Tuesday, August 19, 2003


It’s late, and I can’t sleep. Having one of those nights when the brain won’t stop spinning long enough for the eyes to close. Haunted by the past, the future, the roles of time and fate in our lives. I’m thinking about confusion and understanding, and the subtle web of balance in between.

The year I turned six, my little brother was born on my birthday, the same day that Mount Saint Helens blew her top up in Washington State. The year I turned sixteen, my grandfather died on my birthday, the same day I was spending in Orlando with the choral group from my high school. I handled the tech work (sound and lights and cues) for the group, who’d had a performance at Walt Disney World the day before. We’d spent a few hours in the hotel pool that night after dinner, and I got to see the girls, even the dancers, all wet and splashing unselfconsciously in bathing suits, which are almost better than underwear, and I happened to travel north to my grandfather’s funeral instead of driving south from Atlanta, if I’d been coming from home. But do the details make a difference? Does any of it mean anything?

My grandfather had retired from the U. S. Navy. Once, when I was young, he brought me a pair of wings like the Navy pilots wore, and with them I dreamt of the sky for many years. Then I turned sixteen, and I earned my wheels, and he earned his own pair of wings.

My mother’s water broke on our sofa in the middle of my birthday party, with all of my preschool friends gathered around for cake. A few hours later, my brother cried out loud for the very first time, while on the other side of the continent a million cubic feet of soot and ash rained down across the land like afterbirth, and the moment the chorus teacher Miss Lever knocked on the door of our hotel room, where Chris and Ricky and I had yet to go to sleep, somehow I knew. She came looking for me at seven fifteen in the morning, and I knew he was dead, because he’d already been sick for a long time then, and I held my forehead like an open Bible in both hands, and listened to the secret whisper of my blood against its veins, and I was a few seconds older.

Thursday, August 14, 2003


Each morning I drive a winding 40-mile stretch of backwater highway to get to work. This strip of road is a regular Tornado Alley for small, defenseless animals, and most anything that gets too close is sucked in, chewed up, and then spat unceremoniously onto the gravel shoulder like gristle on the edge of a dinner plate. In the four months since I started the job, I have witnessed a morbid menagerie of mangled corpses littering its path. I’ve seen cats, dogs, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, chickens (and other assorted birds), moles, snakes, turtles, armadillos, countless deer and possum, and even an otter once near the river. I’d say better than half the vehicles on the road in this part of the country are pickup trucks — hell, I drive one myself — and perhaps this statistic has some bearing on the elevated death toll, with trucks being larger, less maneuverable at high speeds, and so forth. Maybe, maybe not; I don’t know.

When I was three or four years old, my father’s best friend was killed by swerving to miss a deer. He lived high in the Rocky Mountains, and the abrupt turn sent his car flying off the narrow road and down into the valley below. This tragedy resulted in my being raised to believe I should never, ever endanger others or myself by attempting to dodge an animal in the roadway. However, I am a big fluffy teddy bear, emotionally speaking, and fortunately for ‘others or myself,’ I haven’t had to test the fortitude of this parental directive yet. Even passing by the crumpled little body of a kitten chokes me up, much less actually being the one who’s done the crumpling. Hopefully, knock on wood, I’ll never have to find out how I’d handle it.

It seems there isn’t much that can be done to prevent these vehicular homicides. A significant amount of research has been conducted in the interest of reducing collision incidence, specifically with deer, which pose a greater risk to vehicles and their occupants. Fencing built along the edges of roadways is very effective, but also quite expensive and labor-intensive. Certain states, specifically Colorado and Alaska, have built underpasses for animals. These special tunnels extend beneath busy highways and provide the wildlife with a safer alternate route, but their construction is also very costly.

Thanks to the Israeli government, I have a better suggestion. Authorities in and around the Negev desert became concerned with the growing number of camel-related traffic incidents in their area. The Negev is home to hundreds of pickup trucks and more than 5000 camels that are used for transportation and commerce. In the effort of preventing further accidents, the Israeli government held a meeting between camel herders, Bedouin elders, and members of the Transport Ministry and the Nature Reserves Authority to determine a helpful solution.

What they decided was simple but extremely successful — they elected to affix phosphorescent strips to the camels. Now, in the event that a camel is blocking the path of an oncoming car or truck, it conveniently glows in the dark. The program was only initiated a month or two ago, but there hasn’t been a single reported camel accident in the Negev desert since.

Just picture it with me, if you will: thousands of tree-hugging, wildlife-loving volunteers hiking hand in hand through the woods, putting little glow stickers on every creature they can catch. Picture camping out in the weeks that follow, the trees alight with phosphorescence, each squirrel and toad become a lightning bug, twinkling new stars everywhere. Envision our highways free of carrion! Imagine all those tire treads clean as a whistle! I don’t think that’s so crazy. Regardless of how my congressman feels.

C’mon, folks — are you with me? Let’s start with our pets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2003

three cheers

Once, when I was a younger man and possessed of a higher margin of optimism and/or foolishness, I packed a box with books, loaded it into my car, and drove across the United States to California, presumably to make my fortune. Only a couple of long weeks later, my pockets were empty and the car had begun to stink from dirty laundry and hot nights spent sleeping parked on quiet, inconspicuous residential streets. It was then that I first began to seriously consider the possibility of my own homelessness. Being lost in a city with an already inestimable population of homeless was, needless to say, not very reassuring in this respect.

Luckily, work came along in the form of a few days cantaloupe harvesting downstate, not far from the Sequoia National Forest/Park. I speak no Spanish (save cucaracha and Fritos and stuff like that), leaving little opportunity for fraternization with my co-workers, and so the days were spent merely sweating, stooping and rising, and occasionally staring contemplatively off toward the horizon. My exposure to California up until that time had been limited to the Bay Area and all points north, so the flatlands were a novel experience for me.

The cantaloupe fields in which I worked were adjacent to another farm and many more acres of tilled, aisled earth, but planted instead with onions. This neighboring farm was also harvesting, a process which caused the papery shell from around the onions to slough off in fluttery flakes all over the ground. When the wind blew, it kicked up a veritable blizzard of onion paper, which would whirl and dance and cling in your hair and seemed to exhilarate half my fellow work crew in a tickertape-paradey sort of way and blind the other half cursing and spitting into the dust. I was fascinated by this dichotomy, and occasionally the feeling of those moments rushes back to me, and I am standing outside in 100° weather, looking out across a long flat stretch of southern California and watching it snow.

One of these occasional rushes came over me this morning as I drove to work. I recently traded in my old blue station wagon for a newer pickup truck, a big white GMC with power windows and a working stereo and 50,000 fewer miles on the odometer. Driving it is heaven, and I finally feel as if I blend into my redneck surroundings, but I’ve noticed a considerable drop in fuel efficiency. And by considerable I mean expensive. The effect is eased somewhat by my refraining from use of the truck’s air conditioner, a luxury whose unfamiliarity makes it easier to do without. But nonetheless, it’s Georgia, and it’s August, and it’s hot, and I'm only human, and it's only money.

Cooler temperatures leave the morning the most tolerable time of day to travel AC-free, and thusly was I rolling along this morning, windows at half-mast, the damp air blowing seductively in my ear. Marvin Gaye was on the radio, asking big questions, and I was zoning out a little, wooed by the breeze and the music, when suddenly a tractor-trailer boomed past me, hauling a full load of chickens to their certain doom. I snapped awake, and it took a moment for me to figure out what was happening. At first it seemed I was seeing spots, and for an instant I even thought I might have collided with the transfer, that this was what dying was like, until I realized I was only watching the soft descent of the ten or twelve white feathers that had been sucked into the cab of my truck when the chickens roared by.

Since I was a child, I’ve had trouble waking up. In the mornings I struggle, sluggish and slow, slurring and surly, nodding in and out of consciousness like a junkie. Regardless of the amount or quality of sleep I receive the night previous, such is the case each new day, again and again, almost without fail.

I have come to accept this as the way things are, the way I am, and have tried to adapt. Currently in my favor is the fact that I make my own work schedule. I do not clock in, and neither do I clock out. And whether I arrive at 7:30 or 9AM is left to my own discretion. This is a privilege of which I take liberal advantage.

The lengthy explanation is to distinguish the fact that I make the drive from home to work at a fairly wide range of different times each morning, depending on when I’ve managed to forcibly drag my sorry carcass out of bed. Yet somehow, against the odds, nine mornings out of ten, I pass the same old man walking carefully to his mailbox.

Carefully, yes, but not so carefully as to take almost three hours. Surely, I think, he must walk up and down his driveway from seven to ten for exercise, thus avoiding the danger of walking the busy road. What else could explain it? It’s too early for the mail to have run. But perhaps he’s sending mail out. Perhaps he’s retrieving the day's newspaper. It seems unlikely that my stilted schedule would be shared by anyone else, but who knows? Maybe he has trouble getting up in the morning too.

Tonight I had one of those moments where you’re in the midst of laying waste to a delicious meal, and in working your way across the plate you notice a bit of Chinese egg noodle stuck to the edge, all by itself. Your hand flies out, grabs the shred, and it’s into your mouth and gone. And then, with an audible clank, the wheels in your head start turning. You wonder, why did I clean each and every morsel of food from my plate yet leave one solitary tatter on the sidelines like that? Did I leave it there on purpose? Oh no, did I drop that on the floor? Did I drop it on this nasty, nasty floor and then forget about it?

By which time, of course, it’s much too late to make any difference.