Saturday, April 30, 2005

El tigre

Today I was reading in Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún's General history of the things of New Spain. Sahagún went to Mexico shortly after the conquest, and learned to speak Nahuatl. He employed native informants to encyclopedically describe their knowledge of a disappearing world. Much of what is known of pre-conquest Aztec religion and lifeways comes from Sahagún. He would ask questions of informants from three different towns, independently, and compare and collate the answers. This compendium became the so-called Florentine Codex, which has amazingly escaped destruction. Sahagún's separate translation into Spanish is what I have been reading. The Spanish is old-fashioned and sometimes obscure--he is translating and describing things that in many cases he has never himself seen.

So I have been reading about jaguars. My translation, with apologies:
The tigre (jaguar) stirs and moves in the mountains, and among the crags and cliffs, and also in the water, and they say it is prince and lord of the other animals, and is wise and circumspect, and has dainty habits like a cat, and never feels any fatigue, and loathes drinking water that is dirty or smells bad, and thinks highly of itself.
It is low to the ground and heavily built, and its tail is long, and its paws are thick and wide, and a thick neck; it has a big head, its ears are small, the snout thick, short, massive, and dark colored, and the nose greasy; it has a wide face, the eyes burn like coals; the fangs are big and thick, the front teeth small, delicate and sharpened, the molars wide at the top, and the mouth also is very wide. It has long sharp claws, pads on the forefeet and the hind feet, a pale chest, has spiky hair and as it grows it becomes spotted, and as the animal grows the talons and claws get bigger, and the teeth grow, and the fangs and the molars grow, and it growls, bites, tears and snaps off with the teeth, bellowing and growling, loud as a trumpet.
They say the white tigre is the chief of the other tigres, and is very white. Others are whitish with dark spots, and still others have light reddish-brown fur with black spots.
The characteristic of the tigre is, as it eats animals like deer and rabbits and such, it stays comfortable and doesn't labor, and takes good care of itself, and bathes; and at night it sees the animals it is going to hunt, and has very good vision even if it is very dark, and even if it should be foggy it can make out very small things.

The jaguar description reminded me of a story about my mother-in-law, whom I have mentioned in this blog before.

She lived in Belize for many years, and built, bought, and sold houses while she was there. Lois as she got older had become kind of migratory, like an offshore seabird, moving from one island on the long barrier reef to another. She built several houses, which she lived in briefly, and then sold for a profit, each house more remote from civilization than the one before it. She would spend about half the year in Austin, where she also bought and sold houses. She was a very restless woman. She married, and then divorced, a Belizean fisherman husband thirty years younger than she.
On one occasion, back in the United States for a while, Lois met some young guy who wanted to get away from it all for a few months, and since she herself was not planning to return to Belize immediately, she convinced him to rent the house she had just built on the far end of Ambergris Caye, a Belizean island, a house more than 20 miles from the village of San Pedro, the island's only settlement. It could only be reached by small boat, up the long narrow island toward Mexico and through a narrow passage in the reef, and out into the rough swells rolling in from the Gulf of Honduras for the last few miles. As always, her description of it was of a tropical paradise. And she believed it was. It's just that her idea of paradise was different from most. The guy rented it for two months or so, paid in advance. He bought a lot of expensive camping gear and off he went. No one heard anything more about him.

When Lois went down herself after a couple of months she found her house empty but all her renter's camping gear still there, apparently long abandoned. She walked a mile down the island and asked her nearest neighbor Francisco if he knew what had happened. He said the vacationer had arrived safely and set up his camp, but had come running by shortly before dawn the day after his arrival wearing only his undershorts, which was such bizarre behavior that Francisco's normally peaceful dog had rushed out and bitten the runner, who had nevertheless continued at top speed down the beach. That's the story anyway.

Francisco, curious, walked up to Lois's place and began investigating. Lois's house, like all houses on the island, was built on stilts. And, like most houses on the island, it was not built very substantially.

Francisco soon discovered the unmistakable signs that a jaguar had killed a duck under Lois's house. For the newly arrived vacationer, the sound of el tigre mauling and devouring a duck beneath a flimsy and open tropical beach hut with only rusted screens on the doors and windows, the big cat perhaps only inches below his air mattress, was no doubt terrifying. And according to Lois he had never been out of the United States ever before in his life. He had just arrived after a harrowing small-boat trip in heavy seas beyond the reef. No doubt, after the boat left and as it grew dark, he became aware of his total solitude in the jungle, just as the resonant snarly coughs in the blackness came closer, and then the jaguar crashed out of the night and seized the unlucky bird.
So the poor guy bolted. Having just read Sahagún's description of a jaguar I think I might have done the same.

Conflicting stories exist as to how the traveler got home--he must have had the presence of mind to take his plane ticket and money, at least, because he did get treated in San Pedro town for dogbite and abrasions gotten in the course of his heroic hike down the island. After that no one knows what he did.

In any case, Lois, true to form, sold his stuff. "He won't need it any more," she said.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Friday cat blogging

OK, so I have pink ears like a white rabbit. So what?

pretty in pink

Who are these mystery people?

The President, at his press conference, said "There will be no price-gouging at gas pumps in America." It's hard to imagine he really said that, right out in public, in front of cameras. I'm taking the word of the media for this, because I have to admit I didn't watch it--I can't stand to watch the guy--but I'd guess he assumed a don't-mess-with-Texas pose at that point.

The New York Times report did not mention, nor I would guess did the various TV reports, that Exxon-Mobil's recently announced quarterly profits were up 44%, ConocoPhillips were up 80 %, British Petroleum were up 35%, and Royal Dutch Shell's profits increased 28%. If we actually had a liberal media, you'd think they would accompany Bush's no-price-gouging claim with some relevant facts, like those foregoing.

Maybe Bush was was being smirky and legalistic. Most of us know that the guy who sells the gas at the pump is not the guy doing the gouging. Bush certainly knows it.
The newsprint version of the press conference made it sound pretty listless, consisting of vague affirmations from Bush that yes, he is really serious about all the silly stuff he has been saying all over the country.

Who does watch these so-called press conferences? I have a hard time imagining real people watching or listening to Bush do his lame and stupid stand-up. He can screen his road show audiences and plant shills to ask questions (with the cowardly White House press corps, who needs a shill?), but he can't really screen his nationwide TV audience. I'm guessing that they screened him. Out. I would be disappointed in our nation if I found out otherwise.

Idyllopus, in the blog Meanwhile back at the ranch, was talking about how Bush and Delay were hard to listen to, and I mentioned in a comment that not only did I find Bush insincere (not very startling), but that his accent, if not strictly phony, is not one he grew up with. I found something he said before the TV cameras in a political campaign, his father's I think, in the 1970s. It was a short clip, but it was enough for me to notice that he sounded very East Coast, much as you would expect of a man raised in the family of a Connecticut patrician, who was sent off to boarding school at Phillips Andover, and who, deservedly or not, graduated from Yale and then was awarded a Harvard MBA. If he’d had the aw shucks accent when he went to off to prep school, his little peers at Andover would have soon beaten it out of him.

I jokingly suggested that he might have had a voice coach, or maybe he could have watched old Lyndon Johnson TV clips and practiced, maybe with a mouthful of grits at first. Or possibly he just has a good ear, and learned to talk that way naturally back in the oil business in Texas after Harvard.

Because I have lived all my life with smarmy Texas politicians, I hate the cadences and the attitude, as well as the content. Bush now has mastered whole presentation perfectly.
It's depressing to realize it, but there have to be people who believe his act. And not just people who think pro wrestling is real.

Maybe if we could find a cure for a national tin ear, we could send Bush and Delay and Frist into retirement.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Backyard natural history notes (Alternative title: Backyard folklore?)

Some yellowjackets are building a nest by the door to my storage shed, behind the house. Yellowjacket is the name those of us who grew up in Texas have for a species of paper wasp with a bad sting and a low patience endowment, Polistes exclamans. They are not the same as the yellowjackets in the East and Midwest, which belong to a different genus and usually live underground, in larger colonies. Our yellowjackets typically only have maybe ten or twenty individuals to a nest, though the colonies can get larger.

I can see that the nest is going to cause trouble, if not for me then for the roofers who are putting new shingles on the house and the shed repairing the hail damage. I don't want to knock the nest down, because I would inevitably get stung, and I don't like poisoning them. Also, these wasps are useful in preventing the outbreaks of web caterpillars that attack my pecan tree and can sometimes strip most of its leaves. They kill and eat these caterpillars.

I used to know a guy who claimed he moved yellowjacket nests to new locations safe for both them and for human beings. He said they would attack only when startled by sudden movement, and if you do not trigger this attack instinct by moving too fast, you can gently, gently, pluck a nest of these wasps with your fingers and they won't sting you. He said it is a threshold response, and you just have to keep your movements below the threshold. Like house movers moving a house. He would hang them up in new places with a clothespin. Or so he used to say.

I am not saying I doubt him, exactly (has anyone else ever heard of this, though?) but I am not inclined to try it myself. Even if it is true, a lot could go wrong. As in, oops.

I think for the moment I'll just tell the roofers to watch their step, and I'll do the same.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

It's hard to imagine now

So here I was in 1975 on a smoky Mexican bus with fringed curtains on all the windows, swaying through the state of Chihuahua. Chihuahua is the Mexican equivalent of Texas, abounding in parochial ignorance, criminal violence, and unexpected beauty. It was Pancho Villa country, where there were still some old men sitting beside the roadside beer-and-taco shanties looking like they could have ridden with the great robber-general in the sacred days of the Revolution, and may well have. The Mexican Revolution past grows more romantic as it grows more remote.

We had a pretty good bus driver; he stopped at stop signs and railroad crossings, and did not race with trucks. He sat stately at the wheel, and perhaps somewhere in his mind was a remote cultural memory of some lay of horsemanship and prowess, "... el Cid rode down into Burgos, a hundred his banners and spears, and on his left the ravens took flight," Our driver drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel, and the ravens drifted down into an arroyo off to our left. But our driver frowned when he saw a real vaquero gallop his horse and wave; cowboys were happier than bus drivers. (Random free-association: Gorky said he once observed Tolstoy when the great man thought himself alone, and Tolstoy bent down and inquired of a lizard in the path, "are you happy, lizard?" After a silence he continued, "for my part, I am not.")

The people I was with were going to see the crumbling adobe ruins of Casas Grandes; it was the greatest city in this desert about a thousand years ago.
We arrived at the town nearest the ruins; it was a strange place, full of Mormons who came here from Utah a hundred years ago. They lived in brick houses like you might see in Nebraska. English ivy grew up their walls, but copper mallows grew in their flower gardens. The younger Mormons spoke their English haltingly and slow, searching for forgotten words.

A circle of vultures played, soaring and diving around the crest of a small knob hill.

The remains of the mud city were extensive, and impressive, reminding me, for no good reason, of Hadrian's Villa.
One of the the students on the tour, a guy in his 20s, noticed a conspicuous white flower growing in a crack in a wall. I had a reputation for knowing all about wild plants, and he asked me what it was. Jimson weed, I said. Datura wrightii. I could tell he recognized the word datura. This was back when Carlos Castañeda's books were popular. Most readers were unsure if they were novels or if they were "true." In any case, I knew it was true that the student should not do what he was thinking of doing. So I said "It's poisonous. The stuff could kill you."

I could tell he didn't believe me. The teachings of Don Juan were stronger than mine.

We walked about the ruins for a couple of hours. Whoever was explaining the ancient city was making it deadly boring, an archeologist talking about styles of broken pots, and settlement phases. It was a beautiful day, and I wandered off into the maze of mud walls. I didn't see the guy who asked about the datura plant get back on the bus. Apparently a friend helped him on and off the bus for the return trip.

He was absent from my wife's next class. He was blind for three days. But he reported, of his trip, with apparent satisfaction, "I could fly just like a goddamn bird."

It's hard to imagine now--words I often find myself repeating to my daughter, about the sixties and seventies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Random and disordered thoughts for Tuesday

So what is this? We have the leaders of the mightiest country in the world believing, or pretending to believe, that they, their party, their political base, and their country are under siege from groups of people who look, objectively, like powerless minorities.

In modern times anyway, when political parties or leaders want to consolidate absolute power they usually try to inflame fear and rage towards people painted as radically Other even while building a secret police and internal spy apparatus to keep track of enemies of the state. It helps if the designated Others do not have a lot of political clout.

Obviously we haven't reached the customary next stage in the process, where there is a coup and the enemies of the state are, well, "neutralized," as Karl Rove might say. But are the Republicans building the foundation for it in this country today? I wish I could say that's absurd. Right before our eyes, we see them setting up a spy and police organization as part of their permanent war, which is almost completely exempt from ordinary legal checks, and which seems to have lost any focus on the followers of Osama Bin Laden. I think it was John Ashcroft who mentioned that he expected the War on Terror to last 50 years. He could just as easily have said forever.

And now we have the truly astonishing spectacle the leaders of the party in power making a pilgrimage to Louisville to join with the Christian Taliban in a nationally televised rage-fest directed at liberals, homosexuals, an already subservient media, and--significantly, I think--judges.

It could be--I am actually an optimist at heart--that the rage is because of their declining poll numbers, and they see that the power which they thought would be theirs indefinitely, might slip away from them. In a democracy it can happen.

Although I believe in separation of church and state, and am a practicing Buddhist, I think it might be a good idea to say to say to the Republicans "fine, let's put the Ten Commandments on the White House lawn like you guys want"--but on the condition that we have a series of nationally televised discussions about what they mean and how they apply to our politics.

Have you read them, lately? It doesn't take a deep understanding of religion to see that the First Commandment could be taken to be less than friendly to Republican aspirations. And there is a prohibition against serving and bowing down to graven images. Can put your hand over your heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or salute the flag, and still keep the First Commandment?
Keep the Sabbath? Keep it holy? George Bush's campaign contributors at Walmart and Home Depot might want to de-emphasize that.
Honor your parents? and steal their social security? How does that work?
Thou shalt not kill? How about Iraq? Death row? Now this one could really be a very useful national discussion, and one hard to restrict to abortion and Terry Schiavo.
Bearing false witness? That would bring up the swept-under-the-rug matter of the missing WMDs, would it not?
Thou shalt not steal? Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff, whaddaya say to that?

There are some other commandments, but those would do for starters.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Shaggy dog birdwatching story

I live not far from a cretaceous limestone ridge called Turkey Hill. My father-in-law used to own it, before he sold it to Saudi speculators who incorrectly believed they could hold it a few years and make a profit when they in their turn unloaded it. I don't know who owns it now, but I sometimes go birdwatching there. I regularly see large birds there, vultures, hawks, and great horned owls, but I have never seen a wild turkey on Turkey Hill, and probably won't. It is too close to town, now.
But last fall, out west of town in the hills near the headwaters of the same Onion Creek I live too close to (flood hazard), I was lucky to get close enough a wild turkey last fall to photograph it. (See wild turkey photo below.)

Wild turkeys are elusive and generally hard to get near, which is why I say I was lucky to get the picture. You could call them wily, if you care to dignify the projections of frustrated birdwatchers with such terminology. I myself believe wild turkeys are very much like domestic turkeys, with the crucial difference of being able to fly. They become alarmed easily, which, in a bird which retains the ability to become airborne, is a useful survival trait.

Not so with domestic turkeys, which also become alarmed easily. It was _many_ years ago when I was a college student, that I decided, for some reason I have long forgotten, to ride from Austin to Victoria, Texas, about 120 miles, on my one-speed bicycle--a battered and decrepit bike that got stolen once but did not stay stolen because the thief brought it back and threw it over my fence, dissatisfied. It was slow and heavy and made a noise with each turn of the pedal like someone hitting a pipe with a hammer. I started late in the morning, and did not get more than halfway, so I ended up spending the night in a furrow in a plowed field near Cuero (pronounced kway-row), a small town known at that time, at least locally, as the turkey capital of the world. Anticipating a night in the open, I had brought a blanket, which I recall was peach colored. It was cold when I woke up, and still foggy. I resumed my journey in the dim early morning light, still hooded and wrapped in my pink-orange blanket, trying to stay warm.

It's worth mentioning that highway bicycling was at that time done only by Frenchmen, in France, so it was very unexpected in Kwayrow, Texas. Pelotons of Lance Armstrong wannabes wearing spandex outfits moving swiftly in tight clusters down country highways were as yet undreamed of.

So I set off down the highway in the fog with a loud "crankWONK" noise with each turn of the pedal. As bad luck would have it, I rode, draped in my blanket, out of the mists past a large turkey farm. This apparition, which came looming and slowly clanking out of the mists was interpreted unanimously, and instantaneously (and maybe correctly), by the the turkeys, as the turkey Grim Reaper, and they all ran desperately toward the back fence of the big turkey pen, where they piled on top of one another, many hundreds of them, in an enormous and horrible struggling mass of hysterically gobbling birds.

This looked like big trouble to me, so I redoubled my efforts, and clanked away into the fog before the turkey farmer came out to discover what had befallen his birds, which I have always imagined was catastrophic. But I did not look back. I have the vague memory that I may have abandoned the blanket in an absurd attempt get rid of evidence.

But no one came after me. It was not, even in Texas, a crime to ride a bicycle on the highway, or for that matter past a turkey farm, but I think I was worried about vigilante justice.

The bird below would have just flown over the fence.
Wild turkey

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The dangers of relativism

The new Pope, who has in the past disparaged the Jewish religion (but in fairness, no more than he disparaged Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions), sought to smooth over a PR situation by inviting the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni, to the mass where the former Cardinal Ratzinger was to officially be installed as Benedict XVI and receive the ring and shawl of papal office. But the rabbi could not come because the Pope's installation ceremony was on the first day of Passover.
You'd think, since they can't reasonably ask the Jews to reschedule Passover, the Church could have easily enough scheduled the ceremony on another day, if a meaningful gesture were in fact intended.

Or would that be relativism?

I suspect that the real crime of the Jews, the one that has truly incited all this hatred over the centuries, was not that they killed Jesus, but that they didn't believe him. The Jews have now as far as I know been absolved by the Church of having killed Jesus, but--this is my fear, at least--I see no evidence that they have softened on the matter that truly excited all the animosity. And I see that animosity being extended to others as well.

When I was a boy in Sunday school, I was always puzzled by why we were more bothered, as compassionate people, by the killing of Jesus than, say, a common murder in the street. Especially given that this particular homicide was necessary for the salvation of our immortal souls, according to the most basic doctrine of our church and of every Christian sect I knew anything about. If no one had killed Jesus, we would all still be cut off absolutely from redemption. Even then it seemed a fishy story. Maybe the real story was that the Jews _rejected_ Jesus and the Good News. Or so I thought, callow youth that I was.

Now, when I see Bush and Frist and Dobson and the new Pope all on the same page WRT "relativism", whatever that is, and liberalism, it gives me the willies, because we--the "relativists" and liberals and whatnot--are waving the same red flag that has excited such wrath against Jews for all these centuries.

Perhaps I am an alarmist.

People have remarked on how compromise does not mollify Republican extremists, but rather seems to enrage them all the more. Maybe it's because the existence of unbelief or doubt is, to a certain kind of fanatic, an unbearable reproach.

And if we find the same pathology--and I fear we do--convergent in the White House, the Vatican, the Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, and Osama's cave somewhere in Pakistan, then there is a lot of trouble on the road ahead.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Birdwatching notes

The afternoon is bright and cool. Common grackles fly overhead, sounding like malfunctioning electrical equipment. Crows are down in the trees by the creek, sounding like crows. Mourning doves, then whitewing doves, go twisting and barreling past with a whiffling noise. Cardinals are out, vocal, with lyrical songs ending with a bright gatling gun slow trill. Black vultures (which ought to be called white-wing-tip vultures since most vultures, after all, are black), are floating off in the distance. Nearby dragonflies fly above the pink evening primroses and hedge parsely. The new mesquite foliage is a lacy green. As I get closer to the creek I am in a waving meadow of bright green grass, spear grass, more properly called Texas wintergrass, but known to children as spear grass because you can pick the sharp seedheads with their long awns, and throw them like tiny spears which will stick through clothing. Other trailside flowers: a tall purple thistle, expanses of yellow cutleaf daisies, and bluebonnets. Texas prickly ash, occasional small trees which have vicious thorns and citrus-smelling oilyshiny leaves, are in flower, buzzing with bees.

A quarter mile from the creek the trail skirts the edge of a densely forested area, out of character for Austin, a surprise. Tall hackberries, trunks narrow and white, form a deep jungle darkness beyond a fencerow alongside the trail, a surprising contrast with the brightly lit path. I peer in, instinctively apprehensive at the hanselngretel forest gloom. The reason for the darkness at the forest floor is the profusion of mustang grape foliage that struggles for the light with the tree leaves high above, together forming a very dense canopy overhead. Some of the draping grapevines at ground level are thicker than my arm. A deep black forest. I hasten on, no birds or flowers there. I often see shadows of coyotes slipping in or out of the darkness, usually later in the evening.

Continuing along my trail (this seems to have become a plant-watching walk): wafer ash, with tiny yellow flowers, whose leaves also have a citrus smell, related to the pricklyash. Lots of boxelders, our sad central Texas excuse for a maple, usually nothing more than a bush. Here and there I see the white warning flowers of bullnettles, otherwise inconspicuous, horribly painful if you brush against them--they have tiny glassy barbs which break off and release an irritant into your skin.

I am getting near the creek. The trees by the creek are cottonwoods and pecans and baldcyprus. New poison ivy has blocked my usual winter access to the creek. So I turn along a trail parallel to the creek, where the giant ragweeds are getting started along some of the trails. By the end of summer they will be quite tall and will make susceptible people miserable all over town. I measured one of last year's stalks (pulled one down, stepped it off) at 15 feet. Most are 10-12 feet high.
Continuing on my trail parallel to the creek, 100 yards from it: a lone black walnut tree, the foliage hard to tell from a pecan. The walnuts, in the fall, require a hammer to break, increasingly hard blows ineffectual until the nut finally shatters explosively, yielding almost nothing.
Big white thistle poppies are blooming in the middle of an old pile of junked farm equipment--the rusted crankshaft of a tractor lies skeletal like the backbone of an animal. The twistleaf yuccca flowerstalks are coming out, but no flowers as yet--that will be in another week. Larkspurs. Silver nightshades, Purple verbenas. Blue, nodding mealy sage. Roughleaf dogwoods with big cymes of small white flowers. White flowered onions in the grass next to the trail.
The cedar elms have a compact dense habit of growth, and are found in this stretch of the trail between the creek and the live oaks on higher ground. Here and there we have a yellow-flowering invasive mustard species, I don't know what it is, but it has now become common along horse trails--maybe a component of horse feed? It grows tall, at eye level, and nods over the trail, so you can't see your feet when you push your way thru them, undesirable in rattlesnake country, not to mention chigger problems with short sleeve shirt (plus, as I write this at home, I remove a tick I feel under my shirt).

It's getting cool and I start home. Another couple of hours will be passover. The idea of Elijah's cup being filled, untouched, in every Jewish seder for two thousand years or more, and the door opened by children to see if Elijah is outside waiting to come in to announce the coming Messiah, seems somehow more hopeful than Easter, which always seemed religiously kind of dark to me, our guy barely returned from the land of the dead.

As I leave the creek a pair of big grayheaded Mississippi kites whip through the cedar elms and scare off a small bird I was trying to locate in the elm leaves.

Bullnettle--watch your ankle
watch your ankle

Friday, April 22, 2005

St. James Infirmary was eleventh

I had a dream last night that my wife Kay said something to me that I needed to remember. I woke up thinking what can it be? I already knew it was our wedding anniversary. But Kay would always remind me. Kay died 3 years ago.

I don't much feel like writing anything today, so instead of a cat picture I will do the other Friday placeholder thing, and list the random first ten songs my computer plays for me.

I want to do anything for you/ Toni Price/ Midnight Pumpkin
Wife of Usher's Well/ anonymous singer/ Best of Scottish Folk
El Carretero/ Eliades Ochoa/ Buena Vista Social Club
Geronimo's Cadillac/ Manfred Mann/ Masque: songs and planets
Railroad Bill/ Hobart Smith/ Bad Man Ballads
John Walker Blues/ Steve Earle/ Jerusalem
Down on Me/ Janis Joplin/ Big Brother & the Holding Company
Farewell to Nova Scotia/ Stan Rogers/ Newfoundland Kitchen Party
Gun Street Girl/ Tom Waits/ Rain Dogs
I bid you goodnight/ Blue Murder/ Out on the Rolling Sea

I have an inordinate fondness for traditional folk songs, sung by elderly performers with cracked voices, and I am surprised that, randomly, so little of it turned up. Maybe my computer chose as it did in deference to Kay, who did not share this taste with me, although she liked most of the other music that I do. My daughter, on the other hand, has loaded up her ipod with traditional songs from the Child canon, archaic and obscure, which mystifies her friends. I am pretty sure I passed this virus on to her by singing her songs of adultery, murder, and tragic death at sea in place of the usual lullabies, to put her to sleep when she was a baby.
Otherwise, I am happy to say, she was unharmed by this.

Maybe the dream reminder was about Earth Day, which always played second fiddle to our anniversary, but which should be remembered. Originally Earth Day was supposed to be the day of the equinox, but there is something about us, as Americans, such that we prefer fixed-date holidays. I wonder why that is?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Human interest notes--medical malpractice and the law

Yesterday I was reading a thing where Republicans were still blaming rising medical costs on medical malpractice lawsuits. I went searching through my files and found this story I wrote up from notes at the time, several years ago. I have changed the names of everyone but my wife, but it is a true story otherwise--as true as I can make it, anyhow.

It was a Saturday and I was supposed to be watching the kids. I glanced out of the window of my house and saw two 12 year old girls, neighborhood kids, sitting on a table in the yard. They were arguing. The bigger girl, Marilyn, gave a vigorous push that propelled Liz, the smaller girl, right off the table. Liz's arms flew out as she went off the table and she landed hard. She got up and ran home crying and holding her arm. Her wrist was broken.
When I told Barbara, the mother of the injured girl, what had happened, she said Liz was always provoking people to hit her. “She’s just like me. I was that way when I was a kid,” Barbara said.
It was a month or so later that Liz came over one day, anxious. “My mom's sick. I’m kind of worried. I think she's real sick...” She trailed off and got silent. We stood around in the middle of an unfinished appeal for help, until my wife Kay said “OK, Liz, let's go see about her.” We drove Liz back to the small apartment she and her mother shared a few blocks away from where we lived.
Barbara was making groaning noises in the bedroom. We went in and she was curled up in her bed, very pale.
“Oh shit I feel terrible,” she said. “My stomach really hurts.”
Barbara said the pain started right after she had a cup of coffee with a woman who had been a partner in her cleaning business. The two had not been on good terms, but the woman had invited her over for coffee saying she wished to put and end to the ill will between them.
Liz had told us beforehand, as we drove over, that her mother believed the woman had put cyanide in the coffee.
“Barbara, do you think the coffee was poisoned?”
“Poisoned? Well, God, uh, I don't know.”
Barbara was acting as if this were a surprising new idea.
“Well, you know, she was very, very friendly. It wasn’t like her. She hasn't been friendly before, and it sounds silly, I know, but the coffee tasted like almonds. I've read in detective novels that cyanide tastes like almonds. I got sick right after I drank it.”
Barbara was obviously in pain and asked us to take her to the doctor. “My stomach really hurts bad” she said.
I was alarmed. She was doubled up, moaning. She had been vomiting. Kay and I helped her out to the car and we took her to a minor emergency clinic. I don't know why. I guess because we didn't want to think that it might be a major emergency.
We spent a few minutes sitting in hard chairs in the waiting room. Barbara sat hunched over, groaning. She was not talking when we got to see a doctor. In the examining room Liz blurted out to the doctor “My mom's been poisoned!”
“Poisoned? What do you mean, ‘poisoned?’ With what?”
“Well,” I said, “she thinks it may have been cyanide.”
The minor emergency doctor recoiled at this information. You would have thought that I had just told him that the IRS was auditing his books.
“This woman doesn’t belong here,” he said to me.
Everybody was talking as if Barbara was not part of the conversation.
“Any poisoning, any possible poisoning belongs in an emergency room. If it’s really cyanide she could be dead in 15 minutes. I can call an ambulance, or you can take her to South Austin Hospital.”
South Austin Hospital was right down the street and had an emergency room. “I’ll let them know you're coming.”
He turned on his heel and left his examining room. Clearly he did not want the 15 minutes to expire on his premises.
Once again we helped Barbara to the car, and when we drove up to the emergency room there was a nurse waiting with a wheel chair.
They wheeled her into the emergency room. We heard more groans, punctuated now by an occasional scream.
After a couple of minutes a doctor came out, a young man with a perfunctory bedside manner that lapsed easily into rudeness. He kept glancing at his watch as he talked to me.
“Um, do you know anything that you could tell me about, uh, Barbara's problem? She doesn’t seem to be communicating.”
Loud cries from the examining room.
“She won’t talk about it, and doesn’t want to say what's bothering her. Pain sometimes makes patients a little...uncooperative.”
We recounted the events that had led us to his emergency room.
“Cyanide?” he said, incredulously. “Nah. Not a chance.” He thought a minute, as if to be sure what he had just said was true. “No... it’s not right for that. Whatever her problem is it’s not cyanide.”
“But we’ll certainly find out what it is” he promised, his voice recovering its smooth reassuring baritone.
He came back in five or ten minutes. Once again he had forgotten his bedside manner.
“There’s no way in hell she’s been poisoned.” He sounded exasperated. “Do you think any of you can help, maybe, to get her to cooperate a little? I can’t take her damn temperature. Can’t get her to say a word. All she does is moan.” Actually, she had stopped moaning. She would be silent for a couple of minutes and then she would scream. The doctor’s face got a little tense each time she screamed.
“You know,” he said to me in a confidential tone, “I’m not really sure this problem is physical. I'm still waiting for the lab results, but you know, I just suspect that this is, uh, a psychogenic ailment. The business about cyanide is not, y’know, what people normally come in with.”
He called Liz over, and asked her “Has your mother ever had this before?”
Liz said “Uh, well, I don't know. She sometimes has cramps.”
“How bad are the cramps? Does she ever cry out in pain?”
“Well, yeah, I guess, she sometimes does, you know...cry, and kind of, well, I dunno, make noises and stuff.”
The doctor returned to his examining table, this time with Kay, who was to try to help “communicate” with Barbara. Barbara apparently wasn't having any part of it. She wouldn't say a word. Kay came out in a few minutes. The doctor didn't come back for half an hour. Moans. Groans and shrieks.
When the doctor reappeared he wanted to know if Barbara had any relatives, who might be able to provide a background on any history of mental illness. Liz said Barbara had a sister in Phoenix. We called Phoenix information and got the sister's number. I phoned her and told her what was going on, and asked if Barbara had ever had any problem like this before. The sister was pretty brisk.
“Look,” she said, “Barbara is real flaky. She's always having problems. And I don’t want her problems to be my problems.”
Then she hung up. I relayed this news to the doctor.
The doctor said the tests indicated a slightly elevated white blood cell count, but nothing serious. Nothing physically wrong with Barbara could be found, he told us. He was going to give her a tranquilizer and a painkiller, and send her home. She had quieted down a little.
They brought Barbara out in a wheelchair. She looked terrible. She began to moan as we were arranging her departure, and fell out of the wheel chair onto the floor and curled up in a ball and began to make little short, sharp yips.
“Don’t send me home,” she said, her first words since we brought her in. “I’m sick.”
The doctor reappeared, annoyed, looking at his watch. He had told us he needed to be somewhere when his shift was over. He began saying soothing things to Barbara, to get her back in the wheel chair. Just then a sort of aggressively confident little guy came striding in and barked “What the hell’s going on here?” It was shift change time. This was the new on-duty physician.
Our man who was trying to soothe his patient back into the wheel chair was suddenly defensive. This looked bad, a woman being sent away from the hospital while curled up on the floor complaining of abdominal pain. He took the new doctor aside and they had a pretty vehement discussion, which I overheard parts of because it was kind of a shouting match.
“This is definitely, definitely, not a surgical abdomen, and I am getting her the hell out of here,” our man said. He was showing the new guy the lab results. They were gesturing and pointing at the chart. Finally the new guy said he was washing his hands of the whole thing, and strode out of sight to change into his emergency room clothes.
Our man came back and told us that he thought Barbara should have a psychiatric evaluation.
Barbara meanwhile was still in a fetal position on the floor in front of the receptionist's counter and would occasionally writhe convulsively making a noise like someone was jabbing her in the abdomen with a stick.
“You're not a patient here anymore, Barbara.” the doctor said to her. “You need to get up and go with your friends.”
He walked out into the parking lot, got in his Volvo, and left. We hauled her back into the wheel chair, and took her to our car and drove her home. We put her to bed. She had been fairly heavily drugged. We asked a neighbor to look in on her.
The next day her neighbor rushed her to Brackenridge Hospital, where they take people who have bad car wrecks or get shot. Barbara was delirious and had a high fever. Her problem was diagnosed immediately by an intern as appendicitis. Her appendix had perforated. They opened her abdomen, took out the remains of her appendix, and and swabbed her out. She almost died from peritonitis. She was in the hospital for a week and a half. The intern suggested that she sue.
She talked about suing the bastards for about a year, but didn't do anything about it.
Then one day, after everyone had forgotten about her appendix, she started shopping around for a lawyer. She found one who would file, but he evidently believed she had a weak case, and he adopted a strategy of stalling until the insurance company would agree to a settlement.
Barbara grew more and more outraged as time went by. Another year passed. A year and a half. Liz was always coming over complaining that her mother had shouted at her, or was being mean to her.
“I guess I provoke her, y'know? I tell her she needs to get on with her life.”
The lawyer told Barbara that the problem with her case was that he couldn't find any doctors who would testify on her behalf as expert witnesses. The intern refused to do so, as had the cocky shift-change doctor. The nurses wouldn't testify. The lawyer said that Barbara's only chance was that the insurance company lawyers did not know for sure that Barbara couldn't get any expert witnesses. Wait, said the lawyer. Be patient.
Barbara fired the lawyer.
She called me up and asked me if I would be a witness in court. I said "Well, I guess so."
She said “I’ve got my trial set for Wednesday.”
In the courtroom on Wednesday the judge asked all the lawyers involved in the cases on the docket to estimate the time that their presentations would take. They all said, “five minutes” or “eight minutes,” “ten minutes at the most.” Barbara stood up and said she was representing herself and her case would take two hours. The judge winced.
“Your case is last.” he said.
All the other cases, six or eight of them, were divorces and took a total of maybe an hour to dispose of.
Barbara said to me in a whisper, “The judge seems very fair. I think I’ll get justice.”
It got to be Barbara's turn, and the judge asked what this hearing was about. Barbara said she had terminated her lawyer and wanted to bring the case to trial. "I have three eyewitnesses," she said, pointing out Kay and me and one of her apartment neighbors to the judge.
The judge looked weary.
“I have to advise you against proceeding to a trial without an attorney. I strongly advise you to withdraw from this, and get a lawyer. It's not too late to do that. I can stop this right now, if you want to.”
Barbara said she wanted to go ahead with a trial.
The judge asked the opposing lawyer if he was ready to proceed. The lawyer had a bad haircut and shiny spots on his suit. The guy could not believe his luck. He looked like a man who has found a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk.
He looked at Barbara and said “I concur with the judge. I urge you to not bring this to trial at this time, and retain an attorney...but...” and here he looked up at the judge, “if she does wish to bring the case to trial, I am absolutely ready. We can probably move this off the docket pretty quickly.”
The trial began.
Barbara tried to explain what happened. The lawyer objected to everything she said, and the judge ruled most of what she said was inadmissible.
She called me as her first witness. “Tell us what happened in your own words.”
“Well,” I said, “We took Barbara to the hospital because she was worried that someone had poisoned her coffee with cyanide.” The shiny-suit lawyer, poised to leap to his feet and object again, sat back down. I told the story up to the emergency room without any complaints from him. When I got to the part about the words and behavior of the doctor, the lawyer immediately objected and the judge ruled that this part of my testimony constituted hearsay. Inadmissible. The attorney had only two questions for me.
“Are you a doctor?”
“Have you had any medical training?”
The testimony of Kay and the other witness went the same way.
Barbara presented a ringing condemnation of the medical profession in her summation, saying that she had been the victim of a conspiracy of malice, incompetence, and neglect.
The judge made his ruling. Barbara lost.
The trial was over.
Barbara couldn't believe it.
“This is just so unjust,” she said, as she left the courthouse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

I hate stuff like this

Texas is on track to become the first state in the United States to ban lesbian and gay foster parenting. This legislation is a stealth amendment to a complex and obnoxious bill whose purpose is to reform (i.e., privatize) child protective services--the amendment is kind of like a particularly revolting sucker fish attached to a shark. The ban, if passed, will be retroactive, and foster children in gay households will be removed and redistributed by newly hired private agencies to heterosexual foster homes. Would-be foster parents will henceforth be asked if they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and if they answer that they are, they will be told that they are ineligible.
The Austin American Statesman quotes Robert Talton, the Republican author of the no-gay-foster-parent provision as follows:
"It's a learned behavior, and I think a child . . . ought to have the opportunity to be presented to a traditional family as such," Talton said. "And if they choose to be homosexual or lesbian, then that's their choice when they turn 18."
If you are flabbergasted at this, perhaps unsure whether Talton is dangerously insane or insanely ignorant, you obviously aren't from Texas, where we have learned to live with this unanswered question about our lawmakers for many years now.
Over the years I have acquired a natural and usually justified pessimism about our politics, never having fooled myself that there is some kind of moral floor below which Texas politicians cannot sink. We'll see. The Texas Senate version of the bill did not contain the ban on gay foster parenting, so there remains some hope the bill as amended by the House will not become law--the conference committee will decide that.
Any readers who live in Texas, feel free to contact your legislators about this.
I have two gay friends who adopted a little boy here in Texas several years ago--except that, technically, only one of them actually adopted the baby. I don't remember the details now, but I think the agencies certifying the adoption knew the adoptive father was gay. My friends were, rightfully perhaps, a little paranoid about the possibility that the State might later pass some law nullifying the adoption, and taking away their son, whom they love. So they moved to Vermont. Wise move, I think.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It was a youthful indiscretion exercise of prudence

I'm not a Catholic so I guess it's none of my business. But in a way it is. The Church is more than just another large conservative religious group, it is a large conservative religious group whose social dicta are causing immeasurable harm in the world, now led by a former member of Hitler Youth.
Besides, my daughter is a Catholic. We sent her to a liberal Catholic school, because she was having trouble in the school she was in, and she loved it and prospered academically, and at the age of 13 was baptized as a Catholic. I didn't have the heart to tell her that John 23d was dead. The Catholicism she converted to was Liberation Theology Catholicism, Vatican II Catholicism, now a distant memory, sadly.
Habemus Papam, the man said, from the balcony, and many in the huge crowd groaned when he got to the word "Joseph." CNNs microphones picked it up. The new Pope will be called Benedict 16th, if I heard right. Formerly Josef Ratzinger.
In fairness, it would be better to say Ratzinger's membership in Hitler Youth was less an indiscretion than a case of taking the path most of us would take. Membership had just been made compulsory for his age-group. (Though an article in the London Times points out that some of Ratzinger's neighbors did not take the path most of us would take, and suffered imprisonment or death for their resistance to Hitler's laws.) I think I need to confine my criticism of Ratzinger to his apologetics for violence against homosexuals, his keep-em-barefoot-and-pregnant views on women (and, in effect if not in intent, keep em dying of AIDS), and his support of right-wing and repressive regimes in Latin America. For starters.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The continuity of grandparents

I wrote a little about my grandmother in the previous post. As I grow older I find myself thinking about my grandfathers, who died many years ago.
My grandfather Ross McCulloch was the first man ever to take me out to kill anything with a gun.
He was a man who liked the old days better than the days he lived in. He used to tell stories of South Texas blood-feuds and Indian fights and frontier brutality, bravery and cowardice. He loved the stories he had heard, and I think he probably loved them enough to embellish them. He knew the history of our family and told us our origins, which according to him were glorious, and I certainly believed it. He told us stories of his own grandfather, a Confederate general and Texas Ranger, and of his great uncle, another Confederate general, killed in his black velvet suit at the battle of Pea Ridge, shot off his horse by a Yankee sniper.
I grew up thinking these forebears of mine were great men, for no other reason than my grandfather's telling me so when I was a child.
My grandfather McCulloch slept with a large, ancient .45 revolver under his pillow. My father had once come in late, when he was young, and turned on the light to find the old man had that gun trained on him. My grandfather put revolver back under his pillow and went back to sleep. (I am now the owner of this gun, but I do not sleep with it.)
Cautioning me not to tell my mother, my grandfather would sometimes pour me a glass of the bitter wine he made from grapes that grew in his yard. But he wasn't much of a drinker himself. He was a tall, lean, abstemious man. He was a teller of tales, a backwoods squirrel-rifle Southerner who had a wild and animated verbal style, jumping up from his chair to talk.
I was about eight and he took an old bolt-action single-shot .22 rifle and a pocket-full of bullets and set out to get rid of some English sparrows that roosted in a tree in his chicken yard. It was after sundown, about dark, and the sparrows were lined up five or six on a limb, already too somnolent to respond quickly to their sudden peril.
"Take a good aim." I did. I shot one off its roost.
"Shoot them all." And I did, one by one. He was a fierce old man. I admired him beyond measure. In some way I still do. An unfortunate role-model.
I wonder if such people exist today. He belonged to another time, to the world of his ancestors, the daredevils and land thieves and occasional murderers who swarmed out of Georgia and Alabama and Tennessee to fill up the Texas Republic, men with the souls of bank robbers and repo-men, but who made good, according to their lights, and grew to feel comfortable and at home in their time and place. My grandfather seemed happy to me, and probably was. I recall he had an interest in the Bible, which he read diligently, and was particularly fond of the incendiary moral directives of Jesus. I don't know whether he followed them. I can remember him railing against preachers in general and Methodist preachers in particular. He was a Methodist. Unimpressed with the already saccharine Jesus of smarmy mid-century America babyfat pastors, he would have admired Achilles or Cuchulain, if he had known who they were.
All his friends and enemies came to his funeral when he died, and there was a big crowd. The Methodist preacher had the last word.
There at the McCulloch place, in Devine, Texas, the well water was hard and tasted of iron and sulfur, the flavor of my discovery of the power of words.
My grandfather had put up a grape arbor in his yard next to a large fig bush. In the evenings, we sat under the grapes by the fig in white wooden chairs my grandfather had made with his own hands, and listened to his stories, his old man's voice fretting the twilight with the flight of bats, stories of feuds, stories of Indian intrusions into evenings like these, Comanche raiders entering the settlers' bedrooms like cougar screams, leaving behind a shocked silence. Then I would go to bed under a sky shot through with stars and dream of tall horsemen silhouetted against the Milky Way, quiet as the trickle of centipedes across the hot sand of the South Texas night.
He spent a lot of time watering his pecan trees. There was a barnyard, and a windmill that pumped water into the blockhouse cistern. The top of the concrete cistern held the water, the bottom was a cold-water shower room. Taking showers there was exhilarating because of the water's chill and because you had to watch out for the scorpions which would occasionally rush out of the drain when you turned on the water, a surprise.
Beyond the barnyard was a corn field that my grandfather tilled with a hand plow.
In the years I remember him best, he always wore khaki pants and his clothes smelled of tobacco. He rolled his own cigarettes, and sometimes smoked a pipe. He ate fried eggs and bacon and biscuits every morning of his life with a lot of salt and black pepper over them. He cooled his morning coffee in his saucer, and drank it from the rim. When my grandfather was old, he took a siesta every afternoon on a narrow iron cot in his bedroom. That was where they put him when he had a heart attack, and that was where he died. I was in college when he died and I was given the pipe. I lost it.
When I was a little boy my other grandfather, L. M. Cummings, whose farm was outside of Devine, used to do a Kiowa war-dance, at least that is what I seem to remember he called it. My grandfather Cummings grew up speaking Kiowa, playing with Kiowa children, in Oklahoma. I didn't know what the Cummings family was doing living in Oklahoma, among Kiowas. I asked my grandmother, when she was getting near 100 years old, why my grandfather knew so much about the Kiowa Indians.

"Oh, because he played with Indian children. His family lived at the Indian school. His mother was a nurse, when the Indian children would get sick, they'd call on her."
I remember my grandfather Cummings dancing around under the big live-oak tree in back of the house, stomping and chanting strange words in a tuneless high pitched voice, invoking the spirits of the plains. Did he really remember the words to the war-dance? I don't know. Maybe it was some other kind of dance.
My Grandmother said she didn't know her husband could speak Kiowa until after they were married, and he went off to the Indian store to get some bread or something for supper, and when she went to look for him found him with a bunch of his Kiowa friends having a party, all speaking Kiowa.

I didn't think about it when I was a boy, I wasn't even aware of such things, but my Grandfather Cummings had many of the prejudices you would expect, for a man of his time and place, except that whenever the subject of Indians came up he would get pretty riled up, in defense of Indian rights. He told me stories of the deeds of his neighbor Big Tree and the other great Kiowa war chiefs as if they were his ancestors, and mine.
The little town of Devine was my home during WWII and for a while after, and it was a happy time for me, when one grandfather, out in the country under a live oak tree, sang Kiowa war songs and the other, a few miles away in town, would tell riveting stories of my Texas Ranger ancestors who fought the Comanches and Kiowas in the days of the Indian Wars.
It never occurred to me that I could not reasonably have the points of view of both of my grandfathers. But reason doesn't seem to have much to do with it.
As I parked my old white Plymouth I noticed how neatly the hedges and lawns were manicured at the Veterans Administration hospital in Kerrville, lush institutional grass and greenery that I associate with cemeteries, mental hospitals, and retirement homes; the scrawling cliche of the landscape architect saying Life Goes On. I had come there to pay a last visit to my grandfather Cummings, who was dying.
He was a World War I veteran and had been in the VA hospital for a couple of months. We weren't supposed to talk about the fact that he had lung cancer. It was the custom not to. That seems strange now. So no one could speak to what was on everyone's mind.
My mother had asked me to come to Kerrville for a last visit, a good-bye visit.
I noticed my grandfather's wavy hair still had touches of brown. He was about 75. He looked the same as always, except he hadn't shaved that morning, and was pale, and was if anything more taciturn than ever. His gaze was riveted on a spot on the wall just below the ceiling.
"Hi Grampy."
He looked at me without much enthusiasm. "Hidy, Jimmy."
I don't remember if I asked him how he was doing or not. It was pretty obvious how he was doing. So here were these people dropping in, to wish him a speedy recovery, some of whom, like me, he had not seen in several years. The talk was about commonplace things.
Since I could not talk about why I was there, I asked him about things he used to talk about when I was a boy.
"Grampy, how come you knew Big Tree?" I knew the answer, of course, I had heard the story many times. He thought a while.
"Well my mother saved Big Tree's life."
Big Tree was one of the leaders of the Warren Wagon Train raid, sometimes called by Texans the Salt Creek Massacre. Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree, the three Kiowa war chiefs who led the raid, were later captured. I have seen a photo of all of them. Satank looked formidably dangerous and crazy. His captivity was brief. He sang in a tuneless voice that irritated the troopers guarding him while he was peeling the skin off his hand, slipping his handcuffs. When he had the hand free he got hold of a knife and tried to kill one of the guards before they shot him dead. The other prisoners said that he had been singing his death song. Satanta may have killed himself in a Texas prison by jumping out a second story window head first onto the brick pavement below. Or he may have been murdered, thrown out of the window. Big Tree was eventually released from prison and returned to Oklahoma.
My grandfather went on:
Big Tree had some land near us, back in Oklahoma. There was a road that crossed his place, and he used to flood that road sometimes. People'd get stuck. Then Big Tree would come out with a mule and pull 'em out, but first they had to pay. One man didn't want to pay and took out a butcher knife and cut Big Tree. Big Tree's insides spilled out and the man left him for dead, but after a while Big Tree sat up and one of his children brung him an Indian blanket, and he pushed his insides back in and wrapped himself in that blanket to keep 'em in. Then he sent for my mother who had been a nurse and had taken care of all the Indian children around there when they was sick. My mother came and sewed Big Tree up with a needle and thread like she was stitiching a seam. And Big Tree got well.

He paused and looked at me.
So I was always welcome at Big Tree's place, on account of my mother. He gave us a horse every year. Big Tree used to show me all his scalps. He had a lot of 'em. I was a little tow-headed boy, and every time he showed me them scalps he would look at my hair and say, 'I got every color of scalp there is. Except a little white one. I want get one of them white-colored ones before I die.'

As always, my grandfather stopped for a moment, amused at his story.
"But he never got that white one."
After a spasm of coughing he dozed fitfully.
I followed the rules. He knew he was dying. I knew he knew it. But I didn't say anything.
He woke up as I was leaving.
"See you later, Grampy," I said as I left. He snorted, and mumbled something I didn't catch.
I never saw him again. He died a few weeks later.
The night he died I had gotten high on marijuana, which I did regularly in those days, and went to bed stoned. Sometime in the night I awoke in the grip of unspeakable terror. I lay in bed paralyzed by fear for what seemed like hours, then it went away. An hour or so later I was awakened when my mother called to tell me of my grandfather's death.
Panic attacks are a common marijuana side effect. But I never had one until that night. I had another one, under the influence of an excess of marijuana brownies, in El Paso a couple of years later, and I figured somebody else had died. But it was just panic, nothing more.
I never touched marijuana again.

One day, in the 1990s, I decided to drive down to Devine, which is south of San Antonio. I don't know why.
I stopped at a roadside rest stop a few miles before the exit on I-35, and when I got a drink from the fountain I got a muted taste of the brimstone water of my childhood. As I took the road into Devine, cicadas grilled in the heat, beaded arpeggios sounding like sparks brittled from a grinding wheel, surprisingly high-decibel bugs, forgotten voices. Roadside live oaks grew rough and dark and old. I drove into town, where the buildings of my childhood were fallen in or boarded up, but replaced here and there by contemporary businesses, small modular steel buildings with garish signs saying Quickie Mart and Medina Realty.
The overall look of the old residential part of Devine was almost recognizable, but disturbing because I couldn't quite get my bearings. I had trouble finding my grandfather McCulloch’s house. I didn't recognize it at first. The front door was open and the yard full of weeds. It took a moment for me to realize that the place was empty. I stopped the car and got out.
I went inside the house and found that I could see it the way it had been when I was a boy. My memories filled the dark rooms with visions from my earliest past, and I walked through seeing everything where it was, the couch with the satiny pillows, the beds, my grandfather's cot, his desk with the Prince Albert tobacco can on it, the kitchen table, everything, my uncles and aunts, the living who are now dead. I could hear their voices.
I stood where the iron cot was, where my grandfather died. In the back yard, only weeds remained. The fig was gone, the grapes were gone, without a trace. The old concrete cistern was about to fall down. I leaned against my grandfather's favorite pecan tree and was surprised to find tears in my eyes.
The house looked like it had been empty maybe a year.
I got back in the car. I felt something approaching anguish. I hadn't expected this at all. Fool! I drove off slowly. I drove back to the old downtown. The drugstore with the soda fountain, where my uncles back from the 2nd World War had bought me ice-cream cones with a limitless supply of nickels, was gone. Most of the downtown was gone, or boarded up. I was as dumbstruck as if a tornado had carried off the town before my eyes.
My heart hammered and I felt somehow stricken. Now, should I be surprised that some of the earthly remnants of half a century of memories are in ruin? Life seems to be an accretionary thing built of pictures in the mind, but time has subtracted reality from the most essential images at the core of my being.
I drove back to the McCulloch place, down the streets I used to walk barefooted in the hot pale sand. The streets are paved now, you don't see the sand much. I stopped at the house, and walked around it again, looked in one last time, got a small handful of sand from the yard and put it in my pocket, and left.
I know that the regular world I now live in is a totally new thing, a world like a shopping center with acres of parking lots, covering over the memory of the Indian camps and the trees and old farmhouses and wells and springs and small hills that were there before, so that what was there before, if you know about it at all, is like a dream. But to wander out of the mall and find ruins in the bright blaze of the sun is a shock.
When I got home I dug the small handful of sand out of my pocket and squeezed it from my fist like a thin stream from an hourglass until it was gone.
Ross McCulloch, L.M. Cummings (in WWI uniform), and Big Tree, all as young men.

Ross McCullochL. M. CummingsBig Tree

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Anicca and its discontents

I was out walking in my local greenbelt yesterday, and found an old brick remnant of a well by the rock ruins of a one-room farmhouse. The well is pictured below. The farmhouse was at some point abandoned, probably more than half a century ago, and the people moved on. The house became archeology, and the well is pleasing to look at.

Presumably the people had someplace to go, like my mother's family during the Depression. My grandmother, who was born in 1897 and lived during three centuries, dying in 2001, was alert up until the few months before her death. I taped some of her reminiscences before she died. She and her husband started in Oklahoma, and by the beginning of the Great Depression were farming in the Texas Panhandle, which became an ecological disaster zone at roughly the same time as America became an economic disaster zone. Farming there was, as we now say, non-sustainable.
She talks about dust storms rolling in, at first a line of black on the horizon.
Well, I'll tell you, one time, it was a beautiful day, we started down to see about our plums, to see if there was any bugs or worms on 'em, and we saw this rim of black, and we came on to the house, and by the time we got there, Norval [her son, my uncle] had decided to go on out and bring the cows in, he saw there was gonna be a storm coming, and by the time he got there, he drove the cattle into the lot out there--the lot was about as far as from here across the road--he couldn't see to get back. The only way he could get to the house was because he knew about which direction to go, and he came till he hit the fence, and he walked along the fence till he found the gate. It was black! I lit a gas lantern and put it in the window and he couldn't even see that gas lantern.
This was black. It was dirt. And Lyle [her brother] was working in the oil field, and a woman come and said "Oh, Mr. George, the world's comin' to an end, the world's comin' to an end, and there's the smoke." And he said "well, I don't think so, because the Bible says that when the world comes to and end, why, the Lord will come in all His glory, and I don't see anybody comin' in any glory, do you?" And the woman felt a little better at that, because she thought that was sure the end of time. But Lyle said before it was over, he felt like it was the end of time.
'Cause it choked you. The dust was so bad...
The first year, the storm came, and we lost everything. We tried to farm one year after that, but it had blown the topsoil off, and we'd lost our chickens, our cows died, they'd eat the shrubbery that had sand on it and they'd get some sand, and it'd kill the cows. And we lost more horses than we did cows. I think we had 13 cows left. Before we left there, [we] were fattening the calves and butchering them and taking the meat to Pampa. And taking eggs to Pampa. But we could no longer make it on account of the dust storms.

They did the Grapes of Wrath thing, in an old car hauling a flatbed trailer piled up with all their stuff, but instead of going to California, which might have been more rational from all but my limited and parochial viewpoint (a POV owing to what would have been my subsequent failure to exist) they went to South Texas and bought 10 acres of irrigated land in a place that seemed like paradise because there was water and people grew vegetables in the winter. They eventually went broke farming there too, but that's another story.

I was reminded of my grandparents because of the old well and the house rubble, and because I had also just finished reading Jared Diamond's _Collapse_ which I thought all in all was a depressing book, tho Diamond claims he is an optimist. He may be engaging in one of the failures to deal that he mentions, denial. More of that in a moment.

But my grandparents, when starved out of the high plains, did find a place to go. This dispersal is characteristic of some of the failed societies Diamond talks about. In the case of my grandparents, they prospered, at least according to their own expectations. They were used to a hard life, and a less-hard life equalled success. The Greenland Norse had nowhere to go, and they died. The Easter Islanders had nowhere to go, and most of them died, and the remainder lived a diminished and miserable existence from then until they were rescued from that by Spanish freebooters who sold most of them into serfdom in South American mines, where they died. Only a few Easter Islanders survived on their island until the 20th century.

I once took a microbiology course, as an undergraduate. It was an elective, and I took it with the idea that I might one day wish to apply for medical school, an idea I subsequently revised. But what sticks with me is the memory of the lab. We would innoculate various agar substrates on petri dishes with bacteria. Many of them would form visible colonies, which would get larger and larger as the bacteria prospered living off the fat of the land. Then would come the inevitable population crash, assuming of course that we didn't destroy the petri dish universe before that happened. The bacteria in a dish would not _all_ die, but those who were left, had they been thinking bacteria, would have no doubt considered that it was a miserable world they were now living in. It occurred to me then that there was no way that their universe could ever recover--even if the nutrients had not all been exhausted, the toxic wastes were permanent.

This doubtlessly way-too-crude environmentalist analogy has stuck with me all these years. I remembered it reading Diamond.

Diamond has 12 problems that face self-contained societies (and he makes a good case that the earth is now such a society). None of them are startling, although it is a little daunting to have them all listed at once. I won't do that here. He makes a case that all 12 must be solved if our world-society is to survive--solving only eleven won't do. He also lists some behavioral reasons why some societies fail to deal with such problems.

That was what I found depressing. He lists various failures to come to grips with disaster, like failure to see it ( if it happened slowly, like global warming is happening); "rational bad behavior", i.e., self interested screwing of others to your own advantage; and several other mechanisms that lead to non-coping; but most importantly, it seems to me, "disastrous values."

That was the depressing part. It is, as he points out, "painfully difficult" to abandon "core values" even when they are not working. So we see denial, we see fantasy (messianic delusions like the Rapture), and complete ideologically-founded craziness, like a proposal in Texas which is actually getting funded to the tune of a lot of money, to build an enormous mega-scale "Trans-Texas" highway system, far more massive than the present interstate highways, at a time when we are approaching peak oil and concomitant big problems with an automobile lifestyle. Not to mention, what the hell do we do with giant new highways that run up to the borders of Louisiana and Oklahoma and _stop_?

It does seem kind of like the big stone heads on Easter Island.
Bluebonnets and a tired little dog by an old well
old well near Onion Creek

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Republican parade

A Texas legislator named Frank Corte, a Republican from San Antonio who mentions in his official biography that he was educated at "Christian schools" has introduced a bill, HB 16, that will absolve Texas pharmacists, nurses, or other medical personnel, of the obligation to provide emergency contraceptives to women whose contraceptive needs offend their sensibilities. The bill speaks to the "rights" of medical personnel not to suffer "discrimination" at the hand of employers. The bill of course says nothing about the rights of the women, rather it's about protecting the feelings of the people behind the counter. And it would seem that self-employed pharmacists in Texas can already legally refuse to fill such prescriptions, if they feel like it. If Corte's bill becomes law, a pharmacist working for a large chain like Walgreen's Pharmacy can't be fired for refusing to do his or her job, at least to the extent that it involves selling emergency contraceptives.
Further, if the bill passes, such employers cannot refuse to hire people who have an "attitude" opposing abortion or opposing the filling of birth control prescriptions.

The word "attitude" is the closest the bill gets to overtly talking about religion.

It's kind of an odd piece of legislation. An "emergency contraceptive" is defined in HB 16 as "a prescription drug containing an elevated dose of hormones that is used to prevent pregnancy." People whose biological literacy is not a product of Christian schools like Mr. Corte's might notice that the definition of emergency contraceptive, above, could easily be construed to include regular birth control pills. Thus the bill as written could end up giving overly devout Catholic druggists the right to refuse to fill ordinary birth control prescriptions, if they read the definition and realize what it means. Presumably pharmacists, at least, might notice the latitude given them by the wording of the statute.

The stated intention of the bill, however, is to exempt pharmacists with attitude from having to sell emergency contraception medications only, assuming the State of Texas can find a way to distinguish emergency contraceptives from ordinary contraceptives.

I am surprised only that Texas did not lead the way on this. This is the sort of thing where our legislators would normally be out in front, ahead of the pack nationwide. We are behind for a change, and I suppose that at least is a good thing.

OK, let's look at the biography of Frank Corte, on his web page. I think it tells us something.

[He attended] San Antonio Christian Schools and graduated in 1977. It was at A&M that he graduated in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Building Construction. While at A&M, he was a member of the Corps of Cadets and the Fighting Texas Aggie Band.
In 1982, Representative Corte was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps where he served three years on active duty. He then joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve and was activated during the Gulf War. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Rep. Corte was called back to active duty and was sent to Egypt for duty. In 2004, he completed six months of active duty assigned to United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command Korea as a policy planner. In 2002, he graduated from the prestigious Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Currently, he is a Colonel and continues to serve various tours of active duty.
An Eagle Scout at the age of 14, he is still involved with the Alamo Area Boy Scouts serving as a Cubmaster. He is also an active member of University Baptist Church, where he serves as a Deacon and Sunday School teacher. In 1989, he was named one of the Outstanding Young Men of America.

Aside from my question "Egypt? What the hell?" this life history seems to indicate something important. This guy is not someone who has ever worked for wages. Or if he has he certainly takes pains not to mention it on his web page. And given the profile, my bet is that he does not presently hang around with any pharmacists, with or without attitude, who toil for wages filling prescriptions.

It's the genius of the Republican Party that guys like this can be leading the parade of the pharmacists with attitude, assuming there are any. Or at least leading the parade.

Friday cat blogging

Gray, lost in thought.
gray cat

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Meditation on blogging: after one month

I once knew a man who tried to commit suicide in a tent he had borrowed for the purpose; he drove 30 miles from Austin to a relict loblolly pine forest, the westernmost in the United States in Bastrop State Park, set up the tent in the evening, took a lot of psilocybin, slashed his wrists, and, as his lifeblood ran out onto the tent floor wrote a long letter to a novelist he admired, whose name I can't remember right now; a letter of homage and one in which he explained in a spirit of great exaltation how it felt to become one with the Cosmos, the stars and the piney woods.
His wounds happily enough were superficial. Come morning the effects of the drug were gone and he realized that he was not dead and did not wish to be and he staggered drenched in his own gore from the tent, causing considerable commotion in the small state park campground. He recovered. As far as I know he never mailed the letter. I think the novelist would have wanted to receive it, an ecstatic farewell message stained with the blood of sincerity, from a stranger; the darkest voice of a writer perfectly reflected in this echo from the audience; a shout coming out of nowhere.
Of course, if the attempt had not failed, that would be another matter.

Where am I going with this? Mundanely, as a Buddhist I should not care whether anyone reads this blog or not, of course. My thoughts, such as they are, would be out there, like the activities of a beaver, the product of some construction instinct without thought of whether it floods someone's backyard, or, blogwise, gives a reader heartburn. Or is ignored.

If that were how it worked there would not be three blogs in America, and they as likely to be the product of mental illness as of enlightenment. The value of a blog, to a Buddhist blogger anyhow, is that it (a) may be entertaining or useful to someone, somewhere, who knows? and (b) it is a handy index to the condition of one's personal and ever-present vanity. All you have to do is glance at the hitcount or the comments, and you have a reading. Buddhists, or Zen Buddhists at any rate, proceed on the notion that such readings are spiritually useful, if humbling.

A vivid awareness that the fucking ox has disappeared into the bushes again.

How to peel a coconut

Reading Basho's distilled and poetic travel entries set me to searching my computer for scraps of my own travel notes from trips over the years, hidden in badly named files. The best scrap I found, and the opposite of a Basho entry is this, from a trip to the jungle in Costa Rica, 15 years ago.

Eve raised her hand, as if she were in school, as we were about to leave, and asked Damma, our river guide in the jungle,
“Um, can I have a coconut, please?”
Damma looked about his yard and pretended to be amazed that it was littered with coconuts.
“Coconuts? Coconuts! Oh yes, we are in luck.”
He looked up at the coconut trees.
“Them coconuts must have just fell down!”
He picked one up and deftly peeled off the outer husk using his machete, first girdling the thick and fibrous husk and then prying it loose in two halves with the limber blade. Then he took the coconut in his hand and with oblique strokes with his very sharp machete chipped off pieces of the hard shell exposing the meat beneath. He turned the coconut in his hand as he worked, and in about ten unerring strokes had flaked off the entire shell and was holding a sort of melon of totally unscathed and unscratched coconut meat with the milk still inside. Then he sliced off the top making a coconut meat cup for Eve to drink the milk out of, and offered it ceremoneously to my daughter.
Eve took it and thanked Damma politely. She tasted it and made a face, “Yuck!” and handed the coconut cup to me. Damma was amused.

We took the coconut back to our room to eat. Coconuts are so abundant they are fed to the pigs and chickens. The woman who owned the seaside hotel enforced high standards of behavior for her guests, and forbade the eating of coconuts in her rooms because they were animal food, so we had to eat it on the sly.

The peeling of the coconut, nearly done
Peeling the coconut

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Notes on Basho

Spent the afternoon reading Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North. Hard to know what to make of it. A lot is unsaid, or taken for granted. Here we have a wandering dilettante, unbelievable hyper-esthete, with his bushido code and an aristocratic disdain for commoners, but his trip, walking, often while ill or in bad weather, would be considered roughing it in any day and age. But still. He sets out claiming he has only the clothes on his back, and the clothes are made out of waxed paper at that. But then later he mentions in passing a considerable wardrobe, with things like "by the way I was wearing only my black robes", or, "I had only a hood against the rain," and he carries enough brushes, paper and ink for a daily production of poems which he leaves as often as not in desolate temples for the next hyperesthete traveler to read, should one come along.
I suspect he took along a manservant or two.

Were I to take a trip like Basho I would say stuff like,
ate pickled radishes,
wind pulled at my clothes, tatters like a beggar,
scorched breakfast pan, smoke filled the morning air,
the moon floats the dawn and rags of mist.
Broken tines. Ruined walls, coldwater chillbumps,
young white fish, blood taste, fire on the marches,
red eyes in the rising sun, cold rice in a broken bowl,
crazed slip. Song. Wept.

Basho actually said none of the above, exactly. He did say, when he got tired of writing stuff:

"To say more about the shrine would be to violate its holiness."
"I saw many other things of interest in this mountain, the details of which, however, I refrain from betraying in accordance with the rules I must obey as a pilgrim."

I like that. We bloggers could often go and do likewise.

He talks about a cricket under an old helmet which had been placed in a shrine, broken clam shells reminding him of the temporal, and singing fishermen too boisterous for his tastes. He and his party (at that time) of 2 other poets at one point turn down the tearful request of a couple of prostitutes who don't know the road, who want to follow along, but at a very respectful distance, almost out of sight, so as not to get lost. He makes up an excuse and puts them off.

But he then feels sorry for them later and composes some verses.

He ends up in the remote north and does not tell us how he gets home.

It's a different way of writing. I kind of like it. And making allowances for his being a man of his time and place, I kind of liked him as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Nature walk

Took a noonday walk in McKinney Falls state park, beautiful day, cloudless sky, 80 degrees. Scissor tail flycatchers are here for the summer, Canada Warblers are passing through. Flowers cover the meadows: small purple wild garlics, a few big white rainlilies left from the last rain, lots of crow-poison, which looks like an onion but doesn't smell like one, sabadillas growing among the prickly pear, pale dusty-blue larkspurs, and a purple skullcap species--not sure of the name of it. Most of the foregoing are toxic if eaten. Not toxic if eaten, is a spectacular red cedar-sage, a true sage, and beautiful, growing in Smith rock-shelter, a big rock creekside overhang where humans lived for thousands of years until our own people got here and killed them, the people, not the flowers. The flowers tend to come back in the same spot, and it is not unreasonable to think they served as ornaments to the living room of Native Americans 3000 years ago in the same spot.
The Mexican Persimmons (Diospyros texana) are leafing out, bark smooth and white like pre-Raphaelite skin and leaves what you would call an unnatural chemical green, except that they are, like, leaves. It's a small tough tree which has a nice Japanese garden tendency to grow gnarled naturally, and the smooth bark makes it doubly appealing as an ornamental; the drawback is that the quarter sized fruits are coal black and fall down and smash like paintball splats on sidewaks, thus they are not commonly planted. Little boys sometimes eat them (they taste pretty good--they are real persimmons) making their mouths look like they had swallowed black paint, the point of doing it. I am trying to grow one of these persimmons in my yard, but someone unfortunately backed a car over it, so I had to cut it back and let it come out from the roots, a major setback for a man of my age with a slow-growing tree.

Photo of persimmon in McKinney Falls park.

Mexican persimmon

Another day in the Texas House of Representatives

School reform, criminal justice reforms, and child protective custody reforms
take wing
Speaker Craddick at work

The meme moves on

You are stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book title would you be?

The Oxford English Dictionary. You'll notice a small change in the question. We are assuming the possession of superhuman powers, of course.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

No. Well, depends on what you mean by fictional.

What is the last book you bought?

Collapse, by Jared Diamond.

What are you currently reading?

Star in the East--Krishnamurti: the invention of a messiah, by Roland Vernon

Five books for a desert island?

As I said to Idyllopus in answer to a similar question, any 5 Dickens novels, because I can reread them with pleasure, important on a desert island.

Or, alternatively, I'm kind of fickle, and decide what to take on trips at the last minute, Chapman's Homer (both books), Gavin Douglas's Aeneid, Don Quixote in Spanish and the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.

Who are you going to pass this book meme baton to and why? (only three people)

I doubt if there are any bloggers left who have not gotten this chain letter. So it will be 3 friends I have not heard from in a long time, one who lives on Bainbridge Island, one who lives in Upper Nyack, and one who lives in Vermont, to see what they are up to.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Obsolete travel notes--Honduras before the hurricane

Though Roatan is a tropical island, sweat turned chill toward morning. Travelers would lie wrapped in clammy bedlinens, the sheets glued to their bodies.

Thus we would awake, December stars visible beyond the palm and banana fronds. The roosters would be crowing. Roatan Island is home to countless roosters, all invigorated by the climate of jungle-fowl ancestors. So. Rooster cranks himself up--rasping, shrill, ruffled, spasmodic, explosive as a sneeze--firing a convulsive chain reaction across the island, lacerating the fabric of dreams, as sleep bleeds away into dawning consciousness. We lie damp, chill and wide-awake, immersed in the pandemonium.
Sunrise soon lights the leaves overhead, and we would walk to Rudy's dining room, which was outdoors under banana trees by the beach; Rudy's clients came there both to eat breakfast and watch interesting people walking by on the sandy road, if it did not rain.
Rudy was a jovial, short, slightly fat, balding black man, who spoke Caribbean English by preference and upbringing...
"Pancakes on the window!" Rudy sang out, to announce the arrival of an order. He would put it out on the lower half of the Dutch door to his kitchen. The proper recipient had better get it quick, or someone else would, out of turn. The primo road-watching tables were farthest from the food window, so people had to balance the chance of interesting sights against the chance of not getting their food. In this, as in all things, was hidden a lesson.
A barefoot black man slowly raked the sand on the beach, piling the fibrous flotsam of coconut shell husks and crud from the sea into little mounds. He took pride in his work, and a Zen garden look slowly took shape along his little crescent strand. By evening the sea and the equally heedless beachwalkers would give him a new morning's work.
An exasperated villager, sweating and cursing, led a reluctant milk-cow down the street by dragging its even more reluctant calf ahead of it. Island men rode up and down the sandy street every morning at a fast trot on very small wiry horses, bareback or seated in high-backed Honduran saddles. They mounted and dismounted on the right. These were among the few evidences of the traditional lifeways of the village.
I felt somewhat unwell. I had it seems contracted the Roatan cold, which some tourist from the North had brought to the island at the beginning of the winter. Now it maintained itself among the newly arrived like a brush fire smoldering in an ever widening circle. This particular morning I cheered myself by meditating on the sight of an aging, relaxed Rastafarian man with long, cascading gray dreadlocks and hypnotic eyes conversing with young tourist women. A man who knows how to live, I thought.

Snorkeling was the day's agenda. My nose was sore, and I disliked the idea of putting on a face mask.
The morning snorkeling event was mixed in its blessings. The rocky headland a quarter mile down to the west had corals and colorful fishes, but the sea stung us with invisible nettles.
I got out of the water and sat in the coconut tree shade. The nettles took my mind off my other discomforts. My daughter Eve remained surprisingly nonchalant about her stings, some red lesions that disappeared after a half hour or so.
Later Robert, our 65 year old hotelier and storekeeper, who conducted his businesses out of his pocket where he kept a fistsized roll of bills, told us that the stinging stuff gets stirred up from the seaweed when you swim too close.
"Don't snorkle out in them weeds," he said. "Snorkle right there," pointing down the tourist main street of West End. So we snorkeled where he pointed, at Half Moon Bay, an inlet a hundred yards deep and two hundred wide in the middle of West End village, made by nature for tourism brochures. The beach sand was clean, the water clear, the coconut trees provided shade, the corals lay close inshore, and the shoals of fishes tilted in the bluegreen rays of undersea sunlight refracting occasionally iridescent colors, as snorkelers swam among them. The snorkelers floated in the asthmatic rhythms of their snorkelpipe breathing, flippered in slowmotion on frogleg rubber fins, held in the suction of sudden unseen pushes and pulls as we all surged in the same sporadic grip and ungrip of the sea. No sparkles of invisible freefloating pain disturbed us at Half Moon Bay, but we had to be wary of the pincushon sea urchins nestled with their crowns of glass quills in the rocky shallows.
Black and brown kids played by the shore of Half Moon Bay. The trees on the rocky cavitated reef promontories were gnarled and dwarfed, except for the coconut trees which exploded in the air like green fireworks, or the hurrah of a crowd.
A family of Germans came down to the water, all wearing minimalist European bathing suits, carrying snorkels and fins. They sat down and put on their gear, and each when ready thrashed vigorously in a sort of crawl stroke, out into the bay, at considerable speed. By the time the ten year-old boy (the slowest to get his fins on) got into the water, the father had kerchunked his way athletically halfway out to the reef, the mother 20 yards behind him, his older sister halfway between the shore and the mother. They rendezvoused at the reef, then swam past it, circled and dove together for a few minutes, and then as a unit began churning out to sea around the headland to the left, noisy, like a family of seals on steroids.

Across the way from Robert's Hill Hotel where we stayed was a restaurant on wooden pilings over the water, run by Neapolitans, frequented by middle-aged, sun-and-wind reddened European men wearing bikinis, pot-bellied with graying hair on their bodies, raw and splotchy, like bears undergoing chemotherapy.
What is it with European men and bikinis?

New Years Eve:
The year came to a close. A large white ship steamed across the horizon, and the lights dimmed into the twilight. It was New Year's Eve, and there was a big party at a beachside bar. The sun went down, and the band struck up a tune consisting of some reggae rhythms embedded in electrical feedback. Nothing happened. No one danced. Doldrums. The party threatened to fizzle, until an attractive American woman wearing a sarong-like skirt slit on one side got up on the wooden landing over the water and began undulating in a sinuous dance-in-place. The people looked at her. Someone fiddled with the equipment and the feedback disappeared. The band played, with increasing enthusiasm, for the dancing woman. She became more abandoned. More glimpses of leg. Everyone was spellbound. Cheers. Applause. She went wild. So did the crowd, even though the woman took off no clothes. Then other people started dancing on the sand, someone found a way to dim the lights, and the party began. Mostly it was French and German youth, who danced like buffaloes.
Kay and Eve and I went back to our room, after it got rowdy, plus I still felt unwell because of my cold. Anna and Joe stayed. At midnight I woke up to the countdown of seconds before midnight, and the sounds of someone vomiting at the stroke of 12.
New Years Day was hazy and warm. I sat on the porch, where my yellow shirt was drying on the line. Emptied Lucky Strike packs littered the rail, left by the drunken French youths, who had been singing Auld Lang Syne in French-accented Scottish dialect while stamping the rhythm, such as it was, in a sort of conga-line stumble, at 3 in the morning. The cigarette smoke from the blue-scorpion-tattooed-on-the-arm German woman sitting at the other end of the porch stung my nose.
The German tourists were already up and about--they had generally been more sedate than the French, who still dozed and groaned in their rooms, sleeping off hangovers.
The sea was silver-gray in the haze. A man stood in a dugout canoe 150-200 yards offshore. Snorklers floated nearer to shore, flashed their fins in the sun when they dove, making me think of otters. When they surfaced I could hear them clear their snorkles, making a hollow whuff that reminded me of distant fin whales I once heard in the Bay of Fundy.
I walked out on one of the Neopolitan restaurant piers and watched a gathering of tropical fish, muted bright colorful stripes. A yellow and black sea snake moved slowly along the bottom like a somehow self-propelled length of quarter-inch spotted rope.
A village man walked by carrying a bible. He wore his good clothes and a white pressed shirt. He seemed out of place there in his native town, among the godless foreigners.
That night we dined by candlelight at a rustic shanty restaurant called Stanley's, the candles in mason jars on the wooden mismatched picnic tables in the half-indoors, half-outdoors porch. The owners had used a red plastic tarp material decoratively, like curtains, along with a red banner bearing a stylized, heroic, neck-thews-like-a-bull profile of Lenin in gold. Below Lenin's stern gaze, the transfer of capital from the grasshoppers of the first world to the ants of the third proceeded apace with the businesslike transfer of food from plate to mouth--Stanley's was fairly expensive.
Rain fell in the morning, from the hills moving out seaward. Gray strands descended slowly in a curtain swinging out to sea across the rocky land’s-end. A few drops splattered on my head as I heard a rising chatter, then a roar as the approaching rain rattled the palm leaves and the tin roofs, changing the sea surface to a matte gray-olive, an undulating flannel texture, and I ran for cover under Robert's porch. I got there moments before the deluge, buckets of water pouring out of the sky. As fleeting as emotion, the rain was mostly gone, followed by bursts of wind and drizzle sweeping in moving dimples across the water after the main rainfront. The water regained color and luminosity out by the reef, where a large motor yacht, the Bay Islands Aggressor II, dropped anchor. Palms whipped in the wind. The Bay Islands Aggressor II dipped and bucked at its tether beyond the reef. I could see the white-uniform crew scurrying in and out of the cabin doors. I imagined they were passing out the Dramamine.

Island cab stopped to pick us up to go the island airstrip. The truck behind honked. The cab driver ignored it. The truck pulled up and the guy said in Spanish to the cab driver,
"What a stupid way to drive."
"So go around."
"You're an idiot, parking in the middle of the street."
"So do something about it."
"Maybe I will."
"I'm ready." Etc. All this would have led to a shootout in Mexico, or some parts of the United States.
The cab driver remained nonchalant, not breaking the rhythm of his chicle-chewing during the confrontation.The truck guy drove off.