran along the curb on the street. If it got colder than 15 below, I would just use the indoor track they had at the University. But it wasn't much fun. It was dark, dingy and dusty because the infield was dirt so the baseball team players could train. No. It was much better to dress warmly and enjoy the fresh air than to leave the indoor track coughing and sorry that I decided to run in the first place."
I hesitated for a moment. "Is this the kind of stuff you're looking for?"
"Please go on."
"Okay. When I had a mustache and beard in Minnesota, it was kind of fun after a long run to feel how icicles from my breathing formed an ice bridge between the two. Actually, it hurt a little when I tried to open my mouth and the hairs were pulled by my frozen breath. But the best part of the run was going into this huge steam bath they had in the locker room. I would sit on the wooden slats leaning against one of the walls and listen to the conversations by the other, usually older guys through the foggy haze. They were mostly college professors so they talked about problems or issues I didn't completely get, but I enjoyed sitting there warm and invisible listening to the softly spoken academic secrets.
"But here I am on a fairly warm summer day so I dress lightly. Shorts and a tee-shirt will do just fine. Probably half-way through my run I will pull off the shirt and stuff the top half behind my back inside my shorts. I never eat anything before a run. I'll take a little water and drink some more once I'm out. If I'm going on a 10-mile run, I'll put a little Vaseline on my teats and between my legs. Chafing can take such a terrible toll on the body, don't you know. If I'm going out for less than ten, I won't bother with it.
"When I get down to the street, I just go. I know a lot of guys have to stretch twenty minutes before they do anything, but I find stretching boring. In fact, the only time I do stretches is before a race when I always get there early and I'm just bored and a little nervous and everyone else is trying to push over a tree or a light pole, so I join in. I know, or at least I've read that it's probably a good idea. I've had shin splints, sciatica, and a stress fracture in my left pelvis all because I pushed myself too much during a run. The old joke is that a runner will have a great heart by the time 65 rolls around, but will be stuck in a wheelchair because the knees will be shot. So, you'll probably get on to me about not stretching. Fine. But for me, I've never noticed much difference whether I stretch before I go out or not. I simply start out kind of slow and keep my pace easy and relaxed. I try to be aware of my body if there are any new aches I should be worried about. When I'm through with my check-list, I'll pick up my pace a little and that feels just fine. That's about all I can tell you of what I do before a run."
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
"Tell me how you run," Philip barked.
"I guess I take to heart a Zen saying I read once. 'When I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep.' And when I run I run. Depending on how I feel and what time of day it is, I'll either run about a 10-mile route along the streets or on a track at the junior college a couple of blocks from my house. If I get up in the morning, I run the streets. If it's late in the afternoon, you'll find me on the track.
"The streets take more mental energy than the track. I never run at night. There are cars, dogs and potholes to watch out for. I always run on the left side of the road to watch for cars coming my way. But I have to be careful whenever someone plans to make a left turn from an intersection because the driver will take off without looking to the right. There's no reason to suspect that anyone would be running on the left side of the road, so I guess the oversight is understandable. Still, it makes me mad. But what's worse than that is when the driver notices me and still takes off. That's when I'm always tempted to try a trick I saw my father pull on a friend as he drove off one night from our driveway.
"As his friend was about to pull out, my dad slapped the back of the car with his hand and then fell down on the ground. They jerked the car to a stop and ran out to see if he was okay. He just laughed and laughed. I always wanted to try that with a jerk who jumps out in front of me, but I always chickened out.
"Dogs haven't given me too much trouble. When I run up to someone with a dog that's not on a leash, I always growl something like 'that's against the law' or 'you need to get him a leash.' I never have much time to leave them with much more of a message than that. Dogs are unpredictable. Usually, the biggest ones are the friendliest. The trick with dogs is to be super observant. Watch the dog, not the owner. That way if it decides to snap at you, at least you have a chance of jumping out of the way. Although I like to look around at the neighborhood sights, I keep a constant lookout for potholes. I once twisted my ankle in a hole when I was distracted by a dog coming too close. I had to limp all the way home. One good thing—I discovered that a package of frozen peas tied to the swollen joint with rubber bands helps reduce the swelling.
"Going up and down curbs can get hard on the knees after awhile. My usual route is mostly a bicycle path on the side of the road so I'm reasonably safe that a car won't veer too close to me. Although at turns, drivers tend to cross the white bike path line. That's when I look them straight in the eye and point my index finger at them. I think they get the message. Sometimes a bicycle rider will get huffy about my being in the lane, but I just ignore them. Serious bicycle riders and serious runners can't stand each other. Joggers and walkers are tolerated as long as they're not in the way. But joggers or walkers with portable stereos strapped to their ears have the same status with runners as bicycle riders. Don't ask me why. That's just the way it is.
"When you meet a runner coming toward you but in the opposite direction, proper running etiquette demands some sort of acknowledgment. Eye contact, a slight nod or a quick wave are all acceptable. I like to look the runner in the eye and say the Japanese word, hai. It means 'hello' in English and 'yes' in Japanese. I like the idea that it's a greeting, but also an affirmation.
"A trouble with long street runs is water. There is usually no easy place to find it. My route goes through a park and past a gas station where I can stop if I think I need some. But usually, I just drink a lot before the run and hope that's enough to carry me through. On a particularly hot day, though, I will stop about halfway and have a long drink so I will have some kick left at the end.
"I also have to confront and overpower pain. I may get a side stitch and be miles from home. I try to visualize the pain as a ball of blue aluminum foil where I gather up the pieces of the pain and wrap them around it. When I have all the pain parts, I mentally shove the ball out of my body from where I feel the pain. In this way I am confronting the feeling rather than pretending it is not there and if my mental images are good enough, I get rid of the pain so I can continue my pace toward home. It doesn't work every time, but I've never had to call someone to give me a ride home. I like to run free so I carry no money or identification. When I go out on the streets it's up to me to find my way home.
"A great advantage to running on the streets is the variety of it. You see so much more of people and their neighborhoods by running through them. You see friends sharing stories between fences. You see kids learning to ride a bike for the first time. You see sleepy, sad and happy faces of those you pass. A problem with running on the road is that it tends to get lonesome. I seldom see a runner coming or going my way. I would never want to talk to anyone running, but it is nice to see that there are other persons out there with the same idea and interests as myself. I also miss the competitive charge from passing another runner. But that feeling is satisfied on the running track.
"A lot of people say they get bored by running on a track. I've never had that thought. Sure, there isn't much to look at. No cars or dogs to threaten you. No potholes or curbs to avoid. But as long as there is someone ahead of me and someone behind, running on a track never gets boring. When I go out later in the evening, there are plenty of people out on the track. I love to be the fastest one out there. I like passing and lapping people. It doesn't matter to me if they are walking or running slowly, if they are children or older adults, I just like to zoom past them. Every now and then there will be someone else who runs as fast as I do and wants to be the fastest runner on the track for this day, for this time, and that's when I really get challenged and have a great workout. That's when I play the Pilot Fish game.
"The trouble with trying to be faster than anyone else on the track is how much you don't know about that other person. She might have run five miles to get to the track. He might have been running around the track for an hour before I showed up. But all that doesn't matter if I get challenged and the Pilot Fish game is begun. Just like in nature where pilot fish swim along with the sharks in the ocean enjoying tossed aside food scraps and the draft caused by the powerful provider, when a runner comes up behind me and runs with me for half a lap, I drop back a bit and run behind and become a pilot fish. The game is simple. You win by lapping the other runner. In an indoor track at a YMCA where it may take 20 laps to reach a mile, the game moves along a bit faster. But those indoor tracks are usually crowded and my feet tend to go numb after about 20 minutes. The real challenge of the game is to try to lap someone on a four-lap, traditional mile track. I may run behind a good runner for several miles.
"My father ran track in high school. He taught me to calm myself during a competitive run by lightly resting my thumbs on my index fingers. This simple activity and the concentration required for it helps to calm my mind. On the track I always take the middle lane. On a track with nine lanes, I always run in lane five. An outside lane means you're not in the competition. An inside lane means you're trying to cut corners by running the shortest distance possible. I stay in the middle lane to signal that I'm ready for challengers, but also not trying to make it easy for myself. Whenever I need to pass someone ahead of me, I always try to pass them in the outside lanes so I get a longer workout. After I pass I return to the fifth.
"Strategy plays a part in the game as well. I can stop and get some water and rest a little and still feel safe that I won't be lapped by the other runner. If I'm stronger, I will eventually catch back up. If the other runner is stronger, I will get passed. I make it a point when I am being passed not to make it easy for the other runner. What ever energy I have left, I try to come up with a little more so I can put on a little speed spurt. Usually the runner passes me anyway, but every now and then my renewed vigor causes a breakdown.
"The best moment is when the runner gives up and starts walking. I race past and begin to make up the distance quickly before the runner has a chance to leave. I don't feel like I've won the game until I lap the tired runner. Of course, I get tired too. I get passed. I lose the game. Many times that's because I didn't drink enough water at the start and the heat got to me. Or I might have been running for an hour and a fresh runner comes on the track to challenge me. Or I get a side stitch or some other pain that takes me away from the competition.
"Running is a wonderful way for me to be aware of parts of my body I don't ordinarily think about. Through everyday activities, I don't usually concentrate on my toes or the soles of my feet when I walk. I don't feel my calves or thigh muscles. I am not aware of separate areas in my stomach. But a hard run allows me to think about and concentrate on calming those parts of my body that get so little attention the rest of the day. I also use music a lot to calm myself. There is a wonderful rhythmic pattern that happens after the third mile or so. My breathing matches my arm movements which match the sound of my shoes slapping the surface of the street or track. Songs will sometimes form in my mind that also match this beat of the streets.
"I was once told that 80 percent of any activity is mental. That's a percentage that is true with a good, comfortable workout. If the mental and physical realms are split 50/50, the run is not fun but I can still maintain a good pace. But if mental activity ever drops to 20 percent or below, I never finish the run because I'm in extreme pain or I just don't want to run that day.
"Someone asked me once what was the hardest thing about running. Was it getting over pain? Was it the first mile? Was it the last mile? I answered that I thought the hardest part about running many times was getting out of bed, putting on my running clothes and shoes, and getting out on the road. It's so easy to stay under the covers and not face another hard workout. But once I'm out, I feel glad.
"Running teaches discipline. I've learned to accept pain. Rather than fear it, I enjoy the sensations stimulated from some secret region of my body. I enjoy mentally working through the pain. Not being afraid of the aches in my body while I run has helped me, I think, with getting through stress at work or a painful memory in my life. Another advantage with running on the track is that sometimes I forget about how many laps I've run or how long I've been out. That's when I simply run until my body tells me that I've run long enough. On the streets it's better to run a known route because I don't want to take off too far and have a long trip home. On a track it's easy and safe to just run without any sense of time and distance. That's what I call pure running—when I'm running simply, quietly and joyfully."
I run for a while without thinking.
And then I think, "I guess that's about it."
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
"Now I want to know," Philip asked, "what do you do after a long, hard run?"
I smiled thinking about Denison's sexually stimulating greetings. I wondered if I should reveal everything to the Voice that did not say much, but whom I knew heard every word. Then I laughed out loud at the thought. Since I am thinking instead of talking to Philip, there was no way I could hide anything from this inner listener. What freedom, I thought, to share intimate details with another with no chance of any information being hidden. How many close, sensitive moments I had with wanting to tell lovers everything, but unable to reveal all because of a fear of losing the love I so desperately needed? I was indeed enjoying this new-found freedom, but I wondered what all this thinking had to do with running.
"I have a tendency to run out of energy about three quarters of the way into a run. I'm working on that problem by increasing my speed toward the end. If I'm on the streets, I pick up my pace when I am about a mile from home. As a further test, I try to remember to start my sprint home a little earlier each day I'm out. I guess the goal is that eventually I will reach back to my starting point and I'll be sprinting the whole run.
"Around the track, I usually do speed reps for the last mile. I'll run my regular pace for half a lap and sprint as hard as I can for the second half. After four times of that routine, I'm ready to go home. Whenever I stop running I imagine myself landing a small airplane. I come in slow, bounce a little and then glide for a few yards to a stop. I don't like to take a shower right away. I usually go sit outside in the shade with a beer. After I cool off, I head for the shower where I make sure I wash out my shorts and drape them over the top. Not much else to report."
"You sure?" Philip asks.
"Yeah. I'm sure that's all I want to tell you."
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
"Now I want to see you run a race."
"There's a 10K coming up this Saturday. It's going to be Denison's first race. She's been jogging for the last few months and says she's ready for a six-miler."
"Sounds like perfect timing. I'll be there."
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
I looked down at the ground as I walked away from the other runners. I was so upset that I didn't stop to drink water provided in little white cups on a table just past the finish line. I wanted to get away from all the runners, the onlookers and Denison. I limped slowly toward a tree-lined park. I was too embarrassed to look at anyone. I was mad at myself and just wanted to sulk in silence. I found a curb and sat down with my arms on my sweaty, bare knees and with my forehead slumped on my hands.
Like an index finger poked in the chest that is meant to awake and annoy, Philip interrupted my angry thoughts. "What happened out there?"
"I don't know what happened to me, okay?" I answered angrily at not being able to be alone with my pain. The race was only about six miles. I've run farther than that and a lot faster in my training runs. My time was a pitiful 49 minutes. Terrible. Old men, women, even 10-year-old little kids were ahead of me. I was sure that Denison was even going to catch up and pass me. But I just couldn't run any faster. I thought that if I tried to run faster I wouldn't have enough energy to finish."
"Why do you think you ran so poorly?"
The words poured out of me. "I was so concerned with helping Denison out with her first race that I didn't pay enough attention to my preparations. I didn't limber up enough before the race. I felt stiff and awkward at the start. My tee-shirt made me too hot and uncomfortable. Halfway through the race I got a pain in my side that wouldn't go away. And then right at the end, my left foot landed in a little pothole and I hurt my ankle."
"Is that all?" Philip asked with obvious amusement that was lost to me.
"No," I continued. After a while I just wanted to finish the damned thing and I didn't care how. Running quit being fun for me. It was a chore and a challenge that I didn't want to worry about. I run better when I am by myself. Races cheapen running by introducing winning and losing. Those words rob a runner of the true reason why you should run."
"My how much you've grown in such a short time," Philip said sarcastically.
Ignoring his remark, I said, "I should run for myself with no other goal in mind and not against someone else."
"Of course, Sam. Running should always be an inner and not an outward quest. But do you really believe those words or are you just saying them because you lost?"
"What?" I felt hurt. My friend doubted me.
"Suppose you had won the race. Would you feel the same?"
"Of course I would," I answered quickly.
I tried to make sense of Philip's last remark. "Philip has such a strange habit of leaving a conversation just when it starts to get interesting," I thought. I looked up to see Denison running toward me with a smile on her face. "Shit," I thought. "She's the last person I want to see right now."
"Sam," Denison said breathlessly. "Why did you come way over here? I've been running around looking for you for the past 30 minutes."
"Oh, I just needed to get away from everyone. How did you run?"
"I did okay, but that's not important. The race organizers have been looking for you."
"What do they want me for?"
"To give you a trophy, silly. God, you sure are acting weird for someone who won the race."
"Huh?" Suddenly I noticed that I was not tired anymore. I felt refreshed. My throat was not parched. My lips were moist. My ankle didn't ache. I felt good and pleased with myself. "Oh yeah," I remembered. "I won the race."
We ran towards the crowd milling around a table filled with gold-colored running figures on wooden bases. People I didn't even know were smiling, waving and patting me on the back.
My memory had returned. The race was so easy I almost felt embarrassed about receiving the award. At no time during the whole race did I get tired, thirsty or think I would lose. I felt so powerful. When my mind told me to go faster, my body would respond immediately. I was never behind any other runner. Onlookers clapped for me as I whizzed past. At one point the lead motorcycle slowed and I passed the driver and noticed his startled look. I knew Philip and Denison would be so proud of me. As I made the last turn toward the finish line, the crowd cheered me on. My strength improved and I sprinted the last few hundred yards effortlessly. Cheerful congratulations soon followed. I was told that my time set a new course record. I wasn't used to all this attention. I wanted to get away from the crowd so I found a shaded area and sat on a curb.
"God, Philip. I ran well. The race was so easy. No one gave me the least bit of trouble. I beat all those jocks without even getting tired. Hell, I could probably run it again right now and still beat them all. I feel that good."
After a short pause Philip asked, "Why do you think you ran so well?"
The words gushed out of me. "There wasn't any moment I felt I would lose. I knew I could beat them all and I did. They were so slow. I was faster than the wind. I probably could have beaten you today."
"Philip let the challenge pass. "And what did you learn by winning?"
"I learned that if there's ever someone in front of me, I can pass that runner. I proved that today."
"Oh good," Philip answered sadly.
"What's the matter, Philip? I thought you would be pleased by your student's performance."
"Can't you see how far you still need to run?"
I thought about that question for a moment. Sweat suddenly soaked my tee-shirt. I felt tired and sore. And then I understood. I shook my head back and forth as rested it on my hands. "So much to learn. How right you are," I admitted sadly.
"Don't worry. You are just beginning your journey. There is plenty of time to learn this and other lessons."
I sat in my own sweat and silence. "Do you think I can still see Denison crossing the finish line?"
"Get up and go meet her."
I ran to about 30 yards from the finish where the digital clock marked the end of the race just in time to see her. She wasn't looking to the sides to see if I was watching. She looked tired, but her eyes were set on the finish. I couldn't resist. "Denison," I yelled. She didn't notice. "Denison. Denison."
"What?" she shot back.
"I love you."
Denison smiled and sprinted to the end where I greeted her with a long hug.
Sam. Sam. Sam. What?
The next day I was back on the running track. My mind concentrated not on running, races or lessons to be learned. I enjoyed the colors of the track for the first time. The low sunlight brought out the gravel texture of the purple-brown lanes. The white lines never seemed so carefully applied. The yellow arrows and the numbers painted in the lanes never seemed so bright. As a way of giving a tribute to the anonymous track artist, when I passed over the number 5, my favorite lane, I stepped down in the middle of the number. I ran and waited for Philip to enter my thoughts. I did not have to wait long.
"So why do you run as if someone is chasin' ya?"
"That's the first question you asked me. Why are you bringing it up again?"
"Because you haven't answered me."
"What do you mean? Can't you tell after all I've told you about running and what I learned after the race?" For the first time I began to think that maybe I was insane as I argued with myself.
"I remember everything you've told me and it was highly educational," Philip said sarcastically. "I really learned a lot."
"Fuck you, Philip. Fuck you and your goddamn voice. I've been telling you all kinds of stuff about why I run. You should know by now. Besides, if you're in my fuckin' mind, why do I have to think anything? You must know all the answers."
"No, my friend. It doesn't work that way," Philip answered in a softer tone. "Remember when you were a waiter for that small cafˇ in Minnesota?"
The seemingly out-of-context question threw my anger off-track. "Huh? What does that have to do with anything?"
"I'm trying to show you how I know things about you. Remember that older woman from Iowa who's husband was in the hospital? You set her lunch plate in front of her. She immediately asked for some salt and pepper. You plainly saw the shakers sitting on the table. You also saw the tears in her eyes. You thought that maybe she had a lot on her mind to notice that the shakers were already on her table."
"Yea. It's coming back now," I said.
"You suddenly had a brilliant idea. You tapped the woman's shoulder to get her attention. You said that you were practicing a few magic tricks and would make the salt and pepper appear right before her eyes. She smiled a slight, weak smile. You moved your arms in the air in a few circles, said some magic words and pointed right at the shakers. You made her laugh, but you also made her see what her conscious mind had hidden from her. All I know about you is what you are willing to confront. If you don't think about something, I don't know about it. From what I know about you, there is a lot that you keep down deep, much below the surface where there is no light to focus. I am not trying to be sarcastic or dumb when I ask a question. I really want to know the answer. If I ask it, that means you haven't answered it. And if I don't know the answer, then you don't know it because you haven't answered the question for yourself."
"Okay. Okay. What is the question again?"
"Are you sure you're ready for the journey that will start with your answer?"
"Yeah. Perfectly sure," I said not understanding fully Philip's reference to a journey.
"Why do you run as if someone is chasing you?"
"Actually, that's an easy question to answer. It's so easy that it pissed me off. I run fast and hard because someone is chasing me. There's always someone behind me who wants to catch up and pass me. I'm really not concerned that much with catching up and passing someone ahead of me. I just want to make sure that I'm not passed. I hate to lose. I guess it's a competitive urge or something."
"Here we go again, just when we were getting friendly again. Look, I gave you an answer. That's all there is to it. Okay? Okay. I also like to run because it makes me feel good. It keeps me in touch with the inner workings of my body. I like the communication I get from my nose to my toes. At one time I thought I could turn professional. There is money to be made through events and endorsements. Much more money than when I first started. But I realize now that I'm really not good enough for that. I also like to impress others with my running. I love that look in their eyes when I'm running strong and they turn back to see who's coming up behind. I like the whispered words of awe as I zoom pass a couple of people walking. Are those enough reasons for you?"
"Not yet. You're still talking around the real reason, but you're getting closer. Keep going."
"This is really getting out of hand." I stopped running and walked to the water fountain. I twisted the chrome handle clockwise and let the stream of water flow for a minute until the cool, underground water reached my lips. I took a short gulp of water, swished it around in my mouth and spit it out forcefully on the grass.
I remembered how Philip's first question stunned me. When I was really honest with myself, in the uneasy quiet moment after my Dream, I knew why I ran so hard. I felt that a locked box deep within my inner mind was slowly opening. I felt a shiver of fright as I imagined what might be found in that dark, scary place. I bent low and took another mouthful of cool water and swallowed several times. I wiped some sweat from my eyebrows and walked over to a bench. I sat down on the weathered, gray wooden slat. With my elbows on my knees, I rested my head in my hands.
After several moments, I thought, "Okay. I once read, and this will sound weird, that sometimes if you run really hard you can see the face of God. You might even be able to hear His voice or talk to Him."
Philip's voice was gentle and filled with compassion. "Has that ever happened?"
"No. No. One time on a hot, humid day, I pushed myself too hard and passed out. All I remember is an overall tingle and the scene went white. When I came to I was all alone on the track. No friends, no family and no God. Just me and the track. Just me."
"And why do you want to see God?"
"I want to ask Him if I could get some relief from my Dream. I want to be rid of it. I think about it every night before I go to sleep and it wakes me up every morning before I start my day. The real reason I run, the reason I'm avoiding because I've tried to avoid it all my life, the reason I run so hard and for so long is because I've got to keep out in front of all the ghosts that are chasing me."
"Yea, you know.... Jesus, you should know something about ghosts. Ghosts of my family. Ghosts of my friends. People I've known and loved and who have loved me. People I have hurt and hated. Even people I don't recognize and have never met. All of these spirits haunt my thoughts. They never leave me alone. But when I run really fast, I don't think about them. They leave me alone—at least for an hour or two. But now, you're making me think about them. You're making me confront them. For once, I can see that I could be in control. I could haunt them. But I'm still not convinced that I need to do that."
"Maybe you should try."
"Yes. Yes. You're right. Not so easily done, though."
"Sure it is. Let's just decide today to talk about these ghosts."
"That simple, huh. Well, you're the coach. Which one do you want to start with?"
"Let's begin at the beginning. Tell me all you know about everyone you know."
And I proceeded to tell the story of my life—a wonderful array of timely and meaningful coincidences.
It was the last night of the Dream. But this time, the Dream was different.
Instead of the usual sign-off, my father kept his friendly face, didn't try to pull me across to the other side, and said softly, friendly and calmly, "When you go running again with Philip, I will give you a message." And just before he let go of my hand, I looked him in the eyes and we both nodded together.
When I awoke, I realized that it was the first time in ten years that it wasn't because of hearing my name. I was ready, really ready to face this new day. I couldn't put my running shorts and shoes on fast enough. Because of the early hour, I was the only runner on the track. But soon, as it always happened, I discovered my partner running along side me at the same pace, hitting the ground with the same step. We ran about thirty minutes without saying a word. It was a good, relaxing, non-competitive pace.
My throat was dry. I veered off the track and stopped at the water faucet. Philip came along with me and stood behind. I took a short gulp, stood up straight, and turned to face Philip.
"You have a message for me?"
"Yes," Philip answered calmly and surely. Philip stretched his right, open-palmed hand toward me. I made the same gesture. We were locked into a firm handshake. I noticed, for the first time, Philip's beautiful smile. It was a smile composed of every smile I had ever known. It was my own smile I sometimes saw in the mirror. It was my mother's smile. It was my brother's smile. It was all my lovers' smiles. It was the smile of all my friends.
The last loving smile on Philip's face was that of my father. I looked Philip straight in his eyes and awaited the message from my father.
Philip said simply and in a whisper, "Rejoice. We conquer."
And with those words, we nodded understandingly to each other. Philip suddenly vanished into a sea of particles of white, dancing lights that centered into a ball at about the height of my shoulders. The little lights swirled around a few times and then quickly moved straight into my chest where they vanished.
I gasped slightly at this new sensation. The energy from Philip's lights and from my father's message propelled me back on the track toward home. I ran a fast, deliberate pace into this new day because from that moment forward, the best was yet to come.
Rejoice. We conquer.
The next morning, a Saturday, I awoke free of my Dream. I could tell from the sounds coming from downstairs that my daughter was already up and watching television. I groggily pulled myself out of bed, put on my running shorts and shirt, picked up some socks and my shoes, and walked down to the den.
"You gonna come with me?" I asked Murphy.
"Thought I might," she answered without turning away from the cartoon.
I noticed she was ready to go with her shoes tied tightly in the knot I showed her. (In the knot Philip showed me, I thought—the knot my father showed me).
"Then let's hit it."
We left without saying a word running effortlessly through the downtown streets until we came to the running track. We both stopped for some water before going through our 10-minute stretch routine. When we were finished, again without talking, we entered the middle lanes of the track and started our 5-mile, 20-lap circular route.
The air was cool. The sun, although bright as it poked just above a line of elms across the street from the school, did not heat the air too much.
We returned to the track. I used my peripheral vision to notice the strength and determination in my daughter's face. But most of all I enjoyed looking at her calm expression as she kept up with me stride-for-stride. I liked to see her thumbs gently resting on her index fingers like I taught her. She could be a great runner, if she wanted that goal, I thought. But I learned from Philip not to be distracted by short-term goals of that nature.
Thinking about Philip made me miss him. I missed his questions. I missed his patient silences. I missed his laugh. I missed talking about the people I loved. Suddenly, I thought I heard Philip's voice.
"Tell me about yourself. You don't talk much about your life," said the Voice. It didn't quite sound like Philip's voice so I didn't answer.
"Daddy," Murphy said with a tone of exasperation. "Did you hear me?"
I smiled to myself because I realized that the Voice didn't sound like Philip's because it wasn't.
"I'm sorry my gurlie-gurl. What did you say?"
"I want to know about your life before I was born. Tell me that story."
I turned my head to look at her. "Oh, what a nice thing to want to know about, my sweetheart-of-the-rodeo. Do you know I never asked my parents that question? But are you sure you're ready for the uncensored version?"
"No problem, Dad," she said with a slight touch of embarrassment.
I started my story. "Your grandmother once told me that I started growing in her stomach ...."
"You mean in Granna's uterus, Daddy," Murphy corrected.
"Right you are my sweetie. I was conceived, she told me, on a second-floor balcony at Pat Obrien's, a famous piano and gin bar in New Orleans," I started with a smile.
"Oh Daddy. You're just trying to gross me out."
"No. No. Everything I will tell you was told to me or is what I can remember ... except for the stuff I make up, of course."
"Of course," she said now smiling.
And for the remaining twelve laps, we ran together side-by-side and stride-for-stride as I started the story of my life on this oval running track I knew so well—the oval that never starts and never ends.
I use Netscape and Internet Explorer to do much of my hunting on the World Wide Web. You soon discover after playing around with Web browsers for less than an hour that there is almost an inexhaustible number of links within links within links that can be discovered in your search for information. Thousands of people around the world are busy at all hours of the day uploading and downloading information—the new media equivalent of coincidental creation.
In many ways, this quick and easy access to other people's visual and verbal memories stored within computer systems around the world is a good metaphor to use to discover some insights into how our minds perform the same function. When the telephone, television and computer are eventually combined into a low-cost machine, most likely called a "teleputer," and linked with fiber optic cable, educators must be prepared to teach all levels of students how to switch from passive viewers to active uses.
For example, one of my favorite Web search engines—probably because of its cute name—is called Google (available at http://www.google.com). You can perform a traditional keyword search for information on the Web, or click on the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button and let the engine find a website at random.
Just now I got on Google and clicked the button. To my amazement and amused surprise, I happened to land on a website that discusses coincidence, chance, and probabilities (available at http://pass.maths.org/issue4/grimmett/). The site is written by Geoffrey Grimmett, a Professor of Mathematical Statistics in the Statistical Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. There are also links to "The Chance Database" (available at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~chance/) and the "Chance Magazine" (available at http://www.math.mcgill.ca/ ~chance/).
Perhaps knowing something about the nature of coincidence will give us all a clue on how to proceed with these new media systems.
About the Author
Paul Martin Lester is a Professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. After an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and employment as a photojournalist for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Lester received a MasterÕs from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in mass communications. He is the author or editor of seven books: Visual Communication Images with Messages Second Edition, Images that Injure Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media, Desktop Computing Workbook, Photojournalism An Ethical Approach, and The Ethics of Photojournalism.
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