Friday, October 30, 2009

Tricks and Treats

The rain falls steady on my world, and 'tis true, to some extent, this season.  It is not truly cold yet, but the garden knows what my skin cannot.  In the garden there is memory, trained as curled as any vine, the long tail of ancient consequence, and its reckonings I share.  I agree with the mottled plants, the huge fallen Tulip Poplar leaves covered with the ravages of their short time up high, now, for the first time this season, somewhere I too glance with reckoning: my feet.  They: burned through and burnished with the accretion of a season of viruses, and new labors for their aging tree.  But I cannot shed my accretions, and so must sing with only emotion, this newest of seasons, my new scars, set down, and forever upon my skin.

How lovely, of course, this season.  The mouldering remnants of the still hot world, with the fruit of the forest and field, piled high: on sale of course.  The new colors of women's scarves and hats and boots, and the just beginning hint of a day still early, but lit by the fabled lights of man, near twilight.  The loneliest, loveliest time of day.

I drive to a new job sight, a home a friend has recently bought, and we pull, him in his truck, and me behind him, down a long drive, crackling against the limestone gravel that is the gift of my towns bedrock.  I comment to myself, since nobody is in my vehicle, goodness what as beautiful lot... the lawn and surrounding woods make a lovely secret place to live the fantasy of home and hearth.  I look over, across the lawn and see a doe...  a lone deer, tall and alert, but chewing something in the interstice of wood and lawn.  She looks as mysterious as the winter seems in it's approach.  I always forget the feeling each month brings.  I never can remember... since, I suppose, these are deep and inarticulate things, not well worn by the mechanisms of logic and philosophy.  I stand before weather, and cold, in the warm lit, remainder of a summer like yard with that doe: and can only know: for each of us time will bring what it will... but neither of us will choose the winter.

Of course, each winter brings so very many gifts.  The frost heaves the dirt in mysterious and wonderful ways, and heaves a kind of enterprise into me along with it.  The hunger for the warm abandon of different climes brings a frame of mind not available in times of ease.  The cyclical setting forth of supplies for the day, and buttoning of coats and adjusting of hats, is it's own dance, with it's own kind of sensibility and mystery.  The cold hands of a lover, cold lips, and shivering sound of a woman, as she half laughs and half shivers, is something lovely in a manner that almost makes it worth the cost of being a man.  And other things, surely, pay the debt in full.

The smell of firesmoke is something, regardless of its danger to my health, that I always consider a kind of incense of the winter.  The whole of the world tinged with its lovely preservative, meaning, and intimation, of food, warmth, longing, and everything else a children's book, from the perspective of an animal might call a "man thing."  Being a "man thing" does smell a little of danger and death, but also the life supporting genius of fire.

Ultimately, I usually dread the hottest months of summer, and love the Spring above all.  But a longer summer would drive me crazy, with super hot days, and azure blue skies, and the oppressive all consuming light of our nearest star.  The autumn does not only mean the winter, of course.  It also means the approach of my deepest time of family, at Christmas, and some changes in my work life, and practices, which come in handy, all things considered.

Also, all too soon, the Spring returns, with it's deadly threat of tornadoes, and all day thunder storms, floods, and hosts of golden daffodils.  And what would Spring ever mean were it not for these Poplar leaves at my feet?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Jasper Flynn is counting beers, at his Inn, at the foot of Vinegar Hill.  He knows one day his staff will tally up and forget to replace their theft. The bottles make chiming and chain mail sounds, sliding sometimes gritty and most other times smooth against their siblings.  And Jasper reaches the end of each series with the sound of two numbers in agreement, "damn!"

Honesty can make a man wonder what's come of the world.

The South bound Canada Geese spy fire to the east, and indeed Delores and Faith are bending down low to  plow tent stakes into the clay, their hips giving their arriving friends the ardent generosity of their asses, which later they discuss with chortals and peals of laughter, annoying the dignified at hand.  Burbling stew and glasses of beer spell warmth in the unseasonable cool of the farmyard.  Lightning bugs long gone.

Michael peers out in the blue twilight sky, between limbs of his heavily wooded break that obscure it.  He'd been cutting fallen trees all the warm season through, and now, with a sigh, as old as man's longing, he looked back to his wall to a lighter not touched since May.  A beautiful hand assembled thing that his nephew had dropped once and been shocked to hear Mike say, "Oh, Goddammit!" at the theft of the rightness of design, by gravity, implicated in the explosive ping, of the lighter on the garage floor.  But the lighter was fine, and Mike was in the doghouse with his sister for two months.  And still... Winter would come.

"Only in Heaven," heard Pastor Anderson for the twelfth time today, from Jaykita Paulen who had just delivered the news of her pregnancy, and the circumstances of its cause.  "In heaven, there are children, but no reasons... for them---- right?" asked Jaykita.  Pastor nodded his lie and patted the burdened child's shoulder, with his smile that had been the foolish reason that brought him to this position answering questions no mortal should hear.  Everyone loved the ivory in his mouth, and only he was left bereft of it's evidence without benefit of a mirror.

Mr. Nolsen pushes hard on the latch to his paddock, but it sticks just as fast as the last.  "Come on..." he says in a coaxing manner to the cold and neglected manifold of rust and old paint.  He lifts like he used to (until he found jerking to work better.)  And he'd already jerked, for some time.  But the gate would not lift from its latch.  He has at his side, a pile of broken pumpkins, brought by his old friend Gravey.  "Just thought these old broken things, that nobody wants, might get a trot outta' your cows," Gravey said smiling.  Nolsen thanks Gravey and gives him some of the dead last Broccoli and somewhat lingering Brussell's Sprouts, he had picked in the morning, before tilling over the garden.  He'd hated watching these plants fall apart.  It reminded him of necessary aches and dreadful themes.  And Nolsen was a whistling man (alone or in company), more likely to confuse the young, jaded and stern generation of today, than delight them with his aphorisms said with such feeling.  Eventually the even tempered, whistling Nolsen yells, "Goddammit! You cotton pickin sonofabitch!"  And kicks at the paddocks gate, causing the whole of the gate and it's two rotting cedar posts to fall flat, like a comedy prop, at plain odds to his plans.  "Damn," he says now softly, knowing the rebuke of the fates when he sees it.  "Damn."

Nolsen's  old, arthritic horse, Cindy, watches Nolsen from the next gate.  She's got her own paddock that he tends for her alone.  Sometimes he puts Tracey in to keep company, but this evening Tracey's with Nolsen's granddaughter, and Cindy munches thoughtlessly on Chicory, Timothy, and a trace of hairy Clover.  Presently Cindy hears the screaming of her old friend, and stops chewing, the better to remember when exactly she'd last heard it.  It hadn't been recent she knew.  So with that she continued to chew.  Then as she looked more closely at Nolsen she noticed the gate was flat on it's face or back (horse and man would certainly wonder) and the tall grass beyond it tickled her lips to look upon it.  She slowly walked with her stuttering hoof beats of age, and Nolsen, once he saw her, that old desire for grass in her eyes, forgot all about the Goddammed gate, and reached to the face of his friend, smiling, "Cindy."  Next to the broken pumpkins, now forgotten, he reached down and gathered a few apples from a basket his late wife so loved (and until she died, he'd thought pointless) and held their lightly scabbed surfaces to the wet sturdy certitude of his old friends teeth and desire. "Cindy."

I guess that about said it for today.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Battle Of Bob's Red Mill

I wrote this in February, 2009, and it's my most popular post with my family. It's rambling, yes, but filled with the nature of my town, and struggle. A silly post, yes, but a lovely expression of a silly man.

It's not even March and some of my perennials are beginning to sprout.  I'm sure that gardens have always sprouted in February, but they say nature's for the eyes that see it and my gaze has been elsewhere.  Most of my property is covered with wood chips from a tree surgeon who gave me his entire trailer load of chipped branches.  At the time I thought most of the chips were oak, you could see the grain (looking at the oak chips in my hand I kept thinking, "unfinished furniture outlet, after tornado.").  And I knew some of the chips were from our tulip poplar---- that was the reason I met the tree surgeon in the first place.  So, I was astonished that the gentleman just gave me all that wood (I offered him a hundred dollars).  He acted like I was doing him a favor, which honestly couldn't be true; all wood products are valuable.  The situation began to seem a little more sensible after I coaxed my tomato plants to flower and grow gigantic, only to watch their fruit just sit on the plant, glistening, and green.  My housemate, David, pulled a couple of big green tomato's off the plant one afternoon to "ripen" them, and I literally laughed at this ignorance, I couldn't believe he thought a completely green tomato would just magically ripen.  Well, lucky for me he isn't a complete jerk, for, that is exactly what the tomato did.  Turned bright yellow.  I thought it would simply rot in our kitchen, but it turned bright, bright yellow.  Hmm....  so the truth was that the wood chips contained at least a portion of  walnut chips.  Apparently, Wikipedia claims that walnut contains an oil, jujune (needs citation) that screws up any plant in the nightshade family, so you are wise to keep your jimson weed away from your walnuts.  Jeez.
 I got this great idea this winter.  I'm going to move my garden where the sun shines in my yard the longest.  I'm going to keep the quote, unquote, mulch where it does a fantastic job killing the grass (so what used to take me fifteen minutes to mow, now takes six), and I'm going to task David with procurement of vegetables once I grow them.  Suffice it to say, he made a fool outta me.
Another amusingly strange thing in the garden was when my corn ripened, and I ate about a third of it, and then what I thought were raccoons got into it.  Just chewed the kernals right off the cobs.  Something I didn't think about at the time was the rats that lived behind my house (and really everywhere in my neighborhood, I live in a student ghetto with tons of restaurants down the street.  One of my buddies who works really early in the morning says he sees the rats crossing the street, in a kind of shift change nocuturne, each morning.  Nice.)  I blamed the raccoons, which along with deer, the gardening books implied were corn enemy numero uno.
Then, a few nights ago I was watching the only television available in my room, PBS, and one of the episodes of NOVA came on.  NOVA used to do shows that stuck to straight up science.  But, around ten years ago NOVA discovered that story telling was far more popular with couch potatoes then instructional video.  So now most episodes of NOVA aren't about a specific topic of science, but rather rely on hilarious hooks such as "Newton's Dark Secrets", and other such nonsense.  Not that I have a problem with the show.  For some reason I just find it kind of annoying to constantly have something sing songing me to death, "here's a story, bout a lovely ecosystem, that was composing a very lovely world."  Yuck.
In any case, last weeks story was, "Attack of The Rats!!!", or some such title.  So I held my nose and watched.  I have loved reading about rats since I read Rats, Lice and History in grade school, or perhaps middle school.  By the time I was in high school, I basically read everything I could find about rats.  Needless to say, even fairly pedestrian tomes written about rats tend to disgust and provoke people. I was so into rats (not that I ever wanted a pet rat or anything, I just love learning about, ahem, real rats) that I think my fascination played a part in me working for Orkin Pest Control when I was nineteen.  Working for Orkin, you'd arrive at someone's house and ask, "Where do you have a problem Ms.," and Ms. would tell you in the pantry.  So you naturally would ask, "Where in the pantry?" and Ms. would say, "I don't know, I haven't been in the pantry for a month."  Needless to say, people don't much like the rodents in the world.
As is usually the case, the "Attack of the Rats!!!" show turned out to be extremely interesting.  Get this, every 48 years or so Asian bamboo forests flower, pollinate, and fruit.  Every 48 years.  Well, this is more interesting than it sounds because of two fascinating concurrent phenomena.  A) Every time the Bamboo fruits the local people know that they are going to starve that year.  They know this from the stories the previous generation have told them (or for the occasional very long lived person, the hunger they have experienced).  B)  Every time the Bamboo flowers and fruits, a plague of Rats seemingly jumps out of the ground, and devours literally all of the grain/ rice growing on the peoples farms.  Hence, hunger.
Now, Science can entertain lively debate, but must at the end of the day retire to a house of equivocation, lest it become english composition or something.  Where are Thoreau's "mansions of the universe" in the minds of the scientist?  Nowhere, that's where, until through the proper channels the "mansion hypothesis" is put forward in publication and replicated at some distance from the lucky sap that thought it up.
So, nobody in 48 years had experienced this rat problem in Asia.  But making assumptions is regarded by scientists as precisely the sort of thing only a fool would do.  So one brave scientist (who knows all about rats) listened to the anecdotes of past generations in Asia, and listened to Asian historians who certainly were well aware of a cycle every fifty years of famine.  This brave scientist decided to find the next place where a bamboo forest would fruit. He was hoping to make a case, with evidence, for the rat/ bamboo/ famine folklore.  He went there, and hung out with some farmers.  You wouldn't believe what a handsome family he stayed with.  The rat scientist hung out in the bamboo forest, or at its edge in any case, on a farm for an entire summer.  At the beginning of the summer, the local woods (and farm's) rat population numbered perhaps twenty or thirty.  There wasn't much to eat for the rats, so they just did what all mothers no doubt would do, had lots of sex and ate their babies.  Then, the bamboo began to drop fruit, and, bam(boo!), it's bamboo fruit for dinner instead of baby rat.  This has a very strong impact on the rat population.  How big?  Fair to say the Bible told you so.
So the rat scientist shows us, on NOVA, a novel way of discovering how many babies a mother rat has had develop within her.  It's something to see him grab a rat off the ground like he's fielding a baseball or something, then stick it in a bag, then suddenly he's back at the bamboo hut, sitting on the porch, and he takes out his knife to dissect one of the pile of rats he dumps onto the bamboo porch boards.  Speaking of porch boards, seeing the locals do carpentry with bamboo, and seeing how they split eight inch wide bamboo (what? trunks, blades(!?!) bamboo is grass, like cucumbers and almonds are fruit) and weave the split and flattened bamboo into house walls, it's like seeing the world "handmade".  I'm thinking of a novel by the guy who wrote The Long Emergency, because it has the concept "culture as handmade" at it's core. If only I could remember the title.  For some reason, as a carpenter (on my good days I'm comfortable calling myself that) I found it just hypnotic seeing that bamboo house woven together. But lets get back to the scientist, holding a dead rat which NOVA refuses to show being killed, now poised with a knife just above the rat; now the knife plunges into the rat and just like that, the rat is drawn and quartered.  So the scientist has the insides (strangely lacking in blood) stretched open like an organ donor, and he points to what look like a peas attached to a split open pod, or beans, along the abdomen of the rat.  He points out that there are eight of these peas, and he shows that each has a placenta.  It is curiously fascinating, due to the fact that a person realizes that every mammal surely has this sort of arrangement within a female who is, as the British might say, preggers.  The interior of the female rat in this scientists hands seems bejeweled, and illuminated somehow.  Then again, this scientist is really something, and I suppose having handled a few dead rats myself, I should admit that I have never achieved his special way with rodents.  Not in the least.  So... then the scientist points out something kind of helpful given my personal history (in my yard) with rats.  He points to these little buds coming off the reproductive apparatus of the rat.  What are they coming off? An ovary? A uterus?  The buds must be within, or attached to a uterus, but I couldn't really recognize much, save the little pea like rats to be, inside big rat has been.  The buds, our scientist points out, are scars from the previous rats mom has given birth to.  For every baby rat, their is a scar!  Which made me wonder, do rats menstruate?  Having scars on their reproductive apparatus would lead me to believe otherwise, but truly, I can hardly wait to find the proper person to answer that question.  I think I'll ask the reference librarian at our county library just to see the look on his face.  Just the facts, dude.  So our scientist friend, with a big grin on his face, his exacto knife waving about, and a rat sitting open like baked potato in his hand explains that the little buds in this rat amount to something like twenty-six previous births this season.  Thats about thirty four baby rats in one summer.  So a rat with plenty to eat other than baby for breakfast will pop forty little versions of itself out (or more) in a season.  This explains why twenty or thirty rats in the bamboo forest might get a little out of hand when their food supply goes from subsistence to the land of milk and honey.  Geez.
And, this explained, what happened to my corn.  It wasn't raccoons that ate my corn.  I knew I had rats in my yard, I saw them every day.  They usually would sort of dart about the trash cans, licking some runny substance off the sidewalk or whatever.  You kind of get used to them when you live in a town that basically subsidizes rodents, catching them in live traps and dumping them out in the country like that A.I. movie.  My neighbors, who are wonderful middle aged sculptors, begged me not to poison the rats for fear their dog would eat a poisoned rat.  I tried to explain to them that the poison kills rodents more easily than "higher" mammals due to the fact that rodents can't vomit terribly well.  Hardly a bad idea, given what they eat, don't you think?  My neighbor brought rats up to me (believe it or not, I rarely volunteer this peculiar enthusiasm) because he said, with a look of amazement and scorn, "You know, I saw rats frolicking beneath the mulberry tree and eating mulberries the other day.  I think they are living in the Chevy Biscane."  The Chevy is an old broken down car that my landlord accidently let one of his oldest "clients", a nutcase, park in our yard.  The sculptors, next door, eat breakfast every morning, and have to see this ugly Chevy just past their gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous garden.  Why they don't simply sue my landlord is probably explained on the same page of the book of mysteries as why people in Bloomington, Indiana catch rodents and set them "free" out in the woods, to starve to death. (There was a man I knew years ago here, in Bloomington, named Sunny.  I mention Sunny because I think about him now and again due to something he told me late one night in the Kroger parking lot.  And I miss him unreservedly.  He's a great guy.  Sunny looked kind of like Nick Nolte after a bad night, except without the drugs, except, then again, maybe with a lot more drugs.  Hard to say.  So, late one night I had my hands full of bags of veggies and soda pop, or something, and on my way out to my car I see Sunny.  So, realizing the warm mellow honey of liberalism might just pool at the small of my back should I truly enjoy this man in an authentic manner, I call out, "Hey Sunny!"  Now Sunny doesn't know me from Adam, but having survived the streets for forty years, he was most definitely able to see a fresh mark like myself from a mile or farther.  "Hey," he said like a socialite upon opening her Salon door.  We chatted about the honeysuckle sweetness in the Spring evening air, and the comfort of the long days in the out of doors we both looked forward to that year.  Then Sunny began to tell me how he had been sleeping behind Kroger of late, and he was glad it was nice outside so he could enjoy the fresh air and his little friends.  "Your little friends," I said in a tone meaning , "Who the heck are they?"  Sunny said "Yeah," with that wheezy trailing Studs Terkel like tone he always had, just a beautiful voice, like you never hear anymore in movies or television, our obsession with realism being the monster it has become.  "Yeah, my little rats are so beautiful. The come right up to my fingers while I lay there at night, and I feed them whatever I've got."  This seemed, somehow, though it may well have been apocryphal, true.  In a world, even in Bloomington, where the gaze of people is filled with the flint that protects them from an involvement beyond sharing a sidewalk, I could well imagine the squeaking glee in the black, shiny orb, of a rats eye, catching the yellow orange midnight sun of a back-lot sodium lamp, as it nibbles the Frito's you share, it's whisker maybe touching your hand.  One things for sure, after a long day of people throwing Big Gulps at Sunny from there rusty Silverado's, I could well imagine a rat, with a Frito in it's mouth, may give the gift of gratitude.  Though, he didn't make  a convert of me that night.  I could only offer Sunny produce and Diet Coke, which I knew rats weren't fond of, from studies of rats in different communities.  Rats like what the people around them like.  So, in the obese Southern Indiana population, I'm thinking Broccoli ain't on the menu.  So I said goodnight to Sunny.  My good liberal endorphins peaking so much, I couldn't even feel the plastic grocery bags cutting cruelly into my hands.) So anyhow, while my neighbor was talking to me about the amazing sighting of rodents, I was conjuring in my head the veritable family of rats living in holes in the ground on my property.  It occurred to me that my neighbor, for all his qualities as a human being, was simply unaware of the natural proclivities of the Norway Rat.  Like, for example, warm dry habitat beneath the ground.  It would certainly be nice, from a public health standpoint, were Norway Rats to require a Chevy Biscane, like a Spotted Owl requires redwoods or what have you.  But, unfortunately for my neighbor, for all my flaws, he had picked a subject that morning upon which I had some rare insight, and it truly took all my strength to not go on and on, as I have in this blog entry, about rats.  Instead, I told him, "Christ, it hardly surprises me that that crappy car is breeding rats."  It would seem, that unlike the occasional crackpot you meet on the street, I have the ability to make eye contact and connect, even with folks utterly ignorant of the, how should I put it--- natural history of rats.   We spoke a bit more, him mostly going on about how bad an idea poisoning them would be.  I mean, after all, they were merely chewing on mulberries when not serving tea in the Biscane.  So I nodded.  Then guiltily went back home, feeling like I'd patronized him for not saying, "Look Mister, rats live in holes like that one." Pointing about ten feet away, to a eightball sized hole, with a little pile of rat rototill next to it.   The final straw came one morning as I arose, especially early for some reason, and could hardly wait to get over to the coffee shop.  So I threw some breakfast together on the stove and ate my plateful of food, then went back to the kitchen to clean my dish and pan and what do I hear but the furtive crinkling of polyetheline, a kind of sound made only by bags of candy in a quiet theatre or rats in my kitchen.  Sure enough, next to my coffee maker, there, up on my countertop, I was alarmed to see a medium sized rat, sauntering along, brushing past polyetheline bags of Bob's Red Mill something or other (trash now!).  Hmm.... I thought.  Clearly I have fallen a great deal since my days with Orkin.  Now, I'm the one who has been acting as if all those rats in my yard for some reason just had too much respect for my family to expand their circle of competence to include our larder.  Bloomington does this to you.  Almost without realizing it you become a kind of soft, smiling, vaguely African clothes wearing, kneejerk animal liberation bandying, head nodding person always saying, "exactly" (emphasis, not your own).  Before you know it the rodents are asking you to pass the salt.
I went straight to the hardware store and bought thirty some pounds of the stuff that comes from the company thats motto is, "yeah, we kill that."  It wasn't hard to apply the stuff.  It was bright blue and waxy.  The scientist on NOVA mentioned that rats love to chew on wax. I didn't realize this when I was throwing twelve once cubes of blue poison wax down every hole I could find in my yard and, expecially, my trash can.  I didn't put any in my garden, but it hardly mattered.  Thirty pounds.  Then I put it all over my house in those little black bait dishes, that look like pet food dishes (we have no pets).  I never saw another rat in the house, but man, they finished off all the bait traps in the basement in three days, and they finished off all the poison under the trash can (about one and one half pounds) in one evening.  They were extremely hungry.  Good.
After about a week I quit seeing them foxtrotting around my garbage cans.  And after about two weeks, the rat poison in the kitchen stopped moving toward the bottom of the bait dish.  It just settled to a quarter of an inch of blue poison.  And thats where it is today.


About two weeks after I decided my neighbors dog could eat my shorts, and I sort of lost it on the subject of rats in my yard, I noticed a big fat dead rat in my driveway.  This one was gigantic.  Not as big as World War veterans talk about in the trenches, feasting on casualties, but big, as in bigger than the one I saw in my kitchen.  About the size of a Quaker oats cylinder.  The normal oatmeal size.  I didn't want to leave it in my driveway, but I didn't want to give it a funeral for crying out loud, so I went and got some gloves and a plastic grocery sack and protecting my gloves (and thinking of plague) I wrapped up the rat and threw it in my garbage can.  I didn't want anything eating a poisoned rat.
A few days later I saw a rat nose sticking out of one of the burrow holes in the yard.  But it was a far corner of the yard, by the Chevy Biscane, and for some reason I savored their proximity to one another, and also didn't want to grab a dead rat by the nose, even with pliers or what have you.
I mention all of this, not to claim victory, but because the rats had a few tricks up their sleeve.  It is the signal quality of man to make things normal, so as to convince himself that his illusions are in fact mere appendixes of higher more absolute truths.  In our easy chairs, as long as creatures are not stirring, especially not rats and mice, we can tell ourselves that this is what it's all about, American Idol, or if you'd rather, NOVA.  Life is good.
So, when we look in the mirror do we see a human?  Or do we see a community itself, that happens to make us what we are, whatever that is.  The answer is obvious.  We see human.  Monster is other.  Bad guys are disease vectors.  To be rubbed away with Purell sanitizer, hypnotized with the sleepy aesthetic of geometric houses on geometric principles, just for the style, by design.  But the truth is we carry between seven and fourteen pounds of bacteria in our enteric gut.  You know, poopy has to get dirty somehow.  It ain't rotten food.  It's food, after you.  There's something kinda strange in that statement, don't you think?  Between shit, and food, is you.  Not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to see on TV after the commercial with the woman doing yoga while she eats her probiotics.
The truth about us, is always a bit stranger than we expect, because the knowledge we're fed it meant to be tasteful, first, and enlightening second.  Probably most of our day we swim in the roar of the modern media apparatus, always being shown uplifting stuff that would have you believe we were living in heaven but for those damned terrorists.  But the truth is that human beings are filled to the brim with other animals, bacteria, yeasts, and other stuff we aren't so much infected by as defined by as persons.  It's been estimated that just over half the genetic information on that community of organisms that make up a healthy adult human, are other organisms DNA.  Over half.  This should give you some idea why genetic medicine is going to be so complicated.  For a long long time, humans have tried not to pay too close attention to the frothy swarms that keep us ticking.  Which makes sense.  We're sort of gross.
I mention this because I am completely taken with the shocking realization that the wilderness in this world is as much within us as without.  Our fears constantly maintain a hyper vigilance about the seeming boundary of our skin, hands, feet and senses.  It isn't there if you can't see it.  We constantly look for revelations and feel out our world.  But the exterior of our body is only that.  The outer part of an endlessly detailed realm and arena.  And it is a convenient construction that we have decided on outsides and insides.  I mean, disease starts out there, but inevitably flowers within.  The only difference between the disease smallpox and having the disease smallpox, is your nose.  And taking a breath.  
Something truly nasty happened when I killed the rats.  You might say nature had a lesson to teach me about control.  Something had to be done about the ever growing circle of domain of the rats in my yard.  They had broken their promise and invaded my larder and kitchen.  Now I had betrayed my lovely neighbors and set out thirty pounds of Warfarin, which sounds like a martial musical, but in fact is the same as the commonly prescribed geriatric blood thinner, Coumadin.  That's the stuff that causes most of the big bruises on the hands and arms of the elderly. So the rats drank our Kool Aid, and seemed to go away.  They did die.  In fact, I saw two dead ones, as mentioned above.  But there were many rats.  I don't know how many.  But "Attack of the Rats!!!!" convinced me that I may, by the end of the summer, and the slaughter of my corn, the the Battle of Bob's Red Mill, have had as many as a hundred or so.  Maybe more.  About a third of an acre.  Then again, maybe I only had fifty rats.  In my yard.  The lesson here isn't how many rats I had, it's how many rats I remember removing.  Well, you will recall that I disposed of one rat.  And that is my recollection as well.  At the edge of my yard, there is a headstone for the other rat that looks very much like a Chevy Biscane.  Those are the two rats I remember, out of a possible total of dozens to one hundred.  Why does that matter.  Well....  some of the rats went outside.  At Orkin we were trained to explain to people that Orkin's proprietary blend of poison was new and improved to make the rats go outside your house and die.  But that was total b.s.  The truth was that our poison was no different than the stuff you could buy at the store with the slogan printed on the side, "Kill Them, They Won't Come."  Trust me.  The only proprietary poison Orkin had was a type of fungus that helped with German cockroaches.  Someone found it in the Pacific Northwest or something.  In fact, Professor Paul Stammets with Fungi Perfecti (his company name, he is a renowned expert on Mycology) has multiple patents out on fungal pest control, some of which causes mushrooms to fruit right out the head of an insect.  But I digress. Most of the poison used in professional pest control is the same stuff normal folks use.  It's just like a lot of professions.  Someone to cry to.  Someone to hold your hand. Someone to blame.  Kind of like marriage.  My point about the rats I didn't see dead is that they went somewhere.  And the preference of most people when they kill things is that the dead things just disappear, poof!, into thin air.  As fluffy and insubstantial as a cloud, almost like they never existed in the first place.  Well, X factor, leftover rats in my yard (and house) actually did sort of disappear.  They died, you see, then some flies (I saw a few  Bottle Flies, the kind with green metallic exoskeletons, buzzing around the rat I threw in the trash) landed on them and laid eggs.  Then the eggs hatched into maggots, which enjoyed the frothing corpse of the former rat immensely, and finally, for those corpses protected by, say, a crawlspace, or attic, or in one of a hundred holes within a square block of my house, the maggots turned into beautiful green and black flies.  Or the regular variety.  So guess what began to beat against the inside of our windows three weeks after I ended our "pest" problem in the Battle of Bob's Red Mill?  A lot of flies.  Pretty disgusting.  My housemates are not the most learned people in the world when it comes to rats and flies.  Kind of similar to my neighbor.  The going theory on the flies was that it had to be something to do with the Chevy Biscane.  The rest of story, please, is just between us.

Andy Coffey

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nightmare For Sawyers

  My favorite bookshop prices everything three dollars.  The place is a bit of a danger to me.  I must enforce a browsing mode that is normally active in the usual commercial habitat of a book, but seems to become confused by plenty.  Sort of a risk of intellectual obesity (or is it ostentation?)  Anyhow, I was there yesterday as I am a number of times a week, and I spied on one of its shelves a book that concerned itself with the subject of  communication between birds and primitive cultures.  At the moment I looked at the book I was thrown back to this philosophy book I read a few years ago, Passing Strange And Wonderful, wherein its author spoke of many aspects of the ecology of habitat, various modes of human behavior, and their interactivity.  So then I put the book on the shelf, and realized for the (counting...) time that I could not agree with the promise of the book, though its premise is exciting. 
One thing that I wholeheartedly agree with, nevermind the absurd illusions of some researchers, is that human beings and the natural world share a mutual will to communicate.  As to the terms of the language and the intentions of both parties, I think I need not pretend an opinion.  Clearly birds do not indicate to me, in their manner of greeting the human animal, a heartfelt hello, that if only I could understand the chirps, I would instantly recognize (and chirp back?)  Clearly the ecosystem, whatever your desire to name it something erotic, does not lovingly regard its inhabitants as "part of it all."  I was sitting at the Hardware Store, and staring out of my windshield thinking about all of this today, such that when I exited my car I realized that all the people within eyeshot of me, were startled to see that that guy finally decided to DO domething.  And what I was thinking was this:  the specific manner, and the quality of the data therin, of other cultures between species communications don't matter so much to me, as the teaching moment feeling that the seeming fact of their claims gives me.  There exists a ecological utilitarianism in the theory of these phenomenons. The idea of their claim of communication between bird and man is as potent as its proof to me. And useful.  But why?
  I recall accounts of Inuit having the ability to somehow read in the clouds and sky at certain times of day patterns that suggested very far off landscapes in some kind of fata morgana/atmospheric lensing.  In any case, this gave certain Inuit an advantage for survival and certainly a form of information that I wouldn't otherwise have heard or dreamed of.  How in the world could you see over the horizon by looking into the sky?   My sense about such phenomena (unproven) is that they are possible.  A mirage, after all, allows you to see very far through some kind of hot air lensed by the scalding desert floor.    It does not matter specifically whether such abilities could be relearned by we moderns or not, just as it does not matter that we are all not fire walkers, or monks with the ability to do the mamba with our heartbeat.  The fact of the human potential, and fruit of human focus, is the talking point here, and that's my rather unscientific take on the Inuit thing.  In situ, Alaska, all respect due to Mr. John Wayne, there COULD exist a fairly provacative atmosphere for the production of desperate measures in human behavior, and especially that paticular human favorite: the extension of the senses.  How then, in other circumstances of the human condition, are things favorable for the stopping, and smelling of roses of a different name?  For example, some kind of geographical information that birds may give to one another and therefore give to you, if you needed that information.  And some kind of verbal aknowledgement one might give a bird that he has something it might like to eat, or fair warning of a hawk that could kill it.  Necessity might mother something along those lines.
 What occured to me at that Harware Store, that stopped me in my tracks, and literally seemed to be pulling at the edges of my brain was this;  just as a tree makes its space in the forest that it simultaneously constructs, the elements of the natural world conspire in their ecology to enrich the humans experience and respond in kind.  This is a somewhat necessarily clumsy way of saying that the world talks to us, and we it, in a language that is not necessarily conscious, and that the plants and animals constantly inform one another in ways that go beyond even evolving, scarcity, habitat creation and population change.  There is a language between species, of form and meaning, if not syntax.
 Ask your average five year old to look into the sky and read the clouds and she will happily do so with you without thinking twice.  The fact that cloudreading has no possible connection to anything but an honest appreciation of pleasure and delight, the imagination if you will, is well understood by most kids (if not so much those adults who can be said to not understand kids.)  The fact that clouds do not keep their shape for periods that allow for a scanning of the sky, and and the subsequent construction of a "cloud phrase" should be obvious.  Finally, the simple to understand fact that you would not have a very useful message if you took it to the authorities and let them know that the sky just told you something, is best told by a circumstance every five year old knows best.  The mirth and laughter of people reading the clouds is the best guage by which to measure the seriousness of their intentions as readers.  And yet the molecules of the sky arrange themselves by turns explicable and inexplicable alike.  Information theory, statistical analysis, high math, complexity theories, and systems theory all have grandfather clauses in their dealings with the weather, the wind, the heavens.  The butterfly effect is so well known as to be almost mythic in its particulars as a fable.  The notion that the beating wings of a butterfly may create changes in a system of the weather around the other side of the world is a powerful one because like all ideas that become with usage, story and myth, it is scaled to the human imagination.  The reason the scale of the butterfly and the thunderstorm its wings beat to life is important, can be appreciated when one looks for analogs to the concept of a system (lets call it a butterfly) affecting another system (a storm) but at a different scale.  Well, at first, it seems impossible to imagine any such analogs, until a person asks themselves:  how big is an enzyme?  So how big is your lauter tun?  In a batch of beer, a mere handful of enzymes accomplish, to the clockwork like delectation of yeast molecules, a multimillion dollar catering gig.  The incomprehesibly tiny enzymes cut into shreds molecules so large that they are literally inedible to most bugs and micro organisms (starch).  The net effect of the amalase enzymes is that a huge quantity of nutrition is made available that was previously only cognitively food.  Before long the "environment" of the brewing vessle changes entirely in many different ways.  Its fluid becomes thinner by far, at first syrupy with sugar, then filled with gas bubbles, then watery.  These changes are a direct and predictable outcome delivered in every case in nature where starch is consumed by enzymes.  The human stomach is a somewhat relevant example.  The laughably tiny-- and completely overwhelmed in the sense of size mattering-- enzyme "amylase" can, and in fact every single day in most spots on the planet does, drive enormous systems of the world.  I personally believe the prosaic amylase is more astonishing than the fluid dynamic/ thermodynamic based butterfly effect could ever hope to be.  But only rarely do our human leaders, teachers, and entertainers feel the power of amylase.  In fact, it might be argued that a good portion of them don't even realize its contribution.  In these terms amylase might be thought of as almost undiscovered, except that the terms of discovery in our era are so liberal as to allow for the knowledge of one to stand in for the knowledge of all.  In the popular imagination nobody would admit that "we know nothing", and yet the terms of knowledge in our modern world allow for the specialists and experts to act as ritual vessels by which the knowing gets done.  This is a frankly bizarre circumstance to think through head on, and yet seems to in fact be the case. All of this last paragraph would seem to be the ballad of amylase, except that it is  meant only to illustrate that the human desire to understand the world can be disguised and repackaged so thoroughly that we as the participating agent and consumer of a specific and measurable question can find ourselves fooled even as we delight in our sophistry.  Surely someone is out there making sure the truth is understandable and doled out in portions that can be easily digested and stored away for when needed.  That is simply and ultimately not the case. 

Consider a man walking through a meadow.  Now surely a silly ole meadow can't present surprises to a normal educated man.  At the center of the meadow stands a huge burr oak, resplendent with leaves just turned brown, and acorns, each wearing a delightful cap encircled with curly cues. Edging one side of the meadow can be seen a row of sycamores and hickory, along a tinkling creek.  And along the other side hedges of mixed scrub, with tangled vines and cane recognizable to anyone who has crossed the midwest in a car and stared at the interstice of woods and pasture for most of a trip of days.  The man walks upon the sod, looking down at the plantain and lambs quarters, dandelion and clover, timothy and alphalfa, plants the English bravely named "Grass".  The network of grass, actual grain Kentucky Bluegrass, extends across the entire basin of the meadow, into and in some portions of the intermittently dry creekbed, and pretty much as everyone knows: everywhere--God bless it.    Crossing the meadow the man notices a rubbery white structure sticking out of the grass that as he gets closer he realizes is a mushroom.  He is surprised to discover that a faint ring of such mushrooms is moving out in a arc about the oak at a distance of over fifty feet.  The man looks up at the oak and wonders if it was the tree that attracted the mushroom, or if the mushrooms had feasted on a parent of the tree now long rotten into the meadow hundreds of years later.  The delicate wet flesh of the mushrooms refuses the patterns of form that age and experience cling to, and so seem the harbinger of freshness, much like the grass, not death or centuries old rot.  Thinking of the majestic and perfectly shaped oak as having ever been something so vulnerable as a sapling fills the man with a confusion of tangled feeling.  For some strange reason he likes that silly tree!  He runs his eyes along its familiar muscular limbs savoring their seeming probity into the very subtance that whistles in his lungs.  He hears the crickling paper like sound of the not yet dry leaves and faintly (he thinks) smells an almost oaky smell when near the seeming ecosystem of the giant.  Closer now he looks again into the crown and realizes, he isn't sure (for the first time? better not really resolve that question) but did he see both the limbs before, behind and to both sides of the tree when he looked before, from a distance at the tree.  Or did he just mush it all together and brook no great notion of its shape beyond the classic parabolic crown that can only be an oak.  Looking along the tight grain of its bark into and around the crotches of its limbs the man gazes at the decisions of the network of branches stretching all the way to the tip of each branch from---literally, the trunk to the top.  All along the intersections of the branch the burr bristled with twigs, which themselves bristled as well.  Was every twig the result of some terminal bud in years past?  Were the coldest of winters the deciders in the shape of the tree, as some buds froze?  And the midspring thunderstorns and gusty windstorms that strew the meadow with twigs just as it now is strewn with acorns, which of them decided the shape of this branch that the man followed with his eyes until they stopped with a realization.  The light, the wind, the thunder, and sun, the force of gravity and mysterious alchemy of a genetic heritage (oak!) all had pruned and fed, watered, and stewarded that tree, and each coaxing of heat, ice and wind had awarded each branch and twig a path.  Those paths had been, when the oak was but a stick in the mud of the meadow, shooting out in time and space, a spectral function of consequence and gentle habit.  But now, the man realized, now he could see why the thought of that huge tree as ever having been a stick in the mud had faintly depressed him.  Here before him stood the confluence of a hundred years of experiences in the oaks life.  Before him stood tens of lightning strikes hidden in the wood beneath the bark, and the consumed cut branches beneath the meadow and across the tinkling creeks floodpath.  Here before him a tree, looking exactly like an oak, yet indeterminate (as the botanist would say) at the same time.  Somehow, like the body of this paragraph on this page, the oak looked simultaneously like any other oak, and like no other oak.  As words resolve into units that resolve into pages and resolve into books, it is no surprise to a reader, but rather depended upon as a sacred rule of the craft that what looks almost identical, can vary to a shocking degree.  And so was born the literary critic.  And so upon the grammar of the language the rules of the words allow for a variation in the content of what is expressed.  And so it is the charm of the unknowable grammar of the oaks' physicality which embodies those paths that grew to these branches.  Yet each can be distinguished and described by no tongue of man, without so lengthy a description as to destroy the sublime experience that it is to stand before an oak.  This tree, the man realized, is telling me the story of its life, in a language of signs, and with limbs that represent only as they shoot through their grammar of experience, and phrasing of embodiment.  It is a language like a paragraph on a page.  A language like a score for a symphony, or rather "it" was that language before it became itself, as too, the score is not the symphony and neither is the performance.  The man stood dumbfounded.  Standing in the meadow to which he had returned for a pedestrian solace so many times in his life, he wondered, considering that burr oak now, he wondered why he had never seen before this impressive semblance of the mastery of God.  He had never considered a tree a collection of board feet of lumber, in fact considered himself something of a tree hugger.  Still, while driving he passed large vaguely green and brown objects constantly, and was frequently unaware and uninterested in their particulars.  To that extent, he now realized, he had believed the evidence of the tree itself straight out of its presence in and of his world.  This is the first time, the man told himself without the slightest trace of irony, that I have ever seen a tree.

Monday, October 5, 2009

If You Reach The Golden Corral... you've gone too far

This is a repost of a story I wrote early this year about a couple old friends of mine.  One, acquaintance really, was Father Joe, an Orthodox Priest, in Indianapolis, who used to take a break from his flock, in a cigar shop I spent far too much time in.  Tony, my friend who ran the place, encouraged me not to ask him any questions, and, until Father Joe died, I managed not to.

The other two people, are in fact friends.  For one, there was Dennis.  One of the best friends I've ever had.  And the other was Joe's student decades ago, Father A.

It's not every day you get to befriend a Priest, but hey, Atheism has its privileges.  I want to dedicate this post (which is silly, I know) to a woman who recently commented on my blogs.  Faith is a big deal, and even though I know who I am, this post says something bigger than one's mere identity as a spiritual being can address.  I've always believed that people of faith are some of the best reasons to live a good life on the street.  Thanks for your presence on Brand of Make Believe.

I found myself sitting one day with an old priest at The Golden Corrall.  I was hung over and we were eating lunch.  It was my buddy Dennis's bright idea for me to go at the last minute.  Irritated that I was spending the afternoon with a priest while hungover, I deliberately let Dennis have it by apologizing to the priest for drinking heavily the night before.
"Why?  You think I like being sober? " said Father A.  He shrugged his shoulders, sizing up drinking perhaps as dwarfed by some of the more notorious human abominations.
Turns out his teacher was the priest I had known in the cigar shop, in Indianapolis.  Father Joe.  My buddy Tony's friend.
"So, Father A., Father Joe died two years ago and far as I could tell his community was not confident of their future without him.  Not that I knew the difference between the Byzantines and Beelzebub at the time, but you know, people talked, and said Joe was special.  I basically left him alone but for the occasional weather report or what have you.  He was your teacher.  Was he your friend?"
"We weren't friends.  No.  He was special, it's true.  Some guys have the touch, and people see them as the person they want before them.  I have never felt I was that guy.  Joe seemed to realize he was.  Didn't always like it.  But everyone knew, and he was one of them."
"Was his Church your first Church?" said Dennis.
"In a way I suppose it was," said Father A.  "I had been with a different Church, had been of a different denomination as a young student.  Why I switched and the path and manner by which I have come to serve all these years in the Eastern Orthodox tradition have challenged me to accept the advice I have all too often given others... but not taken myself."
"That it's in God's hands," said Dennis with that subtle smile that made me despise him sometimes, but probably was the reason he put up with me.
"Yes, Dennis," said Joe, but without a trace of pleasure.  "That it is. And it always was."
"But the fundamental difference between the Judeo-Christian religions is the boundary between man and God.  A Muslim or Jew could just as easily imagine their life in God's hands, but correct me if I'm mistaken, their path isn't quite the one you have seen for yourself, or taken in any case," I said with my usual total lack of insight as to why I even had need to ask.
"I don't know what the fundamental differences between the Abrahamic traditions are Andy.  Perhaps fundamentally... well, it's something for younger men to argue about.  That's why I appreciate you and Dennis letting me buy you lunch.  When I was your age I too was brimming with questions and feeling.  You know, in so many ways life is ones spirit.  That was something Father Joe and I could never really reconcile."
"That life  is a person's spirit," said Dennis, looking at me, "I think I'm on Joe's side with this one."  Funny thing was, when he was smiling at Jesus, I despised him, but when he was grimacing at me, I despised myself.
"Well pardon me if mere aknowledgement of the flesh as reflected in a cold mirror is somewhere, somehow, construed by some child praying on her knees as Satanic, my friend.  My cells merely seem to me to divide where for the saint they metastasize," I said, losing the thread of the conversation completely in my strange sense of being outnumbered by weirdo fundamentalists.  But something was wrong.  Father A. was laughing.
"That's a good one Andy, you make that up?" he said.
"He's full of stuff like that, "said Dennis, "completely screwed up."
"I think I actually had a point," I tried to explain.
"Oh, you did," said Father A. "And let me tell you, it kind of reminds me of why I never felt like a friend to Father Joe.  Well, for one thing, Dennis, I would never have told him he was screwed up, like Andy is lucky enough to have heard just now from you.  Not that I think you are Andy..."
"Yeah, I get it," I sheepishly let him off the hook, "all have sinned in the eyes of God."
"Well, no... I mean, yes that is a true, rich statement that I think is worth investigating.  A type of wisdom if you will... but what I meant is that you and Dennis can both bear witness to the struggle that loving others amounts to.  So, while neither of you reminds me of the other, a common language of respect and love seems to allow your friendship the space and freedom for you both to sense that your friend really wants to know you.  I had a wonderful teacher, but I never had that with Joe, or anyone in the administrative side of Church, for that matter."
"Well, did you say goodbye to Joe before he died," asked Dennis.
Father A. looked up, out into the empty directionless light of a February afternoon and shook his head.  The he looked at us, each, and then settled his gaze on his hands, saying, "No."

At some point near the end of Father A.'s schooling, he had knocked on Joe's door one afternoon.  Joe had been gone dealing with some family affair.  Father A. was scheduled in Syracuse to work after Seminary at a bustling, ailing Orthodox church.  He was scared to death.  He felt excitement at his future, and knew he would more or less do his job.  But as a man, he wondered, would he ever live up to the dreams of inquiry that all the years of schooling had never managed to settle into some kind of working knowledge.  Father A. sensed that Joe was in some ways the last of his true father figures. Was there anyone else I could ever ask such difficult questions? he genuinely wondered.  No.  He knew.  Father Joe was the only man he would ever ask this question.
"Father, I still wonder a little about why you think I am right for the Orthodox Church.  Sometimes I guess...." said Father A.
"You guess what? " said Father Joe, "That you don't know what to do?"
"Yes, exactly.  I don't know what to do, Father.  I only know what I am supposed to do,"
"Your lucky, if you can say that," said Father Joe.
"Have you ever second guessed everything," said Father A. "Have you ever just wondered what the truth really was?" The words came out like every disgusting thought he'd ever had in his life.  Every perversion. Every nightmare.  The love child of sleepless nights of miserable fun and the cold broken look of his sacrificing mother as he was leaving home.
"A man must be called, " said Father Joe, "before he can answer."  And that was the last time Father A. ever called upon Father Joe for matters not pertaining to the Church.

I haven't seen Father A. in seven years.  He stayed in Bloomington until enough people were attracted by him in the little house on Smith road for the big guys out east to get the money together to build a larger church.  Last I heard he was in another small town, laughing at the false modesty of the energetically spiritual.  Trying, probably, not to flinch at shadows that seem less playful the older you get.  Father Joe has of course been in heaven all along.  That's why I tell this story, and if you haven't been able to tell, this isn't the first time.  Everybody takes something different from it.  Are you a believer?  Are you an Atheist?  Perhaps you are a man or woman of God?  Or you are following your calling, but haven't heard it in awhile.  Who, here amongst us, in, as it were, His midst, could really be certain of anything?