Mar 31, 2008

On the front page of the NYT

Timothy Eden is talking about Rick Steves ending the drug war. Heartening.

Story: The Librarian's Companion

“What do you mean, Montezuma-Cortez? Find two bitterer enemies in all of human history. It’s like Churchill-Hitler High School.” Selena regretted speaking immediately.

Dr. Whistler looked at her with complete disbelief. “Look, Ms. Locke, Cortez is the name of the city, and Montezuma is the name of the county.” He emphasized the Ms., drawing it out like an ethnic slur. “There’s a lot of kids from around the county that come here, and besides, it makes for unique initials. School’s gonna start tomorrow, and you best just keep those little tidbits to yourself, understand?” He harrumphed importantly. Selena had expected that with her ridiculous over-qualification for this position would have given her a little leeway, but no.

“My mistake.” She doubted that he knew who Montezuma and Cortez were.

The school was tiled with old vinyl squares, scratched clean of all color in places from generations of kids pushing chairs to and from the auditorium/basketball court. Everything was worn and frayed, but solid—most of the walls were cinderblock and concrete. Here and there they had tacked on another classroom or three, but down one hall she saw men behind plastic sheeting who were, according to Dr. Whistler, pulling out some asbestos from the floor. Later she would find out that his degree was in physical education.

Selena had been repeatedly telling herself that it wasn’t going to be like the magnet school in Portland, but she learned there is a difference between knowing a fact and actually believing it. The male students were alternately misogynistic, making wildly suggestive comments about her and trying to look down her shirt, then virulently homophobic toward their classmates. She ended up giving out twenty-three detentions the first day. The second day she came within a hair’s breadth of losing an eye trying to break up a fight between two girls. The third day she discovered someone had cleaned out her desk—not just stolen the pens, but everything that wasn’t nailed down, including the drawers. After the fourth day she gave up trying to make them stop using “gay” as a synonym for annoying—mentioning it just made them do it more. By the fifth day she was thinking about smoking.

She made a friend in Ms. Young, one of the history teachers. She was married, a bit older than Selena, with two young kids. She’d been teaching for fifteen years and was also a militant feminist, in the best sense of the term, which delighted Selena.

“Don’t,” she’d said when Selena brought up Mr. Whistler, “judge the whole school by the administrators. These public schools out here are rotten, and shitty administrators are passed around like a bad cold. Couple years back there was a vice-principal who resigned in disgrace after groping a student. Two weeks later he had a job down in Gallup. A lot of the teachers are no good either. But there are a few gems. And don’t,” she added, “forget that there are some smart bastards around even out here.”

When Selena asked how the “gems” managed their teaching, Ms. Young broke it down. “First thing you’ve gotta do is give up on about half the kids straight off. You’ll know which ones. Most of the rest will scrape by and you don’t have to worry about them either. Second, you’ve got to isolate the smart ones, the ones that still like to learn and haven’t lost hope yet. Talk to ‘em after class, get ‘em reading, loan ‘em your own books, tutor ‘em after school, whatever it takes. You might get three or four of those a year. Some of the smart ones won’t need your help—you’ll know those too. Good parents, personal drive, something’s got ‘em on the right track. That leaves the smart ones that are trying to bomb—born into stupid and brutal families and so on. Some of those will get by you, no sense in blaming yourself about that. But if you work it subtly, don’t aggravate the parents by making it seem like you’re pushing that ‘devil learnin’ on ‘em, you might just help. And don’t get discouraged. You’re panning for gold in the dregs of humanity down here. Low expectations are the key to survival.”

“Who’s the best teacher here?” asked Selena.

“Mr. Martens,” said Ms. Young quickly. “Don’t try and learn from him. He’s got his own style. In fact, you better just leave him alone.”

The first time Selena saw Bill Martens was in the break room at lunch a couple weeks into the year. He carried himself warily, gracefully—especially for such a thickly built man. A great pink scar emerged from under his rolled-up left sleeve and made it most of the way to his hand. He actually looked like a powerlifter, now that she thought about it—his arms and neck thick and heavy with muscle. He would make a good pot roast, thought Selena. She regarded very muscular men as somewhat grotesque, but this one wasn’t bad looking, in a granite statue sort of way.

The top of his head was totally bald, ringed by a wispy silver growth. He carried in his lunch in an ancient blue mini-cooler, out of which he extracted a submarine sandwich. After it was done, he made to leave without saying a word, but Selena stood in the way.

“Hi,” she said, and stuck out her hand. “I’m Selena Locke. I just moved down here from Portland.”

“I know.” He shook her hand roughly and made to leave again. His hand felt rough, almost like wood instead of skin.

“And you are?”

“Martens.” He looked like he was about to forcibly remove her from the doorway, but Selena held her ground.

“What do you teach?” she asked.

“Chemistry.”

“Interesting! I’m teaching physics and algebra II. I always wanted to take more chemistry classes in college.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you can do physics, then why bother with chemistry?”

Selena was stumped by this one. “Well, it’s useful,” she said after a moment.

“But it’s bullshit.”

“Don’t you like chemistry?”

“No.”

“Then why teach it?”

“Will you get out of my way?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Selena flushed scarlet.

He opened the door violently, muttering under his breath, and slammed it behind him. Ms. Young came in the break room a moment later.

“I met that Martens guy.”

“Ah, you met Bill, eh? The kids call him Doc, like the shoes.” Ms. Young sounded amused.

Selena had expected more sympathy than that. “What a ridiculous name for such a hard man.” She spat the last two words out, putting as much venom in them as she could manage.

“Listen, Selena, don’t take him too seriously. You just leave him alone, he won’t bother you in the slightest.”

“Don’t worry.”

Later she realized that “Doc” had not looked her in the eyes once during their conversation.

The next time Selena saw Bill Martens was a week later when she was hitting up the john during her planning period. Her classroom was just down the hall from his, and yet she had not seen him once since the first time in the break room. The bathroom was right across from his classroom, and he didn’t seem to use the break room often, but she heard from one of the math teachers that he rode a bike to school.

After the anger at him died down, Selena had felt curiosity creep back up. She snuck a peek through the window next to the door to his classroom.

He was holding a black rubber toilet plunger while he lectured, first just leaning on it, but in the space of three minutes, he used it alternately as a pointer, baseball bat, rapier, and rifle. He seemed to be a disciple of the old art of Charlie Chaplin. As she watched, he goose-stepped across the room giving the fascist salute, marched into the wall, and collapsed fluidly to the ground to wild laughter. She couldn’t make out any words, but it was clear then that he was whipping them into a frenzy tent-revival preacher style, using call-and-response to teach…well, something. She might have guessed.

After school she screwed up her courage and went to his door try and make friends again. He just leaving and facing the other way, turning out the light as she approached. When he saw her, he dropped his lunchbox and his hand jumped to his side with whip-crack speed. He crouched down slightly, like a coiling snake.

Selena was stunned at his quickness. He caught himself then, standing up again and clipping something back on his belt. Selena steeled herself for a volcanic blast of rage. She considered making a break for it, but thought she wouldn’t make it to the end of the hall.

“Please don’t sneak up on me,” he said, his voice trembling. His eyes shone in the dim hallway. His rumbling voice lilted slightly, as though he had picked up a Chinese accent.

“I’m so sorry,” said Selena, touched but confused out of her wits. She groped for something to say that wouldn’t sound trite. “Is there anything I can do?” She failed.

She fished in her pocket and came up with a half-melted Three Musketeers she had confiscated from one of her students. She offered it to him, hardly believing herself. “Candy bar?”

He looked at her eyes for the first time then, and at the candy, and suddenly burst out laughing, great bellowing guffaws that were nearly as frightening as his near-assault. Selena joined in out of nervousness, but soon let herself go and laughed along full force.

“God-damn,” he said, still chuckling. “I must have scared the shit out of you!” He sounded like a different person, fresh and friendly, but as his laughter died, it was as if someone had strapped a backpack full of lead ingots on his back. His shoulders slumped, his eyes dropped, and he stooped to scoop the debris from his lunchbox back from whence it came.

“Let me help you with that,” said Selena, but it was already done.

“I’d better get going,” he said. “Sorry about being jumpy. See you.” He began walking off, giving her a wide berth.

“Wait, at least let me give you a ride home,” she said. “It’s the least I can do.”

“I’ve got my bike,” he said, walking quickly and looking straight ahead.

“I’ve got a truck, it’ll fit.”

“No thanks, I could use the exercise.” He was almost running now.

She let him go.

A couple weeks later Selena discovered the town of Dolores. Snuggled up against the Dolores River north of Cortez, it was hipper, whiter, and liberaler than its larger neighbor. Selena mentioned the place to Ms. Young, who said she met some other teachers at the local brew pub on Mondays and invited her along.

Upon arrival she recognized Bill Martens’ gravelly voice with its strange hint of Asian up-and-down flavor to it; he seemed to be telling a story. She walked past their table and nodded, trying not to interrupt, but Bill froze mid-gesticulation and stopped. Ms. Young looked at him with annoyance while Mr. Smith genially pulled out a heavy wooden chair, gesturing for Selena to sit down.

Selena hesitated a moment, then took the chair. “I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said.

“Of course you didn’t,” said Ms. Young. “How are you?”

“Doing well,” said Selena. “I’m glad this town exists. I don’t know if I could make it otherwise.”

Mr. Smith laughed. “Hear, hear. Bill was just telling us a story about how he met Jack Nicholson in Telluride the other day.”

“Wait, is that close?” Selena had heard of the ski resort but didn’t know where it was.

Mr. Smith laughed again. “It’s right up the street.” He pointed to the main drag fifty yards away outside. “About seventy miles north on that road there.”

“So,” prompted Selena. “How did you meet Jack Nicholson?”

Bill stared at the table. “I ran into him on the mountain hiking up there.”

Ms. Young punched him in the arm, hard. She shook her hand out, grimacing in pain. “He ran into you, more like.”

“Yeah.”

Ms. Young gritted her teeth. “Goddammit.” She looked at Selena. “Bill was almost taken out by Jack Nicholson when he fell hiking downhill. But Bill managed to catch him before he fell to certain death.”

“He wouldn’t have died,” said Bill. “That cliff was only about ten feet. Fifteen tops. Anyone coulda done it.”

Ms. Young rolled her eyes.

Bill started to get up, looking desperately at the door, but Selena grasped his wrist. “Hang on,” she said. He looked her in the eyes for the second time, frozen again. “I was just stopping by to drop something off for the bartender,” she lied. “I’ll be going now.” He sat down heavily, gazing at the wrist she had touched.

Selena scampered to the bar and short of anything to do, ordered a pint of their best homebrew and told the bartender to give it to Bill. She gave a casual salute as she left, which Bill returned quickly, automatically.

She climbed into her truck, an older Toyota four-wheel-drive purchased especially for the area, returned to her house on Beech and Arbecam and made some tea. She drank it slowly, ruminating on Bill Martens. She knew his type—the shy, self-deprecating one—the woman generally had to make the first move. They’d seize on any possible excuse to convince themselves that you actually weren’t interested.

She cracked open Mary Boas’ Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences. Opening to a random section—one on Fourier series and transforms—she turned to the problems and did one after the other with machinelike precision and speed, feeling the tension lift from her shoulder blades.

Selena found out where Martens lived by looking him up in the faculty directory. She felt somewhat creepy about doing it, but she decided to take a bike ride out by his place, just to see what it looked like. It was about fifteen miles from her house up Road 26, left onto the dirt of Road N, across Highway 666, past Road 22, past Road 21, left on Road 20, second driveway on the right. The driveway itself was of indeterminate length, overgrown and heavily rutted. It vanished into some trees about a quarter-mile away. She saw no mailbox on the street. It was starting to get cold as the sun sank behind an ominous cloud bank to the west.

Martens rode up beside her on his bicycle. “You’d better come inside,” he said. “It’s set to rain like a sonofabitch.”

Selena felt terribly awkward, but her curiosity was a living thing, pulsing inside her breast. The thought of riding back all those miles in the pouring rain helped as well. She had yet to get used to the instantaneous torrential downpours characteristic of the desert. “Are you sure that’s okay?” she asked.

He nodded and led the way.

The driveway was terribly rough. It obviously hadn’t been maintained, though she could see bike tracks. The house was gray, unfinished stucco base coat, set into the side of a small hill. The front porch was tiny, but covered on top and on three sides, so she left her bike there. Bill opened the door for her and locked the deadbolt behind him. “Latch doesn’t work very well on the door,” he explained. “It’s going to be a bad one, just you wait. The road might wash out.” His hand shook on the doorknob. “You can probably tell I don’t entertain much.”

“Jesus, I guess not,” said Selena. “Do you mind if I have a look around?” He nodded.

The house was much larger than she would have suspected from the outside. A substantial portion of the hill had been carved out, which made for grand high ceilings. The floor was cold tile and concrete; Selena could see the impression of leaves in strategic places. There was a functional bedroom on the left, with a personal bathroom, and to the right there was a smaller room full of bookshelves. Straight ahead was an enormous room; she estimated it took up a solid third of the house. To the closest corner to the left was a fully equipped chef’s kitchen, complete with marble countertops. It that looked somewhat used, but the rest of the space was taken up with the same rickety bookshelves. To the right there was a dark hallway framed by a wall and a bookshelf. This bookshelf had two layers—the bottom looked original, painstakingly handcrafted, about three feet high, topped with a huge single piece of fir that must have been beautiful once. On top of that, blocking the view into the large room, another fragile-looking bookshelf had been stacked, packed to the gills with—? Selena took down a volume at random. Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.

She saw a picture on the wall across from the bookshelf, and flipped the nearest light switch. A dusty light, suspended overhead by brushed aluminum chains, cast a pleasing glow down onto the hallway and the picture. It was of ten men in jungle camouflage, smeared with war paint, clustered around a central figure. Some grinned, some looked away, some looked bored. Many smoked. She recognized Bill Martens in the center. He had already lost much of his hair, but what was left was black. He did not smile. He looked absolutely fearsome, thought Selena. He held a huge machine gun as though it were a part of him, strapped with bandoliers of ammunition, and looked to the side as though he were even during this calm moment searching for enemies.

At that moment the rain and the wind came, hammering down with unsettling force. Selena looked at the end of the hallway and found more rooms stuffed with books, as well as a bathroom that had the same treatment, complete with a bookshelf in the tub. The place would fit a family nicely with a little touching up.

Bill called from the kitchen. “You want some tea?”

“Sure.” Selena returned to the kitchen. Through the rows of bookshelves she could see huge windows, taking up most of the wall facing south. She ticked off the seconds after a flash of lightning and got to four before the sharp thunder. The rain was coming down in sheets, lashing the windows violently. The house, however, didn’t so much as creak. She sat down at the table, a huge, polished piece of gray marble.

“So, how long have you lived here?” Selena asked.

Bill sat down across the table from her with an obvious effort, and slid a heavy cup across the table to her. “Thirty-eight years.”

“Did you build it yourself?” she asked. This seemed to be common in these parts. She sipped the tea, and was surprised by the quality.

“Yes,” he said. “How did you know?”

“It was an inspired guess.”

He pulled from his shirt pocket a small bottle. He uncapped it, poured the cap full, and drained it down.

“What’s that?” she asked. He hesitated, and she added, “You don’t have to answer.”

“Laudanum,” he said. “Tincture of opium. My own blend, containing not less than 15 milligrams of morphine per milliliter.”

Behind her eyes ten thousand images and ideas clicked heavily into place, known personally or half-remembered, and coalesced behind three words: addiction, intervention, and rehab.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Bill. “I don’t need any help.”

Another word joined the first three: denial.

“I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I’m in fine shape.”

Selena found that hard to believe. The rain was coming down harder and harder, roaring, making it hard to hear anything.

“You ever smoke?” asked Bill.

“Yeah. I quit.”

“Why?”

“Lung cancer, emphysema, and Phillip Morris.”

“Morphine’s harmless, except for the addiction. Only side effect is constipation, if you have clean material. I grow my own.” He showed her a Tupperware full of opium poppies, and demonstrated how to collect the latex by scoring the bulbs with a dull razor. “Sixteen percent morphine, that.”

“Do the police know about this?”

“My cousin is a detective. We agreed that, so long as I didn’t sell to anyone and didn’t get caught by the feds, they’d leave me alone. That was thirty-two years ago. He comes by every now and again to make sure I’m not cutting it up for street sale.”

“You’re lucky.” Live and let live, she always said. He seemed to be doing all right. Sort of.

“Yeah.”

“No side effects? Are you sure?” That part was too much to swallow in one go.

“No, that’s pretty much it. Objectively much less harmful than alcohol or cocaine. Well, decreased libido as well. Though as you can see,” he said, waving his arm around, “that’s not exactly a deal breaker around here.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Selena, arching one eyebrow. He flushed a violent shade of purple, and Selena wished she had kept that one to herself, but he did not get up. She looked around sheepishly, and noticed a paper with familiar arcane scribbling. She turned it to face her, and saw a moderately difficult partial differential equation. Immediately her attention was completely sucked away. He had gotten stuck, it seemed. “Is this yours?” she asked, already seeing where he had made his mistake.

“It is. Some years ago I started doing math again and this is how far I’ve made it.” He seemed somewhat ashamed.

“You’re 99% there. You fouled up this integral here, just a hair.” She showed him, and solved it fluidly.

“Jesus Christ!” he said, openmouthed. He drawled like a southerner. “They don’t make ‘em like you down in Cor-tez.”

She shrugged. “Hey, don’t be down on yourself. Self-taught, hardly anyone would make it that far, especially at your age. This is the only thing I’m good at.”

He smiled.

The evening sun emerged under the storm, flooding the kitchen with golden light. “I think I might be able to head home soon.” The rain was tapering off as well.

“Come on outside before you go.”

The back porch was an enormous concrete slab, enough for a wedding reception, that overlooked the canyon behind the house and faced south and west. It was unfinished, with rebar sticking up like punjis. Bill had left an old armchair under the eaves, and balanced a piece of plywood as a table on top some convenient rebar. The sun, its light filtered through a haze from three coal-fired power plants, outlined the underside of the storm cloud in a stark red glow, and slashed across the eroded, folded drapery face of the Mesa Verde to the southwest, giving alternating stripes of red-gold and dark green. The Sleeping Ute was close in to the south, imposing and massive, individual trees on the west slope of its folded arms lit like massive forest fire. “Wow,” she said. They watched the sun go down in silence.

“This country ain’t meant for this many people to live here,” said Bill. “One day we’ll be manning the barricades against starving Phoenicians coming up here trying to take over.” His voice was different again, rolling kind of like Garrison Keillor, thought Selena. She wondered if she had ever heard his natural voice, or if he even had one. He paused for a moment. “Not enough water. It’s thirsty business down in the desert. Just you wait.”

He shook his head abruptly, as though he had forgotten she was there. “Here, let me get you a better coat. It’s going to be muddy as Jesus out there. If the road’s washed out and you can’t get around, you can come back. I can set you up with a place to sleep.”

“Is that so,” she said slyly, before she could catch herself.

He didn’t flush quite so badly this time. “Not what I meant.” He fished in his closet and came out with an old oilcloth riding coat. “This should work for your bike. It’s got straps to hold it to your legs.”

Surprisingly, it fit perfectly. Selena measured the coat against his broad frame. “This can’t be yours.”

“No,” he said. “It was my wife’s,” he added after few seconds.

“Whoa,” she said. “I see.” The pieces were falling together.

“I doubt it,” he said. “I killed her.”

Selena could think of nothing to say. Fear rose in her gut, black and nauseating.

He rolled up his left sleeve, showing the massive scar. “She came after me with a kitchen knife. Got me in the leg too. There was a struggle.” He hiccupped. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I haven’t told anyone in thirty-six years.”

“The drugs?” she ventured.

“I’m always on drugs. Every time we’ve met. You’d better go. Be dark soon.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said slowly. “And thanks for the coat. I’ll give it back tomorrow.”

“Keep it,” he said, and watched her bounce down the driveway. He sat down on the porch in the gathering dusk, kneading his kneecaps.

She was back a half-hour later, and he was still there on the porch. “You were right. Road’s washed out,” she said. “Can I stay at your place?” He didn’t look away.

“I have pretty bad nightmares sometimes,” he said, and looked stunned at what he had said.

She stood very close to him now. “What you need are some better memories,” she said. “And a dust mop. I bet I can help you sleep.” She kissed him, and felt his body slacken against hers.

She was right.



Copyright 2009, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author.

Why the traditional media is still needed

Blogs don't do shit like this for the most part. It requires money, time, connections, and expertise.

Jesus fucking Christ.

Mar 30, 2008

Cool-ass site

I've just added VBS TV to my links, and boy, that's a pretty awesome site. It seems to me to be the future of journalism--openly biased, guerrilla-style reporting from places like North Korea and Bolivia. I highly recommend those two series (the only ones I've seen so far).

The North Korea series is basically the story of an American in North Korea without too much of an agenda. It's incredible, and that's all I'll say. What a place.

The Bolivian piece is more focused; it's primarily about the coca trade. Apparently coca leaves are in everything down there--from just chewing on the leaves to tea to ice cream. They use it, without much in the way of side effects, to keep alert (like coffee, basically) and to counter the effects of high-altitude living (La Paz, the capital, is at around 13,000 feet). There's a lot of history there I didn't know.

Anyway, check 'em out. They come in little bite-sized 5-10 minute episodes, so they're great for little study breaks.

McCain's "spiritual guide"

Apparently there is another crazed religious lunatic aside from John Hagee that John McCain has taken an endorsement from. This one's name is Rod Parsely:
McCain said, "I am very honoured today to have one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide, Pastor Rod Parsley. Thank you for your leadership and your guidance. I am very grateful you are here."

[...]

In his book, Silent no More, Parsley says the United States was ordained by God to defeat Islam.

In one chapter, titled The Deception of Allah he writes: "I cannot tell you how important it is that we understand the true nature of Islam, that we see it for what it really is. In fact, I will tell you this: I do not believe our country can truly fulfil its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore."

This guy is even worse than Hagee, in my opinion, but the story doesn't seem to be getting legs--though that remains to be seen. It might have something to do with general anti-Islamic sentiment in the US, or the weakness of the pro-Islam lobby (as compared to Bill Donohue's Catholic League), but this is an arrow to be saved up for later. I think we can still make a case that a repeat of the Crusades is not something the average voter wants.


Mar 13, 2008

Baselining

This looks absolutely terrifying: combination of slacklining and base jumping. Dear god.

Westwater: a Story

I suppose it was good manners, or my lack thereof, that made Byron punch me in the face. I don’t mean to say he was justified in striking me—far from it—that’s just what must have been going through his mind. I imagine like most males he had harbored a secret desire to hit someone square in the face, just to see what it was like. And who better to practice on that someone whom he outweighed by a solid eighty pounds. I was thirteen at the time, and Byron, though he was only eighteen months older than me, overmatched my paltry five foot eight by a good seven inches.

We were on the Colorado river, on a trip through Ruby-Horsethief Canyon, then down through Westwater Canyon, which was the most dangerous and exciting part of the trip. The Phelpsclan, Byron’s family of eight, was the author of this experience, and I joined them as Byron’s friend.

The first inkling of the disaster I would later experience happened at the outset of the trip, before we had floated anywhere, at the put-in. The adults were doing the shuttle, which is to say driving the two cars down to the first takeout near the end of the voyage, where we would drop off Mother Phelps and the two babies before continuing down through Westwater. They would leave one car there and come back up to the put-in, and at the end we would come back and pick up this car—a tedious enterprise, but a necessary one.

There happened to be at this particular put-in a delicious eddy for swimming—a place where the river doubles back on itself next to the bank. At the frontier between these two flows—the eddy line—swirling and chaotic currents are universally present. This eddy was small and weak enough that it could be easily overpowered by a good swimmer, but we wore our buoyant life preservers just in case. At the top of this eddy, the furthest upstream portion where the two currents most stridently opposed each other and depth luckily permitted, one could jump in and feel a delightful sensation of being pulled in several directions by the chaotic water. As the two or three most able Phelpsclansmen and I enjoyed the currents; jumping in, allowing the river to carry us a ways downstream, and swimming back to repeat, I noticed Byron had taken up the boatman’s seat on the largest boat, a large, red inflatable catamaran. This done, he pulled a large handgun from somewhere in the pack—a .45 automatic, if memory serves. He held in gingerly in one hand, no doubt imagining the gun bucking in his hand as he pumped round after round into some nameless villain. As is customary in such situations, I pretended it was perfectly normal and continued swimming. As to what paranoid delusions convinced Father Phelps that he needed to bring such a cannon on a private recreational river trip, I care not to speculate.

As we got underway in our trip, the dogs made themselves known. The Phelpsclan, as is common in these times, had brought their family pet, a chubby and trembling black Labrador named Bonnie, along on the trip. The only other non-Phelpsclan member on the trip was a close relative: Father Phelps’ sister Sally, and she brought her blondish Labrador, named Molly, as well. Molly was relatively sane so far as that is possible for a dog, but the other not as much. Bonnie was something of the fretting type—she would sit on one of the midstream boats, whining and straining desperately against whatever restraints might be conceived, looking at the other boat as though six generations of her lost puppies were on board. Should she manage to break loose, she would immediately jump ship and strike out for the other boat. Once this perch was gained, she would scan the horizon for the previous boat which she had just quit, and finding it unaccountably doggie-furlongs away, set up the mirror image of the procedure she had just performed. My muttered suggestions that the dog be jettisoned went thankfully unheard.

The crowning moment of realization for me, the instant when the whole godforsaken truth of it came crashing down, was during a stop for lunch early in the trip, far before the darkly lurking Westwater. We had two boats, both severely overloaded, and were pulling off to the left to make some food. The river, sixty or so feet across, was placid at this point, but it must be said that even in calm spots experienced professional guides have been known to miss pull-ins like this one. However, if thundering rapids don’t lie directly beneath, such an error usually only requires a short hike for the passengers to rejoin the main group or a tedious haul of the boat upstream, using the stern line as a towing chain, or in the worst case missing whatever it was the party was stopping for. As most boatmen usually carry a hefty supply of beer, especially early in the trip, a missed lunch is not generally life-threatening.

Byron, who was rowing the Puma, which was smaller than the red catamaran, missed the pull-in. He demonstrated such marvelous un-dexterity at the oars, as though he had been instructed since birth by a team of trained psychologists who sole purpose was to remove any lingering shreds of watercraft-related talent that I suspected momentarily he was making a practical joke.

This suspicion was laid to rest when Byron seized up the throw line, and ignoring the semblance of an instruction manual present in the very name of the thing, jumped off the boat and swam jerkily to shore, leaving his mother and two baby sisters in the boat, bewildered. Mother Phelps gamely took up the oars and slapped feebly at the water like a penguin in São Paulo grasping for a cool, delicious cocktail.

The reaction of the remainder of the Phelpsclan—their reaction, as I later learned, to practically every unforeseen development—was blind panic. Each began shouting at the other, and all at Byron. When he finally beached himself, gasping, on the shore, there commenced a shouting match between him and his father that would last the remainder of the day and into the evening.

I watched the situation with a kind of stunned horror, like someone watching a train plow into a bus full of crippled—yet pugnacious and lovable—children. I sat on the beach next to another party of boaters who were trying to make sense of their place in the universe in relation to this group. “Well, at least they’re not flying airplanes,” I said, and went off to have a sandwich. It was soon after this that it was decided that Byron would not be rowing any boat through Westwater.

It was downhill from there, though I did enjoy myself—it was the river, after all. It quickly became apparent, though I tried not to believe it at the time, that the lot of us were in far over our head. I had been spoiled in river trips, as I always had both my highly skilled parents to fall back on. These redoubtable campaigners, who for many years had been professional boatmen of the highest caliber in the legendary Grand Canyon, possessed river skills eclipsing mine—and practically all humankind—by many orders of magnitude. On my family trips, if things got hairy, I could turn the controls over to one of these titans and watch leisurely as they threaded the boat and its cargo down immense rapids, wielding nothing but a pair of stout ash oars. I had also not realized the capriciousness of rivers, how regardless of skill or noble birth sometimes the river decided you were going upside down, and conversely how sometimes the most blistering ignoramuses ever to defile a set of oar-handles could unaccountably make it down roaring falls unscathed.

At this point I should include a word about Aunt Sally. She was Father Phelps’ sister, and wholly confident discoursing on any subject that happened to leap to her mind. I would often hear her, for example, exhorting one of the young Phelpsclansmen to not pee in the river, for God’s sake. Remember, friends, that dilution is the solution, as a large talking bear in blue jeans once told me.

So, after a number of grinding, endless days, we stopped at the first takeout and dropped off mother, Bonnie, and babies. Below us lay two days of rapids, and then freedom.

So all trip resentment was building in me, anger at the Phelpsclan for being such unthinkable doofuses, and also anger at them for putting me in a situation where I could not if I so desired slink cowardly back into the bilge and let someone else handle the heavy lifting. It all came out that night over the dishes. I was unrelentingly mean and petty to Byron, needling him over all manner of sensitive topics, of which, I can assure you, there were uncountable many. So he got pissed and punched me in the face, and I dropped.

Not too long after falling to the sand the reality of the situation came pouring over me. The son of a bitch hit me! The son of a bitch hit me!! Rage such as I have felt only a half-dozen times in my life came boiling up, and I launched myself at him, all 120 pounds of flailing terror. My punch missed, and we fell to grappling. Neither of us was particularly athletic, and we flopped clumsily around. I, being smaller and weaker, ended up on the bottom, and having no other damage to inflict, seized a handful of stomach fat a wrenched it as hard as I could, quashing odd notions about “fighting fair” that came bubbling up in my mind.

Soon we were pulled apart, and I staggered around, trying to mask—or at least soften—my obvious defeat by claiming ludicrously that I had been temporarily blinded. I stomped off into the brush while the Phelps began their customary screaming match. It was when I was alone that the true rage was loosed, and I stalked around the rocks next to the river, picking up the heaviest ones I could carry and smashing them down again, hurling great driftwood logs far into the river, and shrieking until my voice gave out—generally making such a calamitous racket that I could have nearly drowned out the entire Phelpsclan at the height of one of their pitched battles.

How ridiculous, you might say, indicating that my reaction was not justified by the circumstances. I would have to agree, and offer in my defense only that such anger does not respond to rational entreaties, and must simply be poured out on the earth until it has run dry.

Run dry it did soon afterward, though I stomped around in the bush for another hour or so muttering oaths and curses. By this time, it was dark, and I wandered stealthily back into camp and observed a conversation between Byron and his father.

“Where’s that gun?” asked Byron, and I felt the first pangs of real fear. Though I doubted he possessed the courage to shoot someone in cold blood, I could not honestly tell myself that Byron wouldn’t under any circumstances shoot me somewhere, probably poorly enough so that I would die slowly and painfully. He made allusion to some occasion when Father Phillips used the handgun to teach an impudent Bonnie some kind of lesson. Maybe that’s why the damn thing is so crazy, I thought, but quickly returned to eavesdropping. Father Phillips, to his eternal credit, explained in his slow and halting way that shooting at the dog was in fact a bad idea, and that brandishing firearms was not the preferred method of conflict mediation between friends.

I listened closely to their conversation for the next couple of hours as it ranged over all manner of subjects. It truly was a significant talk, and I kept my ears open in case I should have needed to escape quickly. I surreptitiously enlisted my few allies amongst the Phelpsclan to procure my possessions—in waterproof rubber bags—and formulated a plan to hike upstream, swim across the river to the Ruby-Horsethief takeout, find a phone to call my parents for an evacuation, obtain a restraining order against anyone pumping at least a half-pint of Phelpsclan blood, and submit my life savings to the purchase of a formidable armory.

It slowly became clear that I was not going to have to high-tail it. Byron tried to find me after awhile to apologize, but I wasn’t ready to give that to him. I remained hidden in the shadows, and he with his lantern was unable to find me in the dark. I slept burritoed into a tarp that night, as I had been sharing a tent with Byron.

In the morning we continued downstream. Westwater was hard on us now. Its rapids, though not in the same league as the legendary torrents downstream in the Grand Canyon, are still capable of homogenizing even the experienced boater. The worst of the rapids is the whimsically named Skull rapid, no doubt named from the piles of dried human craniums made from sacrifices to the river gods. Right in the middle of the rapid the river makes a hard left turn, and the accumulated inertia of the water has bored a sharp scoop at the right-hand bank. This area is the site of a vicious eddy—more of a whirlpool really—called the Room of Doom, in which a vast assortment of debris will spin, it is said, until the end of time. Westwater is in a gorge of hard, black Vishnu Schist mixed with sharp veins of Zoroaster Granite, which makes the river narrow and drop quickly so the rapids come hard and fast. Of these, Skull is the worst.

The events of the previous few days had sapped my already weak confidence, and upon consultation with Aunt Sally, I decided to let her row the Puma down, and I would accompany her to help scout.

We suited up on that fateful day, and I convinced Father Phelps to attach a flip line to the Puma. A flip line allows the passengers of a capsized boat, using their collective bodies as a lever, to right the boat in midstream, provided they have enough mass. Father Phelps did not deem it necessary for such equipment to be rigged on his boat—though in his defense Hercules himself would have been hard-pressed to right such a heavy and awkwardly-loaded craft.

Four people were set on the Puma including Sally and myself, and the remainder on the catamaran. Bonnie the Anxious had been sent off with the mother, but to my secret dismay Sally’s dog Molly remained with us on the Puma, strapped into a doggie-lifejacket.

The first few rapids were relatively uneventful. I and one of the abler Phelpsclansmen were wielding short paddles in the front, assisting with the forward horsepower, while Sally rowed. The catamaran was ahead, and we flailed our way downstream, eating a sizeable portion of nearly every wave we saw. Luckily, the Puma had an inflatable floor which allowed self-bailing. Sally, to her credit, managed to keep the boat pointed downstream and right-side-up. I rallied the troops with irregular bouts of violent cursing.

Then came Skull. One of the main problems with Skull—the worst problem, actually—is that it is almost impossible to pull over and scout the sucker beforehand. We watched Father Phillips slip lazily over the lip of the rapid, and figured foolishly that it must be straightforward enough. I advised Sally to get as far left as possible—I wanted to avoid that Room of Doom. This turned out to be poor advice. Rivers tend to pool before a rapid, and as we finally nudged over the edge, I realized my mistake. To the right there was a clear path, and several half-forgotten instructions from my father came leaping into razorous clarity in my mind. Right was where one was supposed to start, and passing the worst waves on the left, one pulled back to the left, successfully skirting the Charybdis on the right. Oops.

Now, though, we plunged headlong into the biggest wave we had yet seen on the river, breaking back on itself violently. Summoning up the vilest curses yet into a blasphemous battlecry, the Phelps and I roared stupid defiance into the face of the unreasoning water and were smothered to our very marrow. The wave, building and breaking, smashed bodily over the tiny boat, and plastered our hair straight backwards like the styling of some species of wind-tunnel dwellers. To my amazement, the boat survived this calamitous test upright, only knocked ninety degrees to the left. Time remained only for one mighty stroke on the oars to straighten us up before the next wave, much smaller than the previous but still formidable. And yet, we remained sideways. I leaned heavily on my paddle, but I had not the leverage. We capsized.

Later it would come out that Aunt Sally’s dog, which hitherto had remained relatively calm, had finally lost control at the umpteenth pressure-washer soaking the big wave had provided, and attempted to escape to more favorable climes. Sally, displaying the quality so often evinced by the noble stock of the Phelps line, dropped the oars and reached down to restrain the dog, and thus missed the critical stroke. I did not notice this detail at the time, which was probably all for the best.

In the bracing water, I found myself possessed of a vicious strength. I hauled myself atop the rubbery bottom of the Puma. I grasped the flip line tied to one side, planted my feet on the opposite side, and pulled with all the might of savage young manhood. In my adrenaline-soaked delirium, it didn’t occur to me at the time that the way the boat was loaded, with tremendous bags stacked up and tied fast in the stern of the boat nearly up to the chest of a grown man, made it nigh impossible for any mortal man to right the boat in this way. In fact, the Phelps bags, being of poor (but expensive) make, quickly took on such water that they became, for the purposes of righting the boat, as good as a keel set with lead ingots. In all likelihood it would have taken the better part of the Oakland Raiders’ defensive line to right the boat in this way.

After a moment of brutal straining my grip gave way and I plunged back into the water. I clawed back up on the boat and brought one the sturdier Phelpsclansmen up with me to try again. At this moment Sally surfaced, still clutching her precious dog, which was straining powerfully to swim after the manner of its kind, and in the process clubbing Sally about the face and head with its broad forepaws. I trust the dog meant no harm in this. She commanded us to paddle to shore, as the sturdy Phelps and I had both hung on to our paddles. We paddled strongly, and even with the stack of soggy baggage dragging under us like the sea anchor of the Queen Mary II, we made it to the solid rock of the shore. Father Phelps had also neglected to secure the oars to the frame with a line, and I watched one of the expensive rented graphite oars go floating on downstream, no doubt making someone’s afternoon.

We clung for purchase on the slippery Schist. Mustering our collective strength, we attempted to push the boat over standing on shore, but failed. We sat and waited, helpless. Several minutes later an ominous portent came floating past our sorry beachhead: an upside-down kayak, floating slowly and purposefully downstream, stopping for no eddy. I wondered if the kayaker was still in the boat, hanging lifeless and peaceful in the dark water. Other kayakers soon followed hunting for the boat, and explained that their comrade had been thrashed in Skull and separated from his boat. He was thankfully alive.

The remainder of the trip went as could be expected. Immense rugby players from Boulder came down and helped us turn the boat over. The catamaran had been pulverized even more severely than the Puma, losing an even pricier oar in the Room of Doom. It took those same rugby men and an improvised block and tackle to get it upright. I took control of the Puma and pulled like a Frenchman after an ’82 Lafite for the takeout. There we learned the fate of the baggage, and Byron found that his copy of the collected works of Jules Verne was reduced to a mashed-potato consistency. All bags, that is, save mine, reliable old war-surplus affairs loaned from my parents.

That marked the end of my river career with the Phelpsclan.



Copyright 2008, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, published, or broadcast without the written permission of the author.

Kafkaesque

I finished The Metamorphosis, and I'm about halfway through both The Castle and The Trial. I'm finally learning what the word "Kafkaesque" means. My definition would involve layers of obscure, contradictory, hellish bureaucracy that suck people in forever, though I'm still not sure that's the whole story. The concept of Catch-22 is very much derivative of this idea.

Sometimes it's quite humorous, like when K. is meeting with the council chairman of the village who speaks of a legendary bureaucrat named Sordini who is known chiefly by the thuds coming from his office from large stacks of files falling over--yet the council chairman insists that he is infallible. The bureaucrat's logic is the circular version commonly seen at police stations and the like--Kafka was really ahead of his time.

Still, I find his prose often irritating. Everyone, including K., argues constantly in this dry, clinical way that betrays little emotion though they often describe becoming upset. In fact, this is why I am halfway though both The Trial and The Castle--I switched to The Trial in the hope that it would be a little more interesting. Sadly, it's much the same. I'm hoping it will grow on me, but for now, I'm not very impressed with actual writing.

Mar 7, 2008

Science

So I'm creeping up on my last year as an undergraduate, and truth be told when this thesis is done I don't think I'll do any science ever again. I'm sick to my back teeth with the whole business.

I suppose that's how this whole business goes. I'm looking into grad school in Middle Eastern History, but I would like to take a few years off first, figure out what I like to do. Law school is looking tempting as well.

I wonder if Reed has the wrong idea about pretty much everything. We're well-prepared for grad school but not much else. Course, a lot of that is my fault, but still. I'd be happier and dumber at Stanford. Is that better? I'm not sure.

The Great Gatsby

Just finished The Great Gatsby. I'd call it a well-written meditation on the American Dream. The writing was impeccable at delivering the character of the narrator, which was otherwise mostly unmentioned. I suppose there was some symbolism about the American Dream in there somewhere with the green light and such, but I don't hold with such things.

The Metamorphosis is up next in my queue.