Why I Write

Why I write

“My soul, you wanted me to utter and write down all these words. I did not know that you guarded such secrets. I am astonished. You are an unbelievable riddle. But what to make of my astonishment? “
~ C.G. Jung

Lumbering redwood trees thrived along the wet-winter creek and at night the barred owls serenaded us with hoots and every morning a red-shouldered hawk landed on the tin roof above our bedroom and hopped and called for the countryside to waken.

In the mornings and the evenings the tips of the redwoods speared through the carpet of fog that settled in the valley below. We looked out the window to the east, over the tops of the trees towards the towns and the hills beyond.

We lived in a flat above a barn full of tractors and mowers and garden gear and outside the owners ripped out fifty-one acres of apple trees and set vines so the winery in the valley could crush the grapes for sparkling wine.

They planted irrigation and stanchions with wire strung from one end to the other so the vines could reach toward the heavens.

They fenced the vineyard to prohibit critters but at night the alleys between the rows filled with deer. In the glow from the outdoor lights on the corners of the barn, I often watched the deer leap the fences, tangle their antlers in the irrigation tubing or the wires employed to train the vines. And I cheered, silently, for the deer.

We moved to that place from the mountains of southern New Mexico. We’d deserted a laid back mountain community in the southwest for a dynamic and roaring left coast community on the cutting edge of culture and economics.

And that was tough for me. My kind were ranchers and loggers and other mountain folk who were fairly conservative and now we were immersed in a community of progressives.

It took a while.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

And living in a vineyard wasn’t the bucolic paradise you’d think. It was tractors and laborers outside your windows and in the early hours of morning, 1 AM or thereabouts, the putt-putt of a tractor pulling a spray rig clouding the air with sulfur and other possibly noxious chemicals the truth of which the owners or workers were not ready to concede.

It was a different world for me. After Betty and I had been there about a year, we started to think about looking elsewhere but when Betty’s mom heard our dismay she said, “Well, Bettykay, you’ll just have to come back up to speed.”

Right then images of me running down the road like a skuzzy cur with his tail between his legs spurred me on getting “up to speed.”
And we did.

And one of the first changes in my life and my attitude? I wanted to write.

Betty and I went on a vacation in late 1992 and traveled eastern California and into Utah and then Arizona where I shot Gambel’s quail with my son and along the way Betty and I yarned about places we’d been: Yosemite and Bishop and Death Valley and Lost Wages and St. George and Nam and Maine and the Navajo reservation and Flagstaff and down south of Phoenix.

Sometimes we scoffed at events that spurred our memories and sometimes we laughed and often we stopped talking as we watched the big, high and dry passage of red sand, Ponderosa forest and humongous mountains and all those moments reinforced my need to write.

Because there was a need. Still is.

I wanted to make short stories, so we bought a computer and I began to scratch out tales based on memory and then I signed up to take a writing course with my first mentor, the novelist Jean Hegland, who thought as writers we needed to study all kinds of writing and even though I thought poems were for…well, what—Wimps? Liberals? What?—I followed directions.

I wrote a few poems and something about the process began to grind like the gravel that dove cram in their craws, and out of my mouth—my memory—came, alas, poems. At first it embarrassed me or maybe that’s not the right word, but I felt…gee, I think I felt exposed.

Early on my work focused on the Vietnam War and then it was the war and then trying to branch out, it was the war. It still is.

And I didn’t want to write about the war again and again and again. I didn’t want to bore people or disgust them with my images of death and destruction, my anger.

And now I ask myself, why not the war? I don’t think we are going to stop warring anytime soon and combat often exposes the very best and worst of humanity.

When warriors write their tales a lot of the gasoline to run the compositional engine comes from rage. When people try to kill you, it enrages you although I don’t think you notice it until years later when you try to deal with the leftovers of people shooting at you.

Ken’s journal

And to kill others, I think you need to be instilled with rage, something to make you go against everything you learned as a kid.

And rage like that sticks around, like bad kindergarten memories and the notions of the first girl you thought you loved.

And there’s guilt: survivor’s guilt, and guilt because you weren’t the warrior you wanted to be and maybe your actions resulted in someone else’s death or guilt because you were lucky enough to board a Continental Airlines 707 for home, leaving your mates behind to fight and die.

And shame, too, is another ghost that sneaks in like a night thief and all your on-guard-PTSD paranoia cannot keep it from elbowing into your work, your thoughts.

When I vow to kill someone… and this happens more often than one would think…the moments drag along a sense of shame and outside of war there are other things to be ashamed of: how I treated that girl or that woman or someone who was supposed to be my friend and those times I took something on the sly that wasn’t mine.

My normal thought patterns are zigzags and lightning that carom around my mind and like a bumble bee they land here and then there and then back to the other place they were before. Incomplete, often, and though vivid, sometimes not quite shoveled out enough for me to get at what it is I actually think. (Notice the mixed metaphors.)

But writing allows me to parse it and often I am surprised and that may be the best: where the hell did that come from or I didn’t know I thought that way or I didn’t remember that. Discovery is critical in creative writing.

It’s revelatory for me to go through the process and since I write mostly to see what I can find out about myself and my space on planet Earth, if I thrash about from time to time, that’s okay.

And often, I’m like a rabbit shivering beneath a bush with a golden eagle looking down on me. Then I wonder if that unease isn’t a moment that needs to be investigated, too. An opportunity to get at a slim truth, not necessarily facts, but something more subtle and alarming. An opportunity to uncover an emotional truth, maybe something about the thrill and agony of lust, the thrill and horror of savagery.

Not that I don’t write about other things besides killing and fear and all the emotional detritus associated with war. I compose other stuff, too, including redwood trees poking through the fog reminding me of fishing boat masts, and barred owls and red-shouldered hawks.

On the Oil Patch

I have now or never had any intention of having anything to do with mineral exploitation, so I chose other avenues of earning a living, but in 1983 my boss sent me to the Texas Panhandle to learn about the oil business. He owned some shares in several gas and oil drilling partnerships that were formed as tax avoidance schemes for people who made a lot of money. He wanted me to find out if the wells really existed and if I thought the operators were legitimate.

I ended up in Borger, Texas, with a jelly-muscled, slick-talking Panhandle lawyer and a couple of partnership operators who appeared to be kids (they looked younger than me) who offered me evenings with their two secretaries and veiled promises about wild nights of drinking, drugs and after-hour sexual activities. Those secretaries played along by acting sexually attracted to me but I suspected they had no interest in me other than as a diversion to keep me from bothering my oilfield hosts.

When we went to see the wells in my boss’ partnership, we rode around in a big black, fully tricked out Chevy Suburban. Since I was deemed important, I got to sit shot gun next to the operator’s mouthpiece. The way he spilled out gas and oil well data made me nervous about all my boss’s money. All that oil field info arrived rat-a-tat-tat, way too fast.

Old time oil derricks © Ken Rodgers 2014
Old time oil derricks
© Ken Rodgers 2014

As he went on about the “Booger Town” oil field and rock formations, output per barrel and thousand cubic feet, well maintenance, the best bars in town, which of the secretaries he thought I’d like, I couldn’t keep from wondering how he could afford that Suburban and those $700.00 Lucchese ostrich skin riding boots and those heavy gold chains dangling around his neck and his right wrist.

We drove around the northern Panhandle and looked at geological maps and inspected pump jacks and drank Coors pulled from a big green Coleman ice chest. I think they thought if they kept me tightened up on beer and the promise of wild sex with one of those secretaries I’d tell my boss it was all okay.

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t have told you it was okay or not okay. I had no interest in pump jacks and drill strings and moon pools and ginzels and no interest in being where I was. I told my boss I didn’t trust the jelly-muscled lawyer or the partnership operators and that his investments in the partnerships were bad deals. I wanted no part of the oil and gas business.

I still feel the same way about oil. So it was with some surprise to be traveling on California Highway 33 up toward the Salinas Valley from Southern California when Betty and I happened upon the oil patch town of Taft.

The oil field at Taft. © Ken Rodgers 2014
The oil field at Taft.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

What a shock to see all those drill rigs and pump jacks and pipe lines and old derricks etching a fetching skyline in the drab landscape. Something about that drew me. It’s ugly and it’s polluting and it’s poisonous, and I liked the way the detritus of exploitation created a scene that was…dare I say, beautiful?

You need to understand that for the last twenty years or so I have been fascinated by the junction of the ugly and the beautiful. In my mind, so much of what we have on earth exists in the space where the hideous, the repulsive, the horrid meet the gorgeous. I am not interested in oil or the petroleum business, but the visual scene and the irony of the fetching images grabbed me.

black and white image of Taft oil field. © Ken Rodgers 2014
black and white image of Taft oil field.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

So we stopped and took photos of derricks and pump jacks and the gray hills behind. We were so damned fascinated by the place that we went back two weeks later and took more photos.

When we took photos of the remnants of the world’s largest oil spill that occurred back around 1910, we were warned by an oil field worker about inhaling the oil field’s rotten egg gas—the H2S—like we used to create in high school chemistry class. He also told us that if we came in contact with some miniscule number of H2S particles we’d be “done for.” I didn’t believe him when he told us it would kill us. I looked it up and yes, it can kill you and we breathed some of it. While there we found out that the oilfield workers wear H2S warning devices on their caps and hard hats. Obviously, we weren’t exposed to enough gas to damage us. Nevertheless, both days we were in Taft, there was bad stuff floating around that oil patch, not just H2S, but other junk emitted from the wells and the entire oil patch industrial hubbub that gets trapped in the Central Valley’s endemic, low hanging fog.

All my life I’ve lived in a world that is petroleum fueled and not just in the transportation area. Look at plastic. We get plastic, and a lot of other things, from gas and oil. For centuries the world ran on foot power and animal power and water power and wind power. But now we are in love with petroleum.

And I suspect it is not doing the world we live in any good. I’m in favor of hydropower and wind power and solar power and anything else we can use to reduce petroleum use. But then I think, yeah, I am against a petroleum-powered world, but hey, I drive a car. I drive our car thirty thousand miles a year. It gets pretty good mileage, but still, I’m guilty as hell.

I might go for an all-electric car, but every time I plugged it in, I’d be consuming energy that came from where? Petroleum? We humans are now consumers, not savers. Every bit of petroleum not consumed will be replaced by some other kind of energy. When we conserve, we don’t cut back on demand, we just find more things to do with what was saved. Whatever replaces petroleum will not be as clean as we think. There will be unexpected, negative ramifications. Like I said, we are consumers and as time marches on we will consume more and more to fuel our technology and our demand.

Remnants of the 1910 oil spill at Taft © Ken Rodgers
Remnants of the 1910 oil spill at Taft
© Ken Rodgers

Anyway, as Betty and I were taking all those photos, I was thinking about drilling rigs and moon pools and the slick-voiced peddlers from the Panhandle. I was also thinking about how much we drive our Honda CRV and how we keep our house warm and the gas we use to cook our tacos. My environmentalist side was chiding me for being a petroleum hypocrite. Yep, I’m a petroleum hypocrite, that’s what I am.

But, like I say, those black pump jacks against those drab gray hills, and the sand in the ravines, and the white clouds in the blue sky make mighty fine photos in my estimation.

Besides, we need to get somewhere.

Hog Butcher, Stacker of Wheat

Chicago

“The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”

Nelson Algren

The El © Ken Rodgers 2014

Chicago is a muscled-up version of Denver or Phoenix. Brassy and confident, the streets alive with jive and new suits and Teslas and glassy buildings that scratch the edge of the sky.

Among other big league teams, Chicago’s Cubs play here and their fans are raucous and wear blue hats and shirts with big red Cs. The El loops around this brawny town and the rumble and crank of wheels on its seasoned tracks, the moan of its superstructures, roll on all night.

Wrigley Field. Home of the Cubs. © Betty Rodgers 2014

From the Art Institute the works of Van Gogh and Monet and El Greco and Chagall shout out for the home folks and the tourists to tread before the museum walls adorned by some of the finest art in the world. A location where museums reside, Chicago plays host to the sublime and other more mordant things, museums that record the art of war and the memory of war.

View From Inside the Pritzker Military Museum & Library © Ken Rodgers 2014

Down the canyons of Jackson and Monroe, the wind rises off Lake Michigan and buffets as you stop and gawk at the line queued up at Dunkin Donuts. Chicago native Lou Rawls sang about the winds of Chicago. He called the wind, “The Hawk,” and at dawn The Hawk swoops down and cools the seething streets.

Lake Michigan © Ken Rodgers 2014

And the food: Italian, German, Asian…the list is long.

Say New York? Chicago yawns. Say LA, Chicago laughs. Say London, Chicago shrugs its industrial shoulders.

We shared meals and sightseeing with new friends and old: the writers and artists, Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan; our old Cowboy Poetry pal Michael Lawson all the way from the Monterey, California region; tenor Don Hovey, Betty’s four decade friend; my Jarhead mate Michael E. O’Hara.

A Chicago Canyon © Ken Rodgers 2014

Carl Sandburg, 20th Century Pultizer Prize winning author and Illinois native, called Chicago a hog butcher and a toolmaker and a stacker of wheat. And Chicago is still those things and a lot more. He’s a capitol city: Capitol of the Midwest. He’s an educator and an entertainer, he’s a high tech maven, he’s Chicago.

Let me end this paean to the Windy City with more Sandburg.

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse,
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!

For those of you interested in reading fiction, I have begun posting short-short stories on this website. If you are interested in reading them, you can find them at https://kennethrodgers.com/flash-fiction/.

Endless Autumn

I was reared in the deserts of southern Arizona and the fall of the year was like most of the year. Dry and dusty. And it could be hot, too. So when I heard people gasp and praise the colors of New England or the vast aspen groves of the Wasatch chain, it did little to stir my innards. I looked at photos and yes, the reds and oranges, yellows and golds, russets all were pretty but little did I understand how those colors in real life could rivet your eyes to the serrated edges of leaves, the black of ash tree branches hiding behind the bright gold of the leaves, the shimmer of the blood red aspen leaves ringing high New Mexican meadows.

Garden Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

And yes, I did live in New Mexico and there I became aware of the acres and acres of aspen that grew in the cold spots of the Sacramento Mountains. Some years the autumn reds and golds blazed, and some years not. Some Septembers the rains came in phalanxes of black and gray and tormented the leaf peepers from the desert climes of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Those years the leaves immediately went from green to a wan yellow pocked with dark spots and quickly to dull black. A wet mess that instead of drifting in a brisk breeze like flags on top of an alpine bed and breakfast, fell splat in damp blankets that pasted the ground beneath the trees.

I’ve lived almost all of my life in the west and I’ve seen the best the west has to offer in terms of fall color, so when people say that Ruidoso or Taos or Heber City or Squaw Valley rival the colors of New England I am here to tell you that generally speaking, those folks are hyping real estate or some other reason to get you to come to their country. The hills of Maine and Vermont and New Hampshire are without a doubt one of the most outstanding places to be when the maples show their flashy—yes, I think I can say—their brazen petticoats of autumn. When I say outstanding, I mean in the world, the planet, the universe as we know it from our tiny point of view.

Aspen, Wood River Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But…but, there is often a but…this year, 2013 in the western United States, from my vantage point, has to be one of the most amazing years for color that I’ve ever seen…maybe the most amazing, and this includes the autumns of New England.

Betty and I were in Garden Valley, Idaho, for the initial turn of the aspen, and then in the Wood River Valley, and the Stanley Basin of Idaho. And the colors rose up off the leaves and glared at me as if I was being inspected by the trees and I must say, it made me feel small, made me feel wanting, and that feeling was followed by an exhilaration that was mindful of balloons rising in the fall of the year over Albuquerque.

By way of a caveat, I will say that one of the things that made the 2013 colors of autumn in Idaho so outstanding was the contrast between the blaze of tints and the harsh sage brush and cheat grass land surrounding the rivers and creeks and seeps that snake down the mountains, hills and valleys of Idaho. And it wasn’t just aspen and cottonwoods and maples and ash trees that seemed to glow in the brisk, sunny light, it was the riparian willows turned to red and gold as they defined where water runs in this arid land.

Salmon River Country, Stanley Basin, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But of course, the colors of autumn are ephemeral and leave us too soon, and leave us, too, with the sad knowledge that winter lurks in the near future.

But as Idaho’s autumn tints began to dim, Betty and I went south and found the colors just starting to show in Nevada, like huge surprises, the cottonwoods on the Truckee River as it meandered off the Sierra Nevada into the sinkholes of Central Nevada, and up and up over the top at Donner and down into the Sacramento River Valley, the colors less aggressive, still with a benign green that promised an autumn to arrive real soon, in the week, the weeks coming…and just for a moment I hoped for an endless autumn.

Donner Lake, Sierra Nevada, California Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But there are no endless autumns. Autumn to me parallels the period of my life that I now inhabit. An autumn where the colors are so vibrant they leave me searching for the meaning of beauty, where the days are brisk and drive energy into tired bones. And the sadness that comes as you understand that what is to come will be more like the rubbed-raw blast of winter.

On Film Versus Digital

Betty and I are off venturing in the foothills of Northern California on the beginning of another screening tour. One of the things we like best about traveling like this is how we get to see so much of the US that we might not be able to visit otherwise. We get to meet people we probably would never have met. We get to shoot video and take photographs. We get to SEE.

The last few days we’ve conducted a prolonged and detailed discussion about film and video and photography, something we seem to do a lot. Each of us is toting around multiple cameras and we have been taking in and recording what we have discovered. Beside our screenings, paramount on the agenda have been a couple of days shooting photos in the Mono Lake Basin and Yosemite country. We are old travelers in this part of the world but remain amazed and hypnotized by nature’s variety. Tufa tubes like soft, crumbling teeth, and new aspen leaves the color of Bearss limes, snowy peaks far above the tree line, ice on the high meadow tarns, spots of dirty snow (it’s a dry year here and the portents are for FIRE).

Tufa at Mono Lake in Sketch Mode on Samsung, Camera 360. Copyriught Ken Rodgers, 2013

On Wednesday, Mono Lake wore a variety of hues, some like high mountain lakes in Idaho, some reminding me of the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Majorca in the channel between Isla Dragonera and the fishing village of Sant Elm. Besides dental imagery, the tufa formations reminded me of hoodoos in the south of Utah and as Betty says, the ancient remains of Roman villas on the west coast of Italy.

In Yosemite, the moisture content is dangerously low and the threat of fire will hang over the Sierra until major rain/snow shows up and drops heavy doses of relief. Despite the lack of snow, the meadows are the color of fresh mornings and the waterfalls thunder and thump, throwing echoes into the walls of the canyons.

Some of the conflict between film photography and digital photography just got resolved around our outfit. We used to shoot film. Then we put our old Pentax K1000 film cameras away with all the lenses and the accoutrements of a past artistic age and moved on to digital cameras which we have to upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade because the ones we own right now just…they just don’t….they just can’t…we don’t like….

We got our K1000s reworked, renewed; bought some film…yes it still exists…and we’ve been taking photos of the country with our new old cameras. Black and white film is our milieu and that means it is about form and shape and shades of gray. It’s also about planning the shot, thinking of aperture and shutter speed and light, things that you think of too with digital, but film is finite in a number of ways—how many shots on a roll, how much they cost—not like digital where you just throw away what you don’t like at no apparent cost, although I suspect that with the act of shooting a photo there is a cost in time and effort and something more that cannot be regained, something about artistic moments lost and never again showing up. Because each moment, each shadow, each glint of light on a distant piece of quartz, the osprey pair on the tufa formations, the coyote at Glacier Point, the mule deer in Yosemite Valley, all these things in composite will not occur again, just the same way, in our short lives. Too, with film there is something very satisfying about the sound of the film advancing and the click the shutter makes when you take that photo. Digital doesn’t do that although they try to make the cameras so that they might sound that way. But it is not the same.

Half Dome shot with Samsung cell phone, Camera 360, Picsart, Snapseed and Aviary apps. Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013.

We still shoot digital too, and especially if the scene, like Half Dome over the rush of Merced River rapids, is about the vibrant colors of May in the mountains, yellows and greens and blues, not black and white and gray. We use our cell phones too and shoot both still and video. Hopefully we will look at what we have created as not just shooting photos for the act of shooting photos, but shooting photos for the aesthetic. For what it means, whether black and white or red and blue, or digital or film or….

Remembering Cam Cunningham

This is the season of remembrance and I suppose as we get older we can expect our opportunities to mourn and grieve to line up and bang at our metaphorical portals. This one is a bit tardy, but nevertheless, I choose to now write my remembrances.

Last summer Betty and I were traveling in the east when our friend Cam Cunningham died. We were far from northern California when his memorial celebration occurred, and even though I was sad, and am sad, I missed it. But in some ways I am also relieved that I was in Nova Scotia. Something about good-byes, especially final good-byes, bothers me to the point that I tend to elude them. Maybe what I do is elide. Elide in the sense that I slide around them, keep them at arms length if they must happen.

In some ways Cam and I were very different. I was one of the two or three resident rednecks of Sebastopol, California, and more than once he described himself to me as an Anarcho-Marxist. In terms of war, economy, history, we saw things very differently.

But we also had many things in common…more in common than we had in opposition. I first met Cam in a poetry class. I think it was the fall of 1995. He came into the classroom, a tall, long-haired man with a booming voice and a Texas drawl. He announced he planned to become a poet. Over the course of five weeks we found out, besides our differences, we shared some parallel experiences. When he was young, he’d hunted dove and quail, like I used to do. He was from the southwest and had lived and lawyered on the Navajo Reservation. I had not lived there, but I’d spent a chunk of the summer of 1963 on the res. We’d both been caught up in the craziness of the 1960s. We’d both been victims of ourselves…substance abuse and other personal disturbances. We both liked blues music. We both liked poetry. We talked football and baseball. We talked about the oil field and cowboys and….

Over the course of the next five years, I bumped into Cam a number of times, at street fairs and art shows…besides a poet, he was a painter.

In 2001, Cam became a student of mine. We worked on poetry together. He wrote and wrote, putting out copious amounts of poetry, musical things with snare drum rhythms and a voice often trapped between Baptist fundamentalism and Delta blues. His poems roughed you up at the same time as giving you a glimpse of the spiritual; a native mask, a prickly pear cactus, a bottle of Mescal, a stumble down a south Texas street, a native god sitting on a fence post both smiling and frowning at you. As my wife Betty says, “Cam was the closest thing to Magical Realism that I know.” When Cam wrote, your shoe soles were firmly on the ground while simultaneously bouncing along atop a Navajo country thunderhead. He also composed pieces that investigated how one segment of humanity tromps on another. He was blantantly political and irreverent while still remaining spiritual. Sometimes he would actually sing his poems and his voice would soar over the audience and lift the rafters. Cam could warble…he had a powerful baritone voice that was as familiar with scat as it was with old time rock and roll…way-back stuff, like Carl Perkins songs, and Elvis, and Johnny Cash. I really liked when he mixed spiritual-style music with the lyrics he composed. Made for some sweet hearing on my part. It wasn’t unusual to have him break out in song in any location, in the park, in a coffee shop, in class; something I had heard when my older sister played her little radio, like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Tiny Bradshaw.

By 2005 I’d moved on to Idaho and he and I had become pretty good buddies. He’d been to see me. I’d gone to see him; had lunch with him fairly often at K & L Bistro where we both enjoyed juicy cheeseburgers of the highest quality. Then…Cam got sick. And even though I thought of him everyday, I stayed away. We got fairly regular reports about his progress…it didn’t sound good.

Finally, Betty and I went to visit Cam at his home up on the ridge where you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Wind blew in the gum trees along the road. Cats sat on the deck and lounged around like nothing could be wrong. Cam sat trapped in a wheelchair and his appearance frightened me. Not for who he was, I think, but for a vision into what I will become one day. Sick and leaving this existence. He reminded me of a cadaver, a really old man, except for his eyes and the way he sat in that wheelchair, ramrod straight. Cam’s face had always been so alive and animated that I had never noticed the power in his eyes. Even in a weakened condition, those eyes reminded me of chunks of burning mesquite in a campfire. Orange and blue flame sizzling, and his mind too. Not much gone wrong on that end at all.

Of course we talked about a lot of things, one of them being the future and us…and when I left, I wondered if I’d see him again.

I didn’t, because he died not long after.

But I’m still thinking about him every day.

On School

Last weekend Betty and I spent our Saturday and Sunday in a classroom for nine hour days to learn more about making movies. And we are taking a regular college class at Boise State on how to become film producers, this after having produced a film.

Sitting in the classroom, I thought about class and school. More than once in my life I vowed I was through with it. When Mrs. L made me sit in the corner for blacking M’s eye in the fifth grade and when Mr. N popped me on the ass with his special-made paddle with the holes drilled in it when he heard me use an expletive or when I got kicked out of high school for a day-and-a-half when I was a senior because I wouldn’t tuck my shirttail in, I swore I would blow off school as soon as I could.

It took me thirteen years to complete the requirements for my BS in Business Admin and more than once on that journey, I quit Arizona State University in disgust, cussing dumb professors who didn’t have a clue about the real world. Intermittently, I joined the Marine Corps, I got a job, I got married.

And after getting my MFA at 53, I said that was probably it. But it wasn’t, and here I am again, jamming up my life, hanging with kids young enough to be my grandchildren, learning from them about a life I never could have imagined back in 1965 when I escaped good old Casa Grande Union High School.

The essence of education is my ability to sponge up energy…creative and intellectual energy…from those I am around. Faculty, students, you name it, all have something I want, and I try to see if I can absorb it. Often I can’t articulate what it is I am after, like air, it’s just out there, waiting for me to inhale.

If I think back on it, I can see all kinds of things I’ve learned in life from the formal and semi-formal education process:
How to see Dick and Jane run, how to shoot a rifle, a shotgun, how to take the part of a clown in a Shakespeare play, how to use a compass, complete a balance sheet, use a dictionary, compose in Latin, read Italian, understand the relationship between hydrogen and helium, how to drive a tractor, how to throw a grenade, how to scan a line of poetry, how to judge the liberal nature of John Stewart Mill…on and on. Classes about how to bust up anti-war demonstrations and how to properly cuff an AWOL sailor, how to niche Chesty Puller into the mythology of the Marine Corps, how to set up a special interest political party, how to understand what causes the weather, how to write a good short story, how to artificially inseminate a cow. And now, learning about how to run a movie set, break down a script, shoot a scene, put together a proposal seeking half a million dollars so Betty and I can make another documentary film.

It makes me chuckle and then shudder when I compare that with grenade-throwing class. Standing in a hole at Camp Pendelton, the mist still hanging on the oak-crowned hills to the north, a grenade in the right hand, an instructor behind me. My heart pounding like an oil pump gone berserk. His words, not the least bit soothing. My worries; am I going to kill someone? Kill me?

Quite a range of things I’ve learned in school. And it isn’t over yet. I’ll still be swearing off classrooms when I’m ninety.

On a different subject, Betty and I are off to California for private screenings of our feature length documentary film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. I will be blogging about the experience as we move through the next two weeks.

Handful

This week essayist and guest blogger Susan Bono muses on handfuls.

The first time I got pregnant, I hoped for a girl. I knew nothing about babies and everyone said girls were easier. Three years later, when a sonogram revealed a second son, I had to grieve the daughter I would never have, but I’d gotten over my fear of boys. Babies were just a lot of work, period.

But when my sons were little, it was always, “Oh, you have two boys. You must have your hands full!” Every mother I knew was exhausted and on the verge of madness, but this comment suggested that because I had boys, my situation was more dire. Did everyone assume I spent my days chasing after grubby little imps, trying to get them to stop bashing other children, teasing dogs, and running into traffic? I knew plenty of little girls who were more willful, more restless than my sons. In the baby play group that constituted my social life in those early years, there were biters and tantrummers, but none of them were boys.

There was no use arguing with people. Whenever I tried to point out how my oldest son in particular was as sweet and cooperative as they come, the looks from my sympathizers changed from conspiratorial geniality to pity and suspicion, as if delinquent behavior was the only sure sign of health in a boy. If my gentle sons weren’t born aberrant, although such a defect was highly likely, bad mothering had perverted their natural tendencies toward savagery and violence.

No one ever warned me that teenaged boys might be capable of self-restraint. Along with the “hands full” comment, I invariably heard, “They must be eating you out of house and home!” The pride with which people listed the quantities of snack foods and dairy products their sons put away made me feel like a failure. In reality, most of the cookies, chips and large second helpings consumed in our household could be traced to me or my husband. I always worried that my kids were eating other mothers out of house and home and revealing their hideous lack of judgment in places they could really be themselves.

Despite everyone’s predictions, the oldest moved judiciously through his so-called partying years with a group of reasonably sensible friends. The youngest preferred hanging out at home. Whatever unlawful or dangerous adventures I worried about them having (thinking all the while of my own misspent youth), I never had to experience one of those terrifying middle of the night phone calls or the defiance all mothers of sons get automatic credit for. I was always braced for disaster, vacillating between relief and the feeling I was missing something, but in the end, my parents were the ones to pay me back by pulling more scary stunts in their final years than my sons ever did as teenagers.

Now that my boys are in their twenties, I’ve come to understand that children will confound you on levels you can’t possibly anticipate. My parents were unprepared for the explosion of sex, drugs and social unrest that drove their children’s choices in the ‘70s. I, in turn, still can’t get over the fact that “hippie” is a dirty word in my kids’ vocabularies. Instead of beseeching my youngest to be more careful during his teen years, I am goading him into taking more risks now that he is an adult. My husband and I are even in counseling to find ways to get our baby bird to fledge. For all I know, he’ll wind up joining the police force or the military and become the kind of son everyone told me to expect. With children, you always have your hands full, but of what is anybody’s guess.

Susan Bono is a writing teacher and freelance editor living in Petaluma, CA. She founded Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative in 1995, and its online counterpart, www.tiny-lights.com, shortly thereafter. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Sheila Bender’s Writing & Publishing Personal Essays, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, and Passager Magazine. Lately, she’s been doing more cupboard cleaning than writing, but finds time to write a postcard a day.

Vernal Equinox

Last Sunday, when the equinox bumped into Boise, Idaho, the wind scattered last fall’s leaves around and around the patio. Sullen clouds in both the east and west grayed the day as the full moon reveled in its gravitational attachment to earth, or so I imagined. Betty and I ventured out and tried to capture on camera this “supermoon” but haze and clouds obscured our moment. Like some kind of super moment, I thought, or wished, a marriage of moon and season, but actually it was just another advent of spring.

 Most people I know like fall of the year best, but I think I am partial to spring. In Idaho, I definitely believe it is the best time of year. Southern Idaho is a harsh landscape to the eye, anyway, but now the grass will green and the hills will take on an ephemeral, emerald hue. In northern California, where Betty and I just visited, spring was erupting in greens and yellows. Like blares of horns announcing a new symphony, they showed up along the roads, in the meadows, in the marshes, in the vineyards, and the apple orchards. Yellow and green mixed with dabbles of fruiting-tree blossoms painted pink, and lavender and white.

When Betty and I lived in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, lambasting snowstorms roared in during spring. Twenty inches on the first day of April, and later in some years, and you would think that spring would never arrive. But when it did, the grass’s music rang as true as any tune out of the beaks of mountain bluebirds, and the pollen of Douglas fir scattered over the land like Moses’ manna, a dusky gold that blanketed cars, roads, patches of ice, the ferns that struggled to recover from a cold winter.

In Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, spring, if any amount of rain showed up, would turn the sand and powdered caliche a short-lived green, peppered orange and purple with Indian wheat and filaree and six-weeks fescue, pink-eye weed, poppies and lupine with buds as big as the end of your thumb. Spring is a strange time in the Sonoran Desert, but balances on a short span of time caught between a winter, which many places call summer, and a summer which Dante might have imagined while penning The Inferno. I recall going to work one April morning at 4:30 under a clear, starlit sky. I rolled down the window and rain drops blew in. A storm front thirty miles away announced its life-giving arrival. In the star-spangled sky I was seeing Lynx and Leo, Canis Major while tasting the pure dew of raindrops on my tongue. The anomaly shocked me into understanding how the things we think are opposites are really just parts of the whole. 

In Vietnam, where I spent two springs, the first was wet and hot and delivered doses of heat prostration, leeches and bamboo vipers; the song of the AK-47 rang out, too. But lucky for me, the song was just slightly out of tune. My second spring was cold and wet—fog and mist and fog and mist and rain, rain, rain, and the song of napalm and M-16—death and decaying flesh’s stench were the only flowers I noticed in 1968. If beauty existed, I don’t recollect it. The only beauty I saw that spring was the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro when my plane landed in California, where it was ….green, green, green.

Back here in Boise, the starlings seem to be a harbinger of spring. Three weeks ago they arrived in my back yard, black bodies in late winter plumage, speckled with yellow and hints of red and indigo. They strutted around in my grass and then got on line like Marines policing the parade ground. They goose-stepped across from end to end, probing and gleaning I don’t know what…worms, larva? It’s gotten to be a ritual here: every year, just around the turn of spring, they show up, front yard and back, c leaning up whatever it is they clean up.

Last spring robins nested in the crook between a rain gutter, an eave and the corner of our house. That little drama went on for several months.  We photographed the three blue eggs, the nestlings dressed in their voracious voices, their first flights crashing on the ground; rising, then falling, then rising and flitting like tunes on an iPod over to the ash tree in the corner of the yard.

Once, in an earlier spring, Betty lay on the couch listening to robins in a neighbor’s pine tree. The young ones were raising a ruckus with their constant ravings for more food. But a raven barged in and gobbled them up. You could hear mom and pop robin as they shrieked for what…. for help, or to scare the raven away? I don’t know. Whatever their goal, it was futile. I watched it all transpire as Betty put her hands over her ears to defeat the dissonance.

This bird world is a nasty place sometimes—spring, summer, winter, fall—but not unlike our own world (and I mean that in the sense of our own ken). I suspect the drama of birds reflects the drama of our own existence, without the BMW or the HD TV, but still it reflects, emulates; birth, life, nurturing and death. Winter and spring.

Traffic

For twelve days over the last two weeks, Betty and I crisscrossed parts of northern California visiting family, old friends, new friends, birthday partying, reading poems, looking at art and working on our movie. Since we moved from the region in 2005, some things have not changed. One of the most obvious is the traffic.

During rush hours commuter cars jostle and crawl like ancient beetles thronged on a lemming-like quest. Horns honk, brakes squeak, plastic lids to coffee bought at Starbucks fly out windows and careen around like flying saucers. There are cell phones jammed up against ear lobes even though it’s against the law to jabber on those things while driving. People shoot you the finger and stick out their tongues and flap their arms like great speckled birds turned angry at intervening species who alter a migratory flight plan. Ouch, it’s California.

And it’s not just California; it’s Detroit and Denver and Phoenix, oh my, it’s definitely Phoenix, it’s D C. Even little old Boise has its moments acting like its big sisters surrounded by the claws of suburbanism, choking the roads at 7 A M and 4 P M.

But California is like a big winter freeze at those hours, every little bump and grind on the freeway causing people to slam on the brakes in fear? Shock? They gawk and brake lights rule the day the way they blare. Bright red eruptions like the hints of death and maiming that lurk beneath the tires and the hedgerows of nerium oleader that choke the roadsides.

In Sonoma County the roads are either battered like last year’s black-necked stilt nest or are under renovation in a decades late acquiescence that there are more cars than roads. All the 15 years Betty and I domiciled in Sonoma County, we railed about the inadequate roads. My northern California friends cooly reminded me that better roads, more roads, brought more people. I felt as if I was a seer lost in the wilderness as I saw the county grow and swell with folk as the roads stayed static. Like air corridors in the Pacific flyway crammed with geese and passerines, the early morning rides of forty miles often took two hours. Ditto at nightfall and of course all that rapid-fire brake light mania. The roads didn’t grow at all but the population did. Everyone looking for the cheaper, securer nest.

Between the Sierra foothills and Sacramento, four lanes wide, rarely does anyone move along in the HOV lane. Car after car after car with only one occupant. If I had to hazard a thirty-mile drive five days a week into the mouth of that monster, I think I’d find someone who wanted to ride with me. Save money, save time. But we are curious creatures , us Yanks, with our desires…no, our demands…to keep our flimsy independence in tow. As if sitting single behind the wheel of the car is the best way to manifest our independence.

But then again, don’t get me wrong, I love to drive, and will do so even in the teeth of evidence that flight or rail makes more sense. Like my fellow road warriors, don’t tell me what to do.

And driving does have its joys. Discovery, discovery, discovery. Mossy oaks on a spiny ridge, redwoods creating a cathedral over the road, a glimpse of the Pacific behind a spray of mustard colored gorse. A wild, four-wheel-drive slide down the cold side, boring through snow banks. A herd of three hundred elk, thundering across a frost-covered sage brush flat. Spires of Saguaro cacti raised to the sun in supplication. Once, back in 1985, Betty and I were on our way from Sacramento to Salt Lake. At one of the big I-80 bends between Lovelock and Winnemucca, a herd of wild horses  frolicked in the cold eye of a February noon. Black clouds hovered to the north. The herd threw a high column of dust behind that got caught in a southeaster and trailed out behind. They were colored funky, white and brown and black and kicked up their fetlocks as they ran, ran, ran across the sagebrush plain. As I watched them something inside me got up and somersaulted and for just a moment I understood some things about horse, horse and man, and their long and strangled and joyous relationship. But now I cannot articulate what I understood then.

Now back on the road to anywhere from Sacramento at 4 P M, the light rain creates an added hazard and magnifies the eruptions of the brake lights. They remind me of howitzer reports hammering a monsoon afternoon. (Nothing escapes my memories of war, and so my metaphor veers like mourning dove on the first day of hunting season.) Blare, bash, kazoom, crash. Traffic.