Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Young Man at Play in the Surf With His Sons



"If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts..."

--  Counting Crows, "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby"

________________


Several years ago my brothers and I decided to finally do something with all of our family's old Super-8 home movies that had been gathering dust for years. And so--as dutiful sons--we collected all of them and sent them off to be transferred to videocassette-tape to give as a present to our parents for Christmas.

[Aside: And, yes, I realize that I've just created early on in this piece a generational split with my references to such things as ludicrously archaic as "Super-8 home movies" and "videocassette-tape," so my best advice to any younger readers out there at this point would be to simply follow along, and to nod as if in knowing agreement, and to accept the fact that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, and to go along with me for however long it takes to read this essay--which is, in itself (interestingly enough) an exercise in memory and in nostalgia and in the way the past has its own way of sneaking up behind you.]

Now, I don't mean to make my childhood out to be anything other than what it was (which was pretty wonderful, all things considered), and I certainly don't mean to make it sound like one of those Horatio Alger type of "hard-luck, rags-to-riches" stories that everyone's heard ad nauseum. My growing up wasn't anything like that by any accounts. In fact, anyone who may know me or my brothers knows that ours was hardly a "scrabbling-for-scraps-under-the table" type of story.

[Aside: To be even more direct, I suppose, all it takes these days is to take one look at the four of us--in all of our "going-gray-at-the-temples-and-slowly-receding-hairlines-and-forty-year-old-disappearing-waistlines" glory--and you can pretty much tell, almost immediately, that there was never any such thing as "the lean years." But perhaps I digress....]

Growing up, one thing my brothers and I never seemed to go without, it seemed, was my dad's old Super-8 movie camera. Even though I couldn't say with any certainty today how much a little movie camera like that would have cost some forty-odd years ago, I can certainly say without a doubt that my father got his money's worth out of the thing.

Nowadays, of course, I thank my parents for their foresight in wanting to take so many home movies and to preserve the family's history on old 8-mm film. But I have to admit that at the time this important stock of film was being "documented," it wasn't much fun. Part of this could be blamed, I guess, on the huge lamp that hooked to the camera's side and that cast an intensely weird and ethereal glow over everything.

I'm not sure of this lamp's actual purpose, to be honest, other than to create shadows that Edward Hopper would have been proud of, as well as to create an almost hypnotized and agonized look on the faces of those caught in its beam. In the old home movies, we all end up looking like scared POWs as the interrogation light sweeps across the room, searching for its latest victim. I'm not sure of the actual wattage of this lamp, but I wouldn't be surprised if it could have been used in a lighthouse somewhere in upper Maine. This thing was like getting an X-ray. And God forbid you were ever foolish enough to look directly into the camera. The glow from this Klieg light could leave you seeing spots in your eyes for days. And I haven't even mentioned yet the heat this thing put off. That's what most of my family's old home movies are, really, just hours and hours of assorted people dressed in bad '70s fashions, squinting into the harsh glare of the light, and sweating.

It's very attractive.

Truth be told, most of our old home movies are made up of the kind of nonsense only a family can truly appreciate, I suppose. There are literally hours of birthday celebrations, and Christmas mornings buried beneath lights and bright wrapping paper, and wheat harvests, and sledding in the snow, and endless games of backyard football, with my brothers and me running tirelessly back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth...

Noticeably absent from most of these scenes, however, is my father, who usually was given the thankless task of filming. But even though you don't see him, you can still feel his presence, I think, in the careful, steady, and focused hand he used to hold the camera. In that way, Dad is in practically every frame of film.

Dad was always there.

He was there in the bleachers at every basketball game. He was there at home football games, sitting up in his usual spot in the announcer's booth, running the clock. He was there at track meets, whether home or away--no matter the distance or the far drive--to cheer on his sons as they ran the open-quarter, or threw the shot put, and the javelin, and the discus. He was there at school music performances, and plays, and birthdays, and graduations, and weddings, and baptisms of his grandchildren.

Dad was just always there.

Now, in an attempt to put as much cloying sentimentality as possible to the side, I'm going to admit (as every son possibly could about his father) that while Dad's presence was much appreciated when growing up--his loving and unconditional support always welcomed--there were times when, perhaps, his presence was just a bit too much.

I'm thinking, maybe, of a time when I was a young boy, sitting at the kitchen table, my homework strewn before me, a third-grader struggling to understand the vast complexities of long-division. And who should happen along at this particular time but my dad--the clear-minded farmer; the high school math teacher and wrestling coach and cross-country coach; the man whose patience was almost always unpredictable and very often legendarily short. As my father pulled out a chair next to mine at the kitchen table and sat down to "help" me with my math homework, the last rational thought I remember passing through  my 8-year-old mind at that point was: "This is not going to be fun."

And I was right.

Though the last thing I wanted to do was to make a mistake with my math and to thereby call down the full wrath of Dad, sure enough, try as I might, sooner rather than later, I was inevitably bound to screw up. And so of course I did.

As I recall (to make a long story as short as possible) that day ended with me in tears upstairs in my room, wondering why in the world my dad had to be the way he was, and swearing that he was impossible and that I would never understand him (feelings not uncommon, at some point, between most fathers and sons, I would imagine).

And undeniably this scene would play itself out between my dad and me in countless ways over the years. Most particularly this strained and difficult sort of relationship was seen in the countless harvest fields throughout the years of my growing up. In the early days when I was first learning to drive a tractor--with  me (slightly nervous and anxious) at the wheel of the grain cart, and Dad, smoothly and effortlessly directing the combine--it could very often, at times, turn into a comedy of errors. Unfortunately, however, Dad very rarely saw the humor in it at the time. But in my defense, I must say that though my dad was brilliant in a lot of things, giving clear hand signals was not one of those things. There is a reason, I'm convinced, why he never coached baseball. And try as I might, when I was a young boy learning to drive a tractor in the harvest field under my father's strict tutelage, I could never--for the life of me--understand what in the hell he was trying to tell me with his hands. And I know, just as sure as I'm writing this now, that he could never understand why I couldn't understand him.

[Aside: It was my math homework all over again.]

As he effortlessly drove the combine next to me, with the golden flow of grain emptying from its bin and spilling into the back of my cart, I had a clear view of Dad behind the glass windows of the combine's cab, waving his hands, desperate to tell me...something. And as his frustration mounted, the hand signals grew wilder and more agitated. And I could feel the front of my shirt quivering in time to my ever-increasing heartbeat.

And though the last thing I wanted to do was to make a mistake at the tractor's controls and to thereby call down the full wrath of Dad, sure enough, try as I might, sooner rather than later, I was inevitably bound to screw up. And so I did. And grain would be spilled on the ground. And the combine would stop. And the grain cart would stop. And Dad would step out of the combine's cab and push his hat back on his head and stomp his foot once and curse a little and grow red in the face and climb down the stepladder and then walk behind the stalled machines to a small spot in the field of stubble where a little mound of wheat--unnoticeable to most eyes--would mark the scene of the accident. And he would kneel and reverently--almost tenderly--scoop the spilled grain into the palms of his calloused, work-stained hands. And he would throw the spilled kernels into the back of the grain cart, everything accounted for and in its place and nothing left to waste.

My dad was always there. Steady, dependable, sometimes unpredictable, and yet always reliable. He was there to teach us how to ride a bicycle. And how to tie a necktie. He was there to teach us wrestling holds, and how to shave, and how to plant a tree. He was there to help us move away from home when the time came, and to see us started on our own lives. And he was there to take us back in, should the need ever arise. He was there to teach us the simple joy that could be found in loving a loyal and faithful dog. He was there to wait with us in hospital rooms and in airports. He was there to help us buy our first car, and to support us financially when we needed help, or to give us emotional strength when he sensed we needed it. And toward the end of his life--his once-vigorous body and mind slowly falling prey to the steady and inexorable onslaught of Alzheimer's--my dad was there to teach us, and re-teach us, the old Vince Lombardi maxim that it doesn't matter how many times you get knocked down--because you will get knocked down--what matters most is how many times you get back up. He was there to teach us how to be a man and a husband and a father. And to teach us that every grain, every kernel of wheat, is important, and that nothing should be forgotten or left behind or left undone.

And if we had the nerve to watch, my dad was even there to teach us how to die.

[Aside: And he did this all with the same steady hand that he used all those years to hold the movie camera, taking in the pictures of his family, charting and recording our growth in clear focus, so that in years to come we could watch again and learn from him one more time.]

As it turns out, my daughters never really "knew" my dad. Of course they knew the man who was their grandfather, but at the time of his death they were young enough to know only what they saw of him in his decline. And so--no fault of their own--they never really knew the man the way I did. They never got a haircut from him, for example. And they never really saw his smile or heard his laugh. And they never heard him sing, either; Dad had an incredibly soulful tenor voice, and he loved to sing.

[Aside: One of my dad's closest friends from his teaching days, Jerry Hall--band teacher, blind, who interestingly allowed Dad to give him driving lessons one time--said on more than one occasion that my father's voice reminded him of David Clayton-Thomas, the lead singer for the late-1960s fusion-rock band, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. And personally I love that comparison. When my Dad was a young man, he really did sound like that when he sang...]

My daughters love to watch my family's old home movies. And it is from these films that they have been able, in their own way, to learn something about the man I knew as "Dad." For every now and then, when the mood obviously struck him, my father actually handed the camera over to someone else for a moment or two--possibly my mother--to take over the important job of filming.

In one such scene, he is a young man--probably in his late 20s--driving an old, red International tractor, with an infant son standing next to him behind the wheel. There is a chain attached to the back of the tractor, with the other end wrapped firmly around felled trees and large limbs and branches. Dad is pulling them behind, dragging the fallen timber to a nearby burn-pile. He is working. And his son is watching and learning. Dad is a young man in the scene, lean and vibrant and healthy and strong. There is a pipe clenched between his teeth as he casually looks behind him over his shoulder, slipping the tractor once more into gear and easing it slowly forward, pulling its heavy load fully out of frame.

And there is another such scene from my family's sepia-toned home movies, another one of those rare times when my father actually handed the camera over and made an appearance. I don't know what year the film was shot, but I was just a baby, too young to even remember. We were in Houston, visiting my grandfather, and one afternoon we took an outing to the coast, to swim and play in the Gulf of Mexico. The whole family was there (except my younger brother, Dan, who wasn't born yet). One of my older brothers, Darin, is sitting on the beach, stuffing seaweed in his mouth, while my mom rushes to the rescue to stop him from swallowing it.

It's a beautiful day. The gulls are circling about, casting shadows in the sun, and everyone is smiling and laughing and playing in the waves that come rolling in on the beach. And then from out of the corner of the frame walks my dad. He's a young man in the film, probably in his early 20s. His shirt is off. His blue jeans are rolled up to his knees. He is lean and vibrant and healthy and strong. He is a young husband and father, with his whole life spread out before him like the vast, blue ocean he is seeing for the first time. He wades into the water to play with his boys in the surf.

"Who is that, Daddy?" my younger daughter asked me one time when we were watching the old movies together at home. The three of us were on the couch together, both of the girls nestled comfortably under my arms. "Is that you?" she asked, pointing at the lithe, athletic young man on the TV screen.

I looked to where she was pointing, and I smiled down at her. "No, that's not me," I said. "That's your grandpa."

It was my other daughter--the older of the two--to take up the question this time, and the sound of astonishment and delight was hard to hide in her voice. "That's Grandpa?" she asked me.

I looked at both of my daughters, and I smiled. And then I turned back to the old home movie and the faded image of the young man at play in the surf with his sons. "Yes," I said, smiling, fighting back a knot in my throat so they wouldn't hear the faintest catch in my voice. "Yes, honey... That's my dad."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How to Survive a Blizzard


It wasn't as if the storm really snuck up on anyone. Meteorologists and weather-trackers had been talking about it and sending hourly email updates since 5 days before the great "Blizzard of 2011" was even supposed to hit. It was intended to cut a huge swath across the great mid-section of the country, blanketing countless states, shutting down air travel at numerous major airport hubs, and interfering with the normal day-to-day routines of millions of average citizens.

This was to be a big one.

So it's kind of surprising, in a way, that such a storm as this was still able to take so many people by surprise.

But perhaps I digress...

In preparation for the oncoming snow and wind, I scanned my memory for what it was, exactly, that a survivalist would need to make it through such a great and terrible winter storm. According to the news footage I saw on television in the days prior to the blizzard's arrival, it seemed a lot of people were stocking up on practical essentials such as groceries and batteries and snow-blowers and generators and gasoline for said snow-blowers and generators. I ignored such lemming-like instincts and followed, instead, my primal intuition: I filled up my car with gas (although, in hindsight--as it turns out--I wasn't going anywhere) and got $20 from a nearby ATM.

With that, I went home.

Now, it could be that--being something of a movie buff--I've perhaps watched Jeremiah Johnson one too many times. I don't know. But for some reason, I had images flickering through my mind of coming home to chop a pile of wood for both my stove and my fireplace, and to begin growing my beard out long, and to bar the door to my cabin (to keep out the weight of the snow that I knew would obviously pile up to my roof), and to load my Winchester rifle with ammunition to ward off restless bears (whose meat would see me through the long days and weeks of hungry isolation and whose pelts I could wear wrapped around me until I "became one" with the great, wild animal), and to quite basically "hunker down" in good old-fashioned survivalist mode.

*[Aside: A few obvious problems with that theory of course made themselves known rather quickly: 1.) I don't have a wood-burning stove, or a fireplace, or even an axe. 2.) I don't live in a cabin, and even if I did I wouldn't know the proper way to "bar a door" if my life depended on it, and 3.) I don't own a Winchester rifle, and besides, the last time I checked, the closest bears to me are sitting lonely and depressed and safe in their pathetic man-made "environments" at Brookfield Zoo about an hour away. Jeremiah Johnson can basically go fuck himself...]

In keeping with the "fear-culture" news feeds on TV of people frantically clearing the shelves of their local grocery stores and Wal-Marts--doing their 21st-century best to prepare for the inevitable apocalypse so close to their proverbial doorsteps--it was also impossible to ignore an interesting new word being thrown about from one meteorologist after another that (at least to my midwestern ears) had never been heard before.

Thundersnow.

Now, growing up as I did on a farm in the middle of Kansas (a.k.a. "the middle of nowhere"), I'm fairly familiar with what thunder is. I'm also familiar with the concept of snow. But "thundersnow?" Despite the countless meteorologists and their bone-dry attempts to explain this rather rare atmospheric phenomenon, I was at a loss to understand how such a thing as thunder and lightning could coexist with something as radical as a full-blown, head-on, no-holds-barred, whiteout blizzard as was supposedly headed our way.

I had to turn to other sources. I had to look this up while I still had the chance. Fortunately, the storm hadn't hit yet, and so all of the doomsayers who were predicting massive power blackouts in the wake of strong winds and wet snow were--at least for now anyway--out of luck. As I sat at home, looking out the front windows at the first flakes of snow falling from the sky and blowing hither-and-thither in the frozen February air, I noted that I still had electricity. I still had heat. And I still had the internet. All of this was a good thing, I figured, and a thing to take advantage of while I could.

I flipped open my laptop, logged on, and typed in the keyword search: thundersnow. Of course, our friends at Wikipedia (the inimitable font of knowledge that it is) were quick to answer my questions.

The term "thundersnow," as it turns out, refers to " a rare kind of thunderstorm with snow falling as the primary precipitation instead of rain" (wikipedia.org).

*[Aside: Thank you, once again, Wikipedia.]

But of course there was more. A lot more, as it turns out. It seems that while thundersnow is, indeed, that most rare of events in all things meteorological, it has obviously happened before. And one of the places it seems to occur the most--in that off-chance that it does happen--is around the Great Lakes area of the United States and Canada, famous as those areas are for producing their "lake-effect snows."

*[Aside: Lake Michigan. Chicago. Home of the Brookfield Zoo. Home of sad and depressed bears in their fake habitats. Also home of sad and depressed Bears football fans, as their beloved team lost this season in the second round of the playoffs to their much-hated nemesis to the north, Green Bay...also, interestingly, a city familiar with a Great Lake, and with snow, and with lake-effect snow...]

I turned back to my laptop and to Wikipedia and read on:

"From Lake Effect Precipitation: This type of thundersnow occurs after a cold front or shortwave aloft passes by, which steepens the lapse rates between the lake temperature and the temperatures aloft.... However there are several factors affecting its development and other geographical elements. The primary factor is convective depth: this is the vertical depth in the troposphere that a parcel of air will rise from the ground before it reaches the equilibrium (EQL) level and stops rising. A minimum depth of 0.9 mi (2.5 km) is necessary and an average depth of 1.8 m (3 km) or more is generally accepted as sufficient..." (wikipedia.org).

I quickly shut my laptop and poured myself a drink.

Whatever the hell "thundersnow" was would just have to bring itself on and do its best to impress me. After all, my birthday was coming up in just a matter of days, and I had lived through numerous storms. At this point it took a lot to impress me.

I figured I could wait this one out.

As it happened, of course, I wasn't going to have to wait long. When the "Blizzard of 2011" finally decided to hit, it hit with a fury. In no time at all the normal world outside turned into a raging monster. The wind was howling like Grendel unleashed, and the snow was falling and blowing at such a breathless clip, all I could do was watch through my windows in the relative safety and warmth of my living room.

That was about the time the power went off. (Actually, to be fair, it didn't happen quite that dramatically. There was a little bit of warning, after all. I had been watching a movie on my DVD player, and already the lights had flickered once, and then twice, both times causing me to take in a breath and to count to one, and then to two, and then to three, and then let it out with a sigh and say to myself, "Well, that was close..." When the power decided to click off for good, though, it did it with a grace and finality that was startling. And, again, a thought occurred to me, "This is not good.")

My first order of business, after the lights went out, was to check my cell-phone for its full battery. I had been wise enough to at least plug it in earlier in the evening. Suddenly my cell-phone had become my sole source of contact with the outside world, and I was going to have to be judicious in its use over the next several hours, or days, or weeks...

I stopped my mind from going down that track. That, after all, would do no one any good. Best not to think about what would happen if my cell-phone's battery went dead.

I didn't like the word "dead," so I made myself busy in the dark, first looking for a flashlight (that worked) and some candles, then rounding up all the blankets I could find, and finally pulling on my most comfortable sweatshirt and thickest pair of socks.

That done, I sat down again and listened to the wind hitting the side of the building. It was coming on with terrific force and pounded against the trees outside and roared along the roof and the windows, seeking to get in.

I wondered what time it was. From somewhere above the television set a wall clock ticked the time--its AA batteries obviously still working well--and I swooped the flashlight up to it.

8:03.

The power had gone off at 8:00 that evening, almost exactly. That would mean, if my math was correct, that the power had been off for only three minutes. Almost to the second. I held my breath and listened to my heart beating somewhere beneath layers of clothing.

This was going to be a long night.

I paced the floor of my living room, walking heel-to-toe, measuring out my narrow existence in mere footsteps. Why I did this, I don't know. Had I read it somewhere in Dumas, perhaps? Is this, after all, what one does when trapped in the dark? Imprisoned, as it were, between the couch and the recliner? Solitary confinement, with only my dog, Cooper, to serve as company?

"What are you looking at?" I asked the dog. I caught him in the act of looking at me, and I wasn't about to put up with that sort of thing. Not this early in the game. He simply continued to look at me and wagged his tail.

"Oh, and I suppose you think you want fed, huh boy?"

Again, as if knowing somehow I was talking about food, Cooper wagged his tail. Excitedly this time.

"Well, all right," I conceded. "But not as much as usual. We're all going to have to make some sacrifices around here. Ration our resources, and whatnot..."

I was talking to my dog about the necessity of cutting back on his dog food, and I didn't even notice that there was anything wrong with this. I filled his bowl with half-a-scoop of Dog Chow and then turned again to flash a light up at the clock on the wall.

8:07.

I lit a candle and sat down. (Just one, though, because I didn't want to waste the few candles that I had on hand.) I thought, then, as well, of that young boy, Chris McCandless, who was the subject of the book and subsequent movie, Into the Wild. How as a young man he disappeared into the frozen wilderness of Alaska. And of how he turned his back on family and society and "did his thing," living free without rules and strictures to tell him what was right or wrong. And of how he eventually ate the wrong kind of berries and made himself sick and slowly starved to death in the cold of an abandoned bus parked mysteriously in the woods.

I got up and paced around some more. I made a note to myself, too, that the next time a blizzard was on its way I would perhaps do well to watch a different movie other than Into the Wild. (In many ways, I suppose, this was akin to watching Titanic on a cruise or Castaway on a long international flight. There have to be better choices.)

Outside, the storm only seemed to intensify. How it was doing that, I didn't know. But at this point I figured it could pretty much do whatever it wanted. I picked up a book, a nice big one to get lost in and to while away the hours in the dark--Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth would do--and settled down by a candle to catch its dim reflected light to read. I opened the book (noticing, as if for the first time, how heavy it was) and removed the bookmark. I was on page 200 of a 973-page book.

I sighed. "Well, that's just fine," I thought to myself. "It's not like there's anything else to do right now. I have all night to read Follett's medieval epic if I choose."

I noticed instantly that the candle flickering near at hand was barely enough illumination to make out the first word at the top of the page. I turned the book, tilting it awkwardly. I held the book at an angle, but as soon as I did I noted the cramp in my wrist due to the ungodly heft being forced upon it.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me!" I said aloud. (Cooper, meanwhile, scuttled off to hide somewhere in the dark, his tail between his legs.) "I suppose Abe Lincoln seriously expects anyone to believe he did this shit for any length of time?"

The night was quickly growing intolerable.

And that was when I heard it and saw it. I don't know which was first--the seeing or the hearing--although according to science I guess it would have started with the brilliant flash of light in the snowy night sky, followed by an unusually explosive boom rolling down from somewhere high above, high up there in the frozen dark air where the snow was.

Thundersnow!

"Holy shit," I thought, holding my breath again and listening for my heart. "It's real! Some things you can't believe in, like Nessie and the Sasquatch. But thundersnow is real! Holy shit..."

And then it crashed again, the lightning and the thunder. Thundersnow. In the middle of a blizzard--the great and terrible "Blizzard of 2011," to be exact. And I heard it and saw it. I would always be able to say that I was there, and that I witnessed thundersnow, and that I survived.

That is, if I survived.

I shook my hands suddenly and clenched and unclenched my toes beneath my thick socks. Was that numbness I felt (or didn't feel) in my hands and feet? Were my extremities going numb? Was I losing feeling in my hands and feet? Weren't those always the first things to go when hypothermia settled in? That and your nose and cheeks, anyway? And your ears? I felt my ears and my nose. Or at least I thought I did. Was I touching my nose? Could I feel the weight of my hand on my nose, or was that merely a phantom weight in my mind? What was happening to me? How long had I been growing colder in here, my house without power, and with no lights and with no heat? How much longer could I endure this?

"Get busy living, or get busy dying," I said out loud to no one. And this was quickly followed with the thought, "Did I actually just say that out loud? Really? The Shawshank Redemption now? Jesus..."

I stood up and jogged in place, urging blood back to my freezing hands and feet. "Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep," I repeated to myself, over and over in my cluttered mind. "That's the way hypothermia works on you, making you drift off quietly, never to wake up again."

Cooper sauntered back into the living room, hearing me suddenly break into an unexpected round of calisthenics, and he must have thought my mood had shifted and that I was now in an attitude of play. He barked and wagged his tail and danced around happily.

"Shut up, Cooper!" I said. He barked again. Outside the storm continued. Another brilliant flash of lightning was followed by another crash of thunder. For something so unique and so rare, this whole thundersnow thing was starting to wear out its welcome.

If worse came to worse, I knew, I would have to take a pocket knife to Cooper and quiet him for good. Of course I didn't want to think about that, but in the event of an emergency it was Darwin's theories at their finest in my living room. There wasn't much to him, to be sure, but I figured in the frozen night--if needed--I could at least curl my frostbitten hands and/or feet in the warm cocoon of his eviscerated guts spilling out onto my beige carpet. And after that, his pelt would make a nice, warm cap to wear over my head and protect my threatened ears.

*[Aside: Jeremiah Johnson, eat your heart out...]

I don't remember when I fell asleep, exactly. The only thing I was aware of next was waking in the middle of the night, buried underneath a mound of blankets on my bed. That and Cooper laying on top of the mound of blankets, breathing in my face. Lovely. I rolled over, then, intentionally knocking him from his perch. He growled only briefly, miffed that I somehow had the nerve to disturb his sleep.

"Get over it," I growled back at him, half asleep. "You have no idea how lucky you are to be alive."

Morning came quickly, and with it the sinking sensation of a cold house. No power still. No lights. No heat. No chance of survival.

I was going to die. I was sure of it. Much like my dog, I was lucky to still be alive myself, I guess, and figured at this point my hours were numbered. I was sure I was going to die. How did I make it through the night? How was that possible? And where was Cooper, anyway? Where did that damned dog go?

As I slowly, reluctantly crawled from beneath the relative heat of the blanket pile, I noticed right away, of course, that the house was cold. I'm not sure what else I expected--sans power and heat--but all the same, the house was cold. It was unavoidable. This was not going to work. I couldn't go through another day and night of no heat. And what if I was trapped, buried alive beneath a literal drift of snow from the blizzard the night before? What if I couldn't get out? What if there was no chance to see the sun? What if....?

I pulled open the blinds on my front windows and surveyed the scene outside. The sun was out. The snow had stopped. The wind had died down. The ground was covered, every inch, with what appeared to be perfect life-sized peaks of meringue. My stomach growled. I was hungry, and I was alive.

"Cooper, are you hungry?" I asked him. He wagged his tail and his eyes shone at me with love. How foolishly short-term was a dog's memory, anyway? "First things first," I suggested, grabbing his leash and attaching it to his collar. "Let's go outside. Bathroom break. Long night last night."

The morning air was frigid and crackled with the cold. My nostrils instantly began to feel as if they were freezing together. What an odd feeling that is. And I realized, with some sense of humility, that maybe last night's panic attack over frostbite to my extremities was perhaps a little hasty.

*[Aside: Yeah...maybe just a little.]

"Come on, Cooper. Let's go in where it's warmer." He barked with joy and ran around me in a circle, tying up my legs in his leash.

About this time my neighbor came outside to survey the scene herself. I noticed our breath hanging in front of both of us.

"Good morning," she said.

"Good morning, " I said.

"Quite a storm last night."

"Yes. Yes it was."

"Well, thank God the power just came back on..."

"What?" I asked her. "The power came back on?"

"Yeah," she said. "Just now. Just a minute ago. It flickered back on, just as unexpectedly as it went out last night."

"The power's back on?" I asked her again.

She looked at me as if perhaps there was something wrong. "Ummmm...yeah. I just said that. The power came back on..."

"Oh my God," I said, obviously unable to hide my joy. "Oh my God. I made it! I did it!"

My neighbor gave me another look, and then she turned quickly to walk back inside her house.

"Did you hear that Cooper? Huh? Did you? Did you hear that? The power's back on! The power! It's back on!..."

I knelt and scooped him up into my arms. He licked at my face, ready to burst with excitement. A wild animal domesticated. But an animal of the wild, at heart. Survival instincts just below the surface. All intuition and natural reflexes. Survivors, both of us.

"We made it," I laughed. "Good Lord, boy, doesn't the morning sun feel good? We made it through the long, cold night. We made it through the blizzard..."

My dog was starting to look at me askance, as if there was possibly something wrong with me. And maybe there was, after all. I laughed out loud. Yes, maybe there was. Maybe it was the untamed tone of my voice or the untethered look in my eyes or the uncontrolled appearance of my bed-hair and the wild grin, outlined--just barely--with a thin shadow of unshaved stubble left over from the day before. The look of a mountain man, after all, crawling from his cabin after riding out the storm. The "Blizzard of 2011." All instinct and intuition. Survival of the fittest. And wild.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Oracle of Delphi



I. The coming of the coyotes.

The winter started slowly but then came on stronger and settled in, and it wasn't long before the coyotes living in the woods behind the new subdivision began to grow hungrier and leaner and braver and more desperate with each passing day. It was only a matter of time before the wild animals made themselves known.

And so it was late one evening, while driving back from the movies (the latest science-fiction epic that Melissa had insisted on going to) on a night that was dark and cold, the Builders first saw the coyotes. Don was the first to see them, actually--only one coyote--in a flash of untamed legs and mouth and fur and tail and reflected orange eyes appearing out of the shadows, darting out of the cone of light from the front of the black Lexus SUV and loping off into a grove of bare trees that lined the unspoiled section of woods behind the neighborhood where he and Melissa had moved only a few short weeks ago.

"Did you see that?" Don asked his wife. He tapped on the brakes lightly, and a sudden red glow lit up the darkness behind them. Melissa hadn't seen the coyote. Her mind had been adrift, as it was so often these days, in images and thoughts of other worlds and other galaxies and other life far away from her own life here on earth.

"What?" she asked, snapping back from her revery. The images and the memories of the movie receded momentarily. She had been looking out the passenger window--staring quietly up at the frigid, black, winter night sky, lost in her thoughts--when she heard her husband's strange voice.

"That dog. Or whatever it was," Don said. "I don't think it was a dog..."

"What? What are you talking about? A dog?"

"Out in front of us." He slowed their Lexus even more, bringing it to a stop and pulling over to the side of the street. There were no other car lights coming toward them or coming up from behind. Only the amber glow of their headlights shown into the distance and made shadows of the bare trees off to the right of the road, beyond a snowy undeveloped lot edged by the forest. "It looked like a dog," he said. "But it wasn't a dog. That was a coyote, I'll bet."

"A coyote? Where?" Melissa was sitting up straighter now. He had gotten her attention. She was fully awake now, fully alert. Her mind was with him. If he had wanted her back from whatever dreamy world she had escaped to in her imagination then he had succeeded. She was scared now and paying attention. She narrowed her eyes and peered into the darkness ahead of them, off into the distance of trees, trying to make sense of what was there and to maybe catch a glimpse of whatever it was Don had thought he'd seen in the dark. "You saw a coyote? Out here? So close to our house?"

"I think so," he said quietly.

"I didn't think there were coyotes out here," she said. She hoped that Don was wrong and that somehow she was right. Surely there were no wild animals like coyotes living so close to where they had only so recently moved? She and Don hadn't even been in their new house a full month yet. They hadn't even had a chance to fully settle in. Such a thing as coyotes in the wooded expanse behind their neighborhood wasn't possible, was it? Coyotes lived in the wild, didn't they, not in the middle of the suburbs? (She had to admit to herself, of course, that she didn't even know what a coyote looked like, really, and knew she wouldn't be able to recognize one if it appeared to her in the dark distance. But surely Don wouldn't either, she was almost sure of it. Surely he was mistaken.)

"Well, Lissa, obviously there are coyotes living out there in the trees around the lake," he said matter-of-factly. "I just saw one."

"What? Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure..."

"You're sure or you're pretty sure?" she asked him.

He sighed. "Honey, I just saw a coyote. Okay? And where there is one, there are bound to be others."

She looked out the front window, trying desperately to see what Don had seen. But whatever it had been--a coyote, or dog, or deer, or whatever--it was gone. She looked over at her husband and wondered how he had suddenly become such an expert on wildlife.

"How do you know it was a coyote?" she asked. "Maybe it was a dog. They look like dogs, don't they? Or maybe it was a deer? A baby one, separated from its mother?"

"It was a coyote," he said, marking the end of the discussion with the tone of his voice. "It wasn't a dog or a deer. I just saw a coyote run into the trees. That means we have coyotes out there..."

"Well, what do they want?"

He looked over at her. "What do they want?" he said back to her.

She sighed. As much as he had tried (and she was sure Don hadn't tried very hard to mask the sarcasm in his voice), Melissa knew, once again, that her husband was judging her to be not only silly but also dreamy and foolish, like a young girl.

"Never mind," she said.

"What?" he asked her.

"Nothing."

"No, what is it?" he said.

She sighed again. "Well, I mean what are they doing out there? The coyotes, out in the woods...so close to where we live? What do they want? What are they doing?"

Don looked across the darkened front seat at his wife. The glow of the dashboard cast shadows under his tired eyes that made him look almost sinister and fearful. "They want food," he said. "They're wild animals. It's winter. And they're starving."

II. Learning different ways to get to the same place.

Their new home rested on a 3-acre lot at the end of a partially developed cul-de-sac. The grandiose two-story brick--with a 2.5-car garage--was the only house at the end of the lane. At least so far, anyway. On either side of Creston Ct., running the length of both sides of the street, there were only 4 other homes besides the Builders' (respectively, Bill and Brenda Patterson's house, Joseph and Ellena McElivy's, Taylor and Heather Payton's, and John and Louise Sandler's), all of them built with the same solid, impressive, and impassive two-story brick fronts with wooden decks and swimming pools and gazebo/hot tubs in the rolling backyards.

It was a nice neighborhood. Quiet, roomy, and safe. It was a good neighborhood in which to raise children, even though, ironically, no one on Creston Ct. had any children. For now, there were none of those wooden swingset-slide playsets erected in anyone's backyard. There were no sandboxes. No sounds of high-pitched squeals of laughter or playful screaming echoing up and down the street, while kids rode their bicycles or played in the yard or rounded up a game of touch football or tag.

Along the street--in the empty lots without houses--the ground sat awaiting purchase, rusted realty signs poked into the frozen earth to advertise availability. But even if the signs could be pulled free of the ice-packed ground, there weren't any buyers during this time of year. And especially not with the housing market tumbling the way it had over the past two years. For now, anyway, Creston Ct. sat as a scar on the ground--bulldozed, leveled, and paved--at the edge of Creston Woods. Like an accusation, the undeveloped strip of asphalt winding to the Builders' lone front door at the end of its rounded cul-do-sac lay as a sad reminder of better times and unfulfilled promise.

"You know what I've been thinking?" Melissa asked Don one night as they were in bed. Both of them had just turned out the bedside lights after reading--Don's laptop snapped closed on the floor below him and Melissa's latest science fiction novel from her favorite author laying by her lamp and the digital alarm clock, a bookmark propped in the middle of its pages.

"What's that?" Don mumbled, already half asleep.

Melissa lay in the quiet of the dark, staring up at the blackness until her eyes adjusted, listening to her husband's breathing grow deeper and louder and steadier with each breath. "We should both take turns driving different routes back home when we're out and about during the day," she said. "You know, one day you take one route to work and another route back. And I would do the same when I'm running errands like I do. That would be fun, don't you think?"

Don was quiet a moment before answering, pulling himself up from wells of sleep, and then sighed. "What would be the point of that?"

"I don't know. I just think it would be fun. Don't you think it would be fun?"

"I think sleep would be fun right now."

"Oh. Okay..." She paused. "It's just...I was just wondering which way you usually take to get home," Melissa said quietly. "I was just curious, that's all. About which route you take in the mornings and in the evenings on the drive home."

He stirred and mumbled. "Huh? What? Which way I do what?"

"Driving," she said again. "I just wondered which way you go when you drive to work."

"I don't know," he said. He was beginning to sound irritated. "I don't think about it, Melissa. I just go the main way, I suppose. The only way I know to go. Why?"

"I was just curious," she said. "That's all. I just think moving into a new house...there's so many new things to discover. You know?" He didn't answer her. "Like the neighborhood, and the roads to and from--which one is faster, which road is nicer, and which one you end up preferring to drive."

"Yeah, well...I don't know," he said finally. "I hadn't thought about it."

"I'm almost afraid to drive around here," she said. "I'm afraid I'll get lost or something."

"I'll buy you one of those GPS systems," Don said. It was obvious with the way he said it that he intended this to be the final word in the conversation. He would get her a GPS device to carry with her in her car, and that would be the end of her worries.

"A what?" she asked.

He sighed. "One of those electronic satellite devices," he told her. "It's mobile, for your car, and it tracks you. All you have to do is type in your destination, and it shows you how to get there."

"Oh yeah," she said, "I think that's what Jennifer had. I saw her using it one time when we went shopping downtown. We were trying to avoid construction and find the quickest way to get to the American Girl store. I didn't know, and neither did she..."

"Mm-hmm," Don said. He was fading. He was no longer a part of the conversation. He was asleep, just responding automatically at this point. She was alone and talking to herself.

She smiled anyway in the dark, her hand cupped underneath her head. A tear began to leak from the corner of her eye, running down her cheek, across her hand, and onto her pillow. "That would be nice, honey," she told him. "That would be a big help."

And then she began to cry, as she often did these days. She didn't like breaking down at unexpected moments like this in front of Don. She wished it didn't happen. She wished she didn't have to do it, and yet here she was--just like always--crying uncontrollably. She hated herself for such moments, and yet she couldn't stop.

As tired as he was, Don rolled over towards her and put an arm around her, trying his best to quiet her. "Shhhhhh..." he said to her. "Shhhhhh...honey, it's all right. It's okay. You're okay. Just breathe... Just take a breath like that.... Just like that...."

They both fell asleep with his arms around her and with her body curled up in a fetal position inside his embrace.

III. What can sometimes happen, and why.

There was a holiday party the next evening at the Payton's just down the street. Everyone in the neighborhood was invited. Don didn't want to go at first, but after some wheedling from Melissa (if a constant barrage of asking and pleading and maybe even a little bit of begging could fairly be called "wheedling") Don relented. And so they went, even though by the time the decision had finallly been made, they were the last couple to arrive. It was a late enough arrival to be socially awkward, in a way. Too late to be viewed as "fashionably late" and just late enough, in fact, to appear to everyone at the party as the type of thing it actually was.

Driving home later that evening (for even though they had arrived late, they were two of the last people to leave) Don made mention of what a nice time he'd had.

"That Taylor knows which way his shit is wired," Don said. He repeated that very phrase at least a couple of times on the drive home, Melissa noted. She didn't really know what he meant by it, but she didn't bother to ask.

Don had drunk more than his share that night, as it turned out. The drinks kept flowing at the Payton's, and Don had ended up enjoying himself much more than he initially thought he would. She was happy for that, admittedly, but now she was also a little nervous having him steer the way home in their black Lexus SUV. But what was the alternative? Put her behind the wheel? She hated driving--was scared of it, in fact--even under the best conditions. A new home, in a new neighborhood, during the winter, with new twisting streets to memorize, and new directions to get jumbled in her mind. There was no way she was going to drive tonight. She was better to leave the driving to Don, even if he had been drinking. She trusted him enough, although that didn't stop her from clutching the armrest on her car door a time or two.

"No, really," he said again, "that Taylor knows which way his shit is wired. I'm telling you."

"Yes," she said. "They both seemed very nice. He and Heather both. And what a lovely home. So spacious. And she's got quite the decorator's eye."

"Yes, she does at that," Don agreed. "She's quite easy on the eyes, too, I must admit..."

"Well, that's not exactly what I said..."

"That Taylor really knows which way his shit is wired. Yes he does..."

She was quiet for a moment, unsure how best to respond to whichever direction Don was trying to take the conversation. Suddenly she remembered something important she had heard at the party and had wanted, immediately, to tell Don. She had filed it away during the evening, thinking she would mention it to him the first chance she got. And then she had practically forgotten. But somehow, fortunately, something Don had said--maybe it was just simply mentioning Heather Payton's name--jogged her memory enough to help her remember.

"Oh my God, that reminds me," Melissa suddenly said.

"What?"

"Heather told me the most horrible thing at the party tonight. She was visiting with me in the kitchen during a quiet moment when it was just the two of us, and she told me about their little dog, Kipper...Oh my God, it's so horrible. Such a nightmare. Did Taylor mention anything to you?"

"No. What?"

"Taylor didn't say anything to you tonight at the party?"

"I believe I just told you he didn't."

"About their little dog, Kipper?"

"What are you talking about, Lissa?" Don was practically shouting at this point.

"I'm talking about Kipper," she said.

"I'm fully aware of that. But who the hell is Kipper? And what are you trying to tell me about him?"

"I think it's a her, actually. Was a her..."

Don sighed. Loudly.

"Kipper was Taylor and Heather's little dog. A beautiful little Papillon, actually. Heather showed me her picture when it was just the two of us in the kitchen." Melissa paused, biting her lip. When she continued, her voice was crackled with emotion. "Heather was so upset telling me. I can't even imagine how horrible...." She paused again.

"What?" Don said. He was pulling into their driveway. He slowed as he pressed the automatic garage door opener, waiting for it to clatter all the way open before pulling forward. "What happened?"

"It happened just last night. Unbelievable," Melissa continued. "They let her out to go to the bathroom, attaching her collar to the lead tied into their backyard. Of course they had no idea..."

"What happened?" Don asked, although somewhere inside he already knew the answer to his question. He knew what his wife was about to say before she even said it. That was why after she told him, he didn't register much surprise. Not the kind of alarm she was halfway expecting, anyway, or maybe even wanting from her husband. Which bothered her some.

"They heard a terrific commotion coming from the backyard, I guess," Melissa said quietly. "Barking, snarling, growling...what sounded like a typical dog fight. And then a loud, piercing scream. Which didn't sound typical. And then nothing."

"Nothing?"

"No. Nothing. Just the scream. And a howl." She paused again.

"A howl?" Don asked her. "And?"

"And when Taylor went outside into their backyard, turning on the back deck-lights and the patio-lights, winding his way out into the frozen yard, following the dog's lead driven into the hard ground, all he found was Kipper's little collar laying torn in the snow. Ripped in two. Some fur lay on the ground with it. And some blood. Kipper's blood..."

She said it, then. Even though at that point she didn't have to. "I told Heather about the coyote we saw last night on our way home from the movie." Melissa sounded as if she was crying. "Oh Don, do you think I shouldn't have? It was just so horrible, though, what she told me. And that's the first thing I thought of. Honestly. We both stood there in her kitchen and cried and hugged. Thank God no one else came in right then. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want it to be true. But I felt I had to tell her. Oh Don," she said again, "do you think it was the coyotes that got Kipper?"

"Yes," he said. And that was all he said.

IV. Knowing where you are means knowing where you're going.

After the holiday party at the Payton's--and after hearing the horrible story about what happened to poor little Kipper--the Builders were determined to not let the same thing happen to their own little dog, Sam. (Actually, their dog's name--his official full name--was Samwise Gamgee. He was a little black-and-white Boston terrier. Melissa was the only one who called him by his full name, since it hearkened back to one of her favorite characters from one of her favorite books. But even then, she rarely called him by that long nomenclature. Usually when she called him or was talking to him, it was "Sammy." Just that, simply "Sammy." Don called him "Sam," which was also all right with Melissa.)

As it turned out, they took to restricting Sam's unattended forays into the backyard, only letting him out if he was on the safe end of a leash, with one of them (almost always Melissa) holding the handle on the other end, watching over him. It wasn't much fun for him, certainly, as a dog wanting to run freely and to sniff and explore every corner of the yard. There was an element of wildness to him, still--no matter how domesticated his breed may have become--that pulled at the leash each time, ignoring the tight, choking hold of his collar. Melissa felt sorry for him at such times. But then again, she would have felt even sorrier if she and Don hadn't agreed to do this with Sam. It was a part of their lives, at least for the moment--or at least until the coyotes running wild in the woods behind their house decided to leave and to set up home somewhere else.

For Christmas, Don bought her a GPS for her car, just as he said he would. The box it came in was neatly wrapped in shiny green paper, with a curled red ribbon and a trimmed bow on top. Melissa opened the package carefully and held the naked box in her hands. She looked at it for a moment. It wasn't a surprise, necessarily, since he had told her what he was going to get her, but she was thankful for it all the same. She supposed at this point in their relationship, the "surprise element" of presents wasn't everything it used to be.

"It's a Pythia 1500 GPS," Don told her, just as she was quietly reading to herself those very words from the box's cover.

"It's very nice," she said.

"Those are top-shelf GPS systems, dear. Better than Garmin. Better than any product you can get your hands on. Those are very hard to get a hold of. And they don't come cheap either."

"Oh really?" she asked. "How did you know about them? And how were you able to get one?"

He shrugged. "I know a guy at work..."

"Oh, I see." Although she didn't see. Not really. But she didn't ask any further questions.

"Thank you honey. It's very nice."

"You're welcome, dear." He walked over to where she was sitting, bent, and kissed her. It was a brief, warm kiss, and she put her arms around his neck before he pulled away.

"Thank you. Really. It's very nice," she whispered to him.

"Well, I want you to be safe," he whispered back to her. "Only the best for you, Lissa. Now you won't get lost. Now you'll know where you're going at all times."

She cried again for a moment, holding on to her husband--just the two of them--and thinking about the way Christmas mornings used to be. The noise and the laughter. The music. The tree full of brightly colored presents. Toys. The laughter of the children. She had told herself all week that she wasn't going to do this on the morning of Christmas. That she would somehow find a way to make it work, to push away the thoughts. But she didn't do it, not entirely. She couldn't. And so she cried in her husband's arms on Christmas morning. And Don--as Don was always good to do--quieted her and comforted her the best he was able. He may have even cried a little, too.

Afterwards, she set the box under the tree, where it sat for the rest of the day. As she busied herself around the house, she couldn't help but read the small white lettering on the black box each time she walked by the tree. "PYTHIA: KNOWING WHERE YOU ARE MEANS KNOWING WHERE YOU'RE GOING!"

She smiled each time she read the wording on her present. There was a lot of confidence in such a slogan. And despite everything, she had to admit that it made her feel good.

V. A voice like a light going on somewhere in the dark.

Once Don finally got around to installing the new GPS in her car--showing her the instruction manual and carefully putting it in the glove compartment for her, "for future reference," he said--it took Melissa a while before she was actually comfortable with the idea of turning the machine on, waiting patiently for it to acquire its necessary satellite reception, and to get a read on her present location, and to begin trusting it to guide her.

The idea of a machine, after all--a simple little device plugged into the cigarette lighter of her car--with the ability to see her exact location at all times, and to plot her travel down to the nearest detail of the smallest pond off to the side of the road and the minutest street intersection, intimidated and overwhelmed her more than just a little.

Eventually, of course, she did turn it on. And by following the instructions Don had provided for her in the glove compartment of her car, she was able to choose the voice she wanted--the voice that would speak to her and tell her where she needed to go and what she needed to do to get there. Melissa chose as her guiding voice a soft, confident woman's voice.

"It's like a friend, almost," she told Don over her cell phone later that afternoon after she had driven around safely with the aid of his Christmas present. "I like her voice. It's very trusting. It's very strange."

"Um-hmm..." Don answered noncommittedly. He must have been busy at work, she knew. She probably shouldn't have bothered him during the middle of the day with something as trivial as telling him about the voice on her new GPS that he had bought her. But she was excited about it, and she didn't want to wait until later.

"I'm sorry, honey," she said. "You must be busy."

"No," he said, mustering a sudden interest. "No, that's fine. I'm glad you like the GPS."

"I do. I didn't know if I would," she admitted to him. "But once I got around to actually trying it, I love it. I can't imagine what I've been doing all this time without it. Do you know that I drove around all afternoon, listening to her soft, gentle cadence, issuing instructions: 'Turn left. Turn right. Go straight. Go back. Don't look back..." She laughed at that last bit, a little.

Don paused for a moment. "Well, good," he finally said. "Like I told you, it's a top-shelf product, Lissa. I'm glad it's working for you."

Melissa smiled into the phone and nodded. She was still sitting in her car, actually, as she talked to Don--just sitting with her car idling, watching shoppers come and go through the parking lot of a local Target Superstore, their carts pushed in front of them with varying degrees of white plastic bags piled inside the metal cages.

"Yes, I do like it," she said into her phone to her husband, who was somewhere--supposedly at work--doing something. "I like her voice. It's comforting, in a way. It's just right." She sighed, wanting to find the right words yet afraid she was failing. "It's like...I don't know. It's like a light switch, almost, being flipped on in a dark room. That's what her voice is like to me. Almost..."

VI. All the places she would go.

In the days and weeks that followed, Melissa found herself falling under the spell of the latest technological miracle that had suddenly fallen in her lap, in a manner of speaking. In no time at all, she loved her GPS. She found herself driving everywhere, it seemed--to places near and far, on errands and jaunts around the neighborhood, to the store and back, to the post office and back, to the mall for her latest shopping excursion, and to the school, and to the cemetery to visit the children's graves, and to the empty lot where her house used to stand before the fire.

Not only did she rediscover that she could drive--and drive very well--but that she enjoyed driving. The new GPS--her Pythia 1500--settled comfortably into her staid, boring life like a new-found friend, opening doors and windows to her which she didn't even know existed. In it's soothing, mannered, non-threatening voice the miracle machine spoke in carefully constructed phrases--enunciated clearly and precisely in the Queen's English--of exactly where she needed to go. All she had to do was type in her desired destination, wait a moment for the satellite high above to determine her location, and then, all at once, the road became clear. The directions made simple. The quickest route? The easiest route? The most scenic route? The route to take in order to avoid traffic and construction? The choices were hers. She loved it. And it wasn't long before she began to find more and more excuses--particularly during the day, when Don was at work--to slip out to the car and turn on her Pythia and type in a location (whether she actually even wanted to go there or not) and just go.

Her days became longer. The trips grew lengthier. Her desire to be gone and to be lost on the road--alone with her thoughts, alone with her memories of the children and of the life that all of them had had before, alone with the voice from the GPS--she was happier and more content and more at peace than she'd been in a long time.

That was about the time Melissa noticed a change--a distinct and clever change--in her Pythia 1500.

She was alone in her car, during one of the many jaunts around town which had become so commonplace and had grown to become her days, when she spoke aloud, if only to herself, "I can't believe all the time I've wasted...feeling so sorry for myself, sitting around lost..."

"I know," the Pythia said back to her with its calm, measured, mannered, precise voice. "I know, Melissa. And it's all right...."

VII. Knowing where you want to go means knowing where you've been.

At first, of course, the idea of a machine--her beloved GPS, of all machines--talking to her like that, carrying on an intelligent and rational conversation in its controlled and composed manner, took her by complete surprise. After all, how could it not? Such things didn't happen. Not in any real sense, anyway. Not in any corner of the world ruled over by day-to-day logic. That much she knew.

But Melissa also knew--knew all too well, unfortunately--that such an idea as a world ruled benevolently by a wise and abiding logic was about as fantastical a notion as a machine (a complex series of plastic, and wire, and electrodes, and computer chips) forming words and sentences and thoughts and conversations all on its own.

The impossible could be possible, she knew. The unthinkable could be thought, as was so often the case. The idea of her Pythia 1500 talking to her--though it came as an undeniable shock at first--was, in all ways of looking at it, not as surprising as she maybe would have thought. In fact, it would have surprised Melissa even more, perhaps, if her GPS had never started talking to her at all. She trusted it. She believed in it. It had become a friend to her over the days and weeks that she had ridden with it as her sole companion. It had become--in some ways of thinking about it--quite possibly her closest friend. Even closer than her husband, perhaps.

The question wasn't, Why did the Pythia 1500 begin talking to Melissa? The real question was, Why wouldn't it start talking to her? and What took it so long to find its voice?

While on the road together, they would talk. Of anything and everything. Of her past. Of her life as a young girl. Of the hopes and dreams she had while growing up the middle daughter of an insurance agent. Of her college years. Of how she and Don first met, and of how they fell in love. And of the children. And of her cherished role as mother to two beautiful twins, whose hair was golden in the sun, bleached to perfection. And of the fire.

The Pythia 1500 spoke to her, as well, of some of the great thoughts of some of the world's greatest thinkers. Socrates and Plato. Aristotle and Shopenhauer. Nietschze and the Buddha. Kant, Hume, and Jesus Christ. Muhammed. Derrida. Wittgenstein. Descartes. Sartre.

And others.

"How do you know so much?" Melissa asked the GPS one time during an inbound trip into the city, sitting in stalled traffic, a sea of red taillights glowing around them.

"I know everything," the Pythia said. "I know all the words that have been written, and all the words that haven't been written yet. I know what's in your heart, Melissa. I particularly know that."

"How do you know that?" Melissa asked. "How do you know that, when..." She stopped short of finishing her sentence.

"When what?" the Pythia asked her.

"Nothing." She said. It was almost as if she could hear the GPS smile at her.

"When you don't even know what's in your own heart, Melissa? Is that what you were going to say?"

Melissa said nothing, just stared straight ahead at the red end of the car in front of her.

"But you do, my dear," the GPS said to her softly. "You do know what's in your heart. Deep inside. You just don't know that you know it. Not yet, anyway."

"But how..."

"That's what I'm here for, you know. That's what this is all about, after all."

Again, it was almost as if she could hear a smile from the machine on her dashboard.

"I know," Melissa said. And that was all she said.

"Knowing where you want to go means knowing where you've been, Melissa," the machine said to her. "There's nothing more important for you to know."

This time it was Melissa's turn to smile. "That's not your slogan," she said. "You know. The slogan on the box that you came in. The box I unwrapped for Christmas."

"I'm familiar with the slogan," the Pythia said. "The slogan is nice, but...it's only a slogan. I'm talking about the truth here to you now. That's all we talk about, the two of us. The truth."

"The truth?" Melissa asked.

"Yes, the truth," the Pythia 1500 said. "Now lean in close, Melissa. I want to tell you a little secret."

Melissa leaned in close and listened.

VIII. The Perfect Mystery.

There were numerous times when she could have told Don, of course--times too often to count when she tried to set him down or to catch him in a moment when it was just the two of them, and when it was quiet, and when it was right. Many times such moments slipped away, as such moments often do, falling victim to her insecurity, possibly, or to her inablity to find the right words.

After all, what are the right words to tell someone--someone whom you've loved and to whom you've entrusted your whole life--that the voice on the car's GPS was now talking and revealing the most wonderful secrets of life?

She knew Don wouldn't hear such a thing very well. And yet she also knew she had to tell him.

And so she did.

As it turned out, it wasn't quite the moment she had envisioned for herself. But such moments rarely are. She told him about the Pythia 1500 while the two of them stood in the checkout lane at Menard's. Don had noticed--stacked neatly on a nearby shelf near the store's exit--box after box of the same GPS device he had bought his wife for Christmas.

"So how's the GPS working for you, anyway, Lissa?"

"It's great, honey. Thank you," she said. "I love it."

"Well, that's good. I notice it at least gave you the confidence to drive again. I got the credit card statement the other day, and I couldn't help but seeing lots of stops at gas stations this month."

"I know, Don. I'm sorry. I..." and then she stopped. How to go on? "It talks to me," she said to him softly, almost a whisper. "The GPS. The Pythia you bought me. It talks."

"Of course it talks," Don said nonchalantly. "What voice did you choose for it, by the way? You know you can change that from the factory setting. You can even mute it if you want."

Such a thought as muting the Pythia sent a surge of panic and anxiety through her. She felt herself grow cold suddenly.

"No!" she said. "I would never mute it! Why would I do that? I'm not going to do that!"

Don looked at her for the first time during the conversation. He often didn't look at her during conversations such as this.

"I'm not going to mute it Don! The GPS talks to me. It talks to me...as in talking back and forth. It knows my name," she said. And then she almost laughed. "Oh my God, how does it know my name? I don't know, but it does. And it talks to me. And it tells me the most wonderful things that I didn't even know. Things I've always wanted to know but didn't know how. It tells me all these wonderful things... And I..."

And then she stopped. Don was looking at her now. He was fully looking at her. His eyes were half squinting almost, and he was looking at her as if he wasn't sure who or what he was looking at all of the sudden.

"Lissa..." he said. But he didn't know what to say next, and so he said nothing.

And Don continued to say nothing for the remainder of their time in the checkout lane at Menard's, and for the whole ride back home in his black Lexus SUV, and for the rest of that evening. He stayed quiet, as did Melissa.

Later that evening, in the quiet house between them, Melissa entered the room where her husband sat watching the TV alone, a drink in his hand, simply staring at the high-definition flatscreen in front of him, but not really seeing it.

"Goodnight Don," she said, and then bent to kiss him. He made no move to meet her kiss, or to embrace her, or to acknowledge that she was even in the room with him at all. "I love you," she whispered.

And then she went alone upstairs to their bedroom.

In the morning, she was gone. Nowhere to be found. No trace of her anywhere. No indication, in fact, that she had ever existed at all. All of her personal belongings. All of her "things." Gone with her. Wherever she went.

Don awoke in the morning, sitting alone in the same chair he had fallen asleep in the night before. He went upstairs and found his wife gone. All of her things were gone. He called her name, but the house only echoed her name. He went downstairs to the garage and saw that her car was gone, which didn't surprise him.

He called the police. He filled out a Missing Persons report. He called relatives. He waited. The sun went down, and the sun came up, and she was nowhere. Still no Melissa. The police searches turned up nothing. He was called in for questioning. Tests were run. Lie detection, which all came back negative. No motive. No means. He didn't know anything about her disappearance.

People talked, of course, as people would naturally do in such an extreme situation. They talked of Melissa. And they talked of Don. And they talked of the terrible tragedy with the children, and the house fire, and the utter devastation, and the loss, and the sadness, and the incurable, unknowable emptiness of the lives left behind to sift through ashes and to somehow find the strength to go on.

People talked about all of this and about how hard it must be for Don now, considering all the pain he had already been through.

"She was there one moment, and then she was gone," he began to tell people. He told that to the police. And he told it to friends. And to family. He repeated it so often that people began to grow weary of hearing it from him as an explanation.

But, really, what else could he say? What kind of explanation can one give to the unexplainable? She was there one moment, and then she was gone. Everything. Disappeared. Gone. Rivers and lakes were dragged. Posters were taped to poles and to street signs. Rewards were offered. Searches were gathered in nearby fields. Yellow ribbons were tied around trees in the neighborhood. Candles and flowers were laid in the Builder's front yard at the end of Creston Ct.

But Melissa Builder was gone. A cold case. A permanent Missing Person.

And yet the sun continued to set at night and to rise in the morning. And the days flowed into weeks. And then into months. And still Melissa was nowhere to be found. No traces of her or of her car anywhere.

Melissa Builder's strange and unexplainable disappearance became, over time--as the chief of police began to characterize it to the media--"The Perfect Mystery."

IX. The secret.

The winter had started slowly but then had come on stronger and settled in, and with its eventual demise and the steady coming on of spring, the coyotes living in the woods behind the new subdivision began to find their hunger sated--if only temporarily--and grew fatter and less desparate with the passing of the seasons.

Such was the way things worked in the wild. And though the creatures crept and slinked in the shadows of the trees, preferring to keep their strange and noisy neighbors carefully at a distance whenever possible, the coyotes had become more and more used to the human beings with whom they shared a delicate, if somewhat overbalanced, coexistence.

But still, they were wild animals. And as such, they were treated accordingly. Though there had never been a repeated instance of the unfortunate incident which befell the Payton's little dog, Kipper, the residents along Creston Ct. kept a respectful watch along the roads and the edges of the woods which ringed their backyards and their playgrounds and their parks.

Because, after all, sometimes the unimaginable could be imagined. And sometimes things happened which could defy all sense of normalcy and logic and explanation.

In other words, the coyotes had to be careful. They could not be trusted, and the human beings that lived within the perimeter of their packs didn't want to share their living space with the wild dogs. The humans in their carefully manicured lawns and homes wanted the coyotes dead, in fact, and set forth on hunting parties and expeditions scattered throughout the woods to spot them in their rifle sights and to shoot them. The coyotes grew skittish, even more than they were under normal conditions.

Their lives were tenuous, and each day was an exercise of determination and persistence and survival. But still, if they were lucky, the days passed one into the next.

And into the next.

And so on.

And on.

And on.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Price of Admission


"You have your way. I have my way.
As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche
______________________

I was visiting with a good friend of mine, Nick, the other day when, inevitably--as is prone to happen when Nick and I get together and talk for any length of time--the conversation turned to serious matters.

"You know DeRogatis and Kot have a new book about this very topic, don't you?" I asked him.

He looked at me as if I'd just spoken some strange, new language. "What? They do?"

"Yeah. I think it just came out last month," I said. "Or maybe it was a couple of months ago. I don't remember. But it's literally titled, The Beatles vs. The Stones."

"You're kidding," he laughed. "How awesome is that?"

"Isn't it?" I laughed too. "One guess what it's about."

"Yeah, no kidding...."

"Yeah."

We both laughed a little longer, and then we stopped laughing. Primarily because--after all--it wasn't really all that funny, but more importantly because that age-old question asked by music-afficianados (a.k.a. "music snobs") the world over burned to be put out there once again.

"So anyway," I finally said. "What do you think? In your vaulted opinion...who is it? The Beatles or the Stones?"

*[Aside: Now, I realize that in the current global context we live in--with the world's economy on the brink of collapse, wars ravaging every continent, oceans clouded with spilled oil, temperatures climbing beneath the dissolving ozone layer, and polar bears doing their best to break world records of distance-swimming as they splash vaingloriously in search of one last shred of ice-floe melting in the sea's warming waters--the question of Who is better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? might come across to many as...well...maybe just a little bit insensitive, and maybe even borderline mindless and crass. And maybe, in the final analysis, not even all that "borderline." But anyway...]

"So which is it?" I asked again. "Lennon/McCartney or Richards/Jagger?"

This idea of taking sides on such a seemingly trivial, irrelevant issue is an interesting one, I think. It's not as if Nick's answer was going to affect the tides in any way. It's not as if his answer to such an inexplicably unaswerable question would ever (or could ever) serve as the final say on the matter. It's not even as if his answer held much weight or even really mattered all that much to me, I guess.

And yet I wanted to know. His answer to the question did matter to me, in its own way. Which is why I asked it in the first place. Which is why we ask most of the things we ask, I suppose. It's at the heart of why we want to know whatever it is that we want to know--at any given moment--no matter how mundane the information. It's why we google-search, and tune in to talk radio (news, current events, sports), and why we log on to chat rooms, and start arguments online, and turn to supposed "experts" in the field to gather opinion and insight into every esoteric topic available.

We love to have an opinion. This may be due to the old, traditional simile comparing opinions to common body parts, but it's mainly due, I think, to the simple fact that we love to feel--in some small way, at least--that we are right, and that our way of thinking about a given topic is not only the best way of thinking but should also be the only way of thinking about it. We love to share our opinions with others, of course (which, again, is the unarguable reason that the media platform of talk radio exists in the first place and has remained as popular as it has over the years.) At times, we even love to hear the opinions of others (if for no other reason, I suppose, than to see if their opinions validate our own). We love the give-and-take, the back-and-forth, and the animated discussion which allows us--if we so choose--to disagree with the difference of opinions which invevitably arises.

Because opinions will differ. Disagreement will happen. Someone will choose to say that the Beatles were the greatest and most influential pop/rock band of all time. Others will choose to say that, no, in fact it is the Roling Stones who hold that honor.

Who's right? Who's "in the know?" And who isn't? And who cares, really?

Well, as it turns out, I think in many ways (though we may not always even be fully aware of it) we all care about those questions of "Who's right?" and "Whose opinion can best be trusted?" Because we all ask those questions of ourselves and of others, in one way or another, all the time. And we all like to think, finally, that it is our opinion that rises among the ranks of all the other voices struggling to be heard, and that it is our opinion, at the end, that is the one true voice of reason.

But the sticking point for many is that having an opinion (like the cliched simile alluded to above) is easy. It comes naturally to us. It's part of our genetic makeup, in a way. It's biology at its most basic, it would seem. The difficult part comes, however, when push comes to shove (as another cliche goes) and we are forced to defend our opinions. The difficult part comes when we are asked to climb down from our proverbial fence and to answer the simple question put to us of "Well, why do you think that way?" The difficult and often uncomfortable part of having an opinion and of enjoying the freedom we all enjoy of being able to freely share that opinion is that moment when we are backed into a corner, so to speak, and forced to step out of our area of comfort--out of the "grey area" and into the polarizing territory of "black and white" end zones--and to demonstrate that we've actually done our homework and are not simply parroting someone else's opinion that we've heard somewhere along the way, and to show--as if with crude chalk drawings--some sort of logical train of thought that supports our way of thinking, some sort of homemade Aristotelian syllogism proving, without question, that If A is true, and if B is also true, then it stands to follow that C must therefore be true.

Most of us would rather not do that. Because it's tough. And because we are basically, at heart, (most of us, anyway) nice and decent people. And we're really not in this to hurt other people's feelings or to cause argument and distancing and separation. All of which invariably arises--or can, anyway--when we speak out and admit how we feel. Because inevitably someone is bound to disagree. And someone is bound to take offense and to get hurt feelings and to possibly speak out in defense.

And so it begins--again--this neverending cycle of point/counterpoint that seems to characterize our culture these days. We are caught in a media-induced "cult of opinion," almost, in which every little thing that happens is propagandized into ridiculously outsized proportions. The stereotypical talking heads gather around the sterotypical round tables. Discussion begins. Disagreement ensues. Argument erupts. Hysteria. Frenzy. Opinion.

"It is not best that we should all think alike," wrote Mark Twain. "After all, it is difference of opinion that makes horse races."

And though Twain's insight is typically incisive in his 19th-century razor-sharp satirical take, on the other hand he never had to deal with the immediate audience-response backlash of such 21st century meccas of cultural insight as Facebook, Twitter, and Formspring...to name just a few.

*[Aside: My God, what the fuck hath we wrought? I often wonder just what someone along Twain's caliber would think of the mess we've made for ourselves these days.]

I find it interesting and more than a little revealing about the times we live in that someone as strongly opinionated as Twain has never really quite gone away. Recently--in accordance with his wishes and to mark the centennial of his death--the University of California Press has published the first volume in a proposed three-volume set of the posthumous, self-penned Autobiography of Mark Twain. I'm sure within its weighty bulk readers will discover more than ever about the man. And I'm equally sure that within the pages of his Autobiography Twain will succeed in doing what he always managed to do almost better than anyone else--make you laugh at the same time that he's pissing you off with his opinions.

It's a delicate balancing act, a nuanced art, which he seemed to understand perfectly. But not everyone does. In fact, most people don't, I would say. And even Twain--with all of his artistic attempts to mask his strongly held opinions and his moral outrage as humor and as satire--can not seem to shake the inevitable effects that follow both forming and admitting one's opinion: Some people are going to be upset. Some poeple are going to take offense. And some people will disagree with you. And there will be outright consternation, vitriol, and even attack.

That's just the way it seems to go. Always. And as if I needed a case in point, I could look no further, again, than Twain himself, who ironically--while in the news for the publication of his life's letters--is in the news yet again for his most infamous piece of writing, his 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm not going to go into the details of why Twain's most well-known book is never far from the headlines, because I'm assuming that those who pay attention to such headlines (and even those who don't) are probably aware--even if just in passing--of the book's cyclical controversy. The reason for this latest round of back-and-forth debating, however, is centered on the proposed publication--again, almost ironically in keeping with the 100th year of the man's passing--of an "alternative" version of Huckleberry Finn, with the nearly 220 uses of the word "nigger" cleaned up and replaced by the word "slave" throughout the text.

The opinion of many of the book's strongest opponents throughout the years has been largely two-fold: 1.) The repetitive use of the word "nigger"--so obviously a degrading and damning word, meant not only to dehumanize the African slaves who were brought unwittingly to America's shores but to more importantly unhumanize them, as well--is offensive and should be kept from the eyes and ears of schoolchildren around the country for fear they will read and hear the word "nigger" in a book that is quite often--deservedly or not--termed the "greatest American novel," and 2.) Mark Twain was a product of his 19th-century white southern upbringing and in his adult years sought to skillfully hide his racist tendencies beneath the carefully modulated guise of "art."

Of course, an opposite opinion of many of the book's most ardent supporters throughout the years has been largely two-fold as well: 1.) While the word "nigger" is, admittedly, hateful and offensive and demoralizing, the word is also a fact of our nation's tortured and troublesome history. Sanitizing Twain's use of the offending word may sound nicer to our 21st century politically-correct sensibilities, but it is a lie, and 2.) As a product of the 19th-century south in America, Twain could have very easily been a bigot. But anyone who has spent any time in his writings--and particularly deep inside the novel in question--would be hard pressed to honestly call the man a racist. Given his time and place, Twain was oddly and uniquely above it all, and his repeated use of the word "nigger" in his most famous novel was not done without much forethought and interior debate, and it was not done simply out of convenience, and it was not done without the knowledge that the offending word would set off a firestorm of controversy, despite his best efforts to playfully mask his work as "satire."

Now, which one of those opinions is the right one? And how can we tell? And what does it matter, finally? And what does it say about those who are willing to take a stand in an argument such as the one above? What does it say about us if we willingly, for once, slide off the fence we've been sitting on for so long and allow our feet to touch solid ground, either on one side of the fence or the other? Depending on whichever side we find ourselves landing, what does our opinion on such a debate say about us? In the end, what do any of our opinions really say about us?

Are we good people? Do we want to be good people? What is it that motivates us? What moves us? What inspires us to take action, and to take a stand, and to take a side? And what are we willing to gain by taking a stand--one way or the other--on a divisive issue? And what are we willing to lose? What are willing to speak out on? And to stand up for? And to say--if only to ourselves--"This is the truth, as I see it from where I stand. Agree or disagree, or simply agree to disagree with me."

That's a nice mantra, but it's very often easier said than done. Admitting our opinions takes courage. It's hard work, if your heart is into it. There is a toll taken, a price to be paid for admitting what you think and what you feel. Here there be tigers, after all. And usually there's no turning back. And sometimes those tigers bite.

*[Aside: But the thing about opinion and about searching for the truth is that sometimes, when we find it, the truth isn't really what we thought it would be all along. Sometimes the truth can be pretty disappointing. Our perception of the truth is deceiving. Our opinions--acting as signposts, if you will, that guide us along the way in our search for the truth--can sometimes lead us in the right direction and sometimes lead us to a dead end. Admitting those opinions, and defending those opinions in the name of Truth (whatever shape and form that may take at the moment) is a tricky art. For after all, what we deem to be true--as expressed by our opinion--may in fact turn out to be an untruth, may in fact turn out to be an outright lie. Did we mean to do this? Is this a fair representation of how we really feel? Did we mean to hurt anyone? Usually no. But still the fact remains--like Col. Jessep bellowing from the witness stand in Nicholson's menacing, inimitable growl: "You can't handle the truth!"-- simply admitting what we think and feel may earn us more enemies than friends. And sometimes that's not fair. Sometimes we wish it were the other way around. But once you say something or write something, your thoughts and feelings are out there, free to be embraced by others, and free, as well, to be rejected. And there are no "takebacks." Not really. Not in the adult world, anyway. No matter how much we may wish it could be different, very often what we say--in the name of "Our Opinion"--goes.]

"Who do I think is better between the Beatles and the Stones?" Nick said back to me. And then he laughed again, obviously stalling for time. "Wow! Are you serious? What kind of question is that?"

"It's just a question," I said. "DeRogatis and Kot wrote a whole book about that very debate. And about what it means, I suppose--what it says about you--if you fall in either camp as claiming either band to be better than the other."

"So Beatles fans are all about this and that, and fans of the Rolling Stones are about such and such?"

"Yes, I guess," I said. "Something like that, anyway. A simple delineation. Division and classification, and all of that exciting rhetorical nonsense..."

"What's good and what's bad?" Nick said.

"Yes, something like that."

"Real psychoanalytical type of stuff?"

I laughed. "It sure sounds like it to me. I'm sure if you claim to be a Stones fan, somewhere in the analysis it surely must mean you're a misogynistic asshole or something."

"'Under My Thumb,'" he offered.

"And don't forget 'Brown Sugar,'" I said.

"Racist tendencies," he said.

I laughed. "Of course."

"Simple division among people," Nick said. "Beatles fans over here. Rolling Stones fans over there."

"Segregation in its purest sense."

"Black and white."

I nodded. "There's what's right, and there's what's right," I said, quoting Raising Arizona.

"And never the two shall meet," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "It's something like that."

He laughed again and sighed, still obviously stalling for time. "Damn...that is admittedly a tough question."

"There's no tougher question in all the world," I joked. "Your whole life has come down to this very moment. The fate of the world hinges on your opinion. Now speak your mind! The Beatles or the Stones? What are you afraid of?"

He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. And maybe I had. I don't know. He sighed. "I really don't know. I need to think about it a little more."

"No! Thinking about it kills it. Life in the moment. Inspiration of the now."

He was still looking at me as if I'd lost my mind. "'Inspiration of the now?'" he said back to me.

I laughed. "Or something like that..."

"Something like that?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, I don't know. I don't have an opinion on your question right at this moment."

I laughed. "What are you afraid of, hurting my feelings?"

"What?"

"Are you afraid I might disagree with you?" I said. "That I might point out the error of your ways? That I might have an opinion that differs from your own and that you might piss me off?"

"Personally I don't care whether you agree with me or not," he said.

And then I started to sing. I actually started singing, doing the best impersonation of Paul McCartney that I could muster, given the time of day. "'You say yes, I say no. You say stop, but I say go, go, go....'"

Nick only looked at me and shook his head sadly. Obviously he wasn't buying it.

"'You say goodbye, and I say hello....'"

"Good Lord," he finally said, laughing all the more. "What is the matter with you? Are you trying to piss me off or something? Of course the Rolling Stones were the better of the two. There's no question..."