Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Brave little bears

A short story, part fiction, with some bits of truth

“Get that out of your mouth!”

She looked up from the deer’s carcass, blood smeared from nose to chin, a chunk of meat clenched in her teeth. Her breath steamed into the cold winter air.

“Why?” she asked, pulling the stringy, dripping thing from her mouth. She stretched it between her two hands, straining to pull the single piece of flesh apart. "It's real chewy."

“It’s not cooked,” he said, setting his rifle in the notch of a tree.

“Bears don’t cook deers when they eat them.”

“Well, you’re not a bear.”

“I am! Rawr!”

He plucked the dripping gobbet from her hand and whipped it away into the forest, and she jumped about him growling and swiping with rigidly hooked fingers. Finally, she kicked him in the shin.

“I AM a bear.”

“Fine. But someday you’re going to be a grown woman and grown women do not eat raw meat with their bare hands.”

“Grown women have bear hands?” She eagerly made claws again.

“Not exactly,” he said, and then sighed at her crestfallen expression. He squatted on his heels and beckoned her. “Come here, little bear.”

He wiped her face with several handfuls of snow, an effort that deteriorated into a small-scale battle and left him sprawled on his back in a snow drift. She glared at him defiantly, wiping her cheeks furiously with the backs of her sleeves. He glared back as he struggled to rise, but couldn’t maintain his ire as he overbalanced and fell sideways back into the drift. He heard giggling as he struggled to extricate himself.

“Alright, get over here and help your old man!” 

In the resulting tug-of-war, the tiny giggler offered marginal assistance, but he maneuvered so she would believe she was doing most of the work. By the time he was on his feet, they were both breathing hard. He said something about her muscles, and she beamed up at him, eyes bright, cheeks rosy, and drops of blood spattering her coat. 

"How did it taste?" he asked.

"Not my favorite. I think I would like Rhinoceros better."

"I'm sure. Do me a favor, would you? The next time there's a dead animal on the ground, don't put any of it in your mouth."
* * *

His steps plunged into the snow, over and over again. For a while the girl had shouted directions to him from the sled, but now she was silent, and the only sounds were his rhythmic steps and the constant crunch of the sled over the snow. At a clearing in the trees he paused and let the sled come to a stop. He shrugged the rope from his shoulder and stretched, staring out over the valley below.

“What’s out there?” the girl asked. She didn't move from her spot, nestled in a bundle of blankets, the deer’s body stretched out beside her.

“Civilization,” he said.

"What's that?"

"Well, it's lots of people all crowded on top of each other, trying to figure out ways to live together."

“What kind of people?”

“All the kinds.”

At the foot of their mountain, settlements were sparse, but in the distance he could just make out the lights of the city winking on, one by one.

“The lights are pretty,” she said.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s good to watch sunsets.”

“Not the sunset.” She stabbed a finger out from beneath her blankets. “Those little lights. Where the people are.”

He grunted, and circled the sled, checking to make sure all the straps were secure, that the carcass was still wrapped sufficiently and not trailing blood in the snow. He pulled the blankets a little more securely around the girl. Wiped her nose with a blanket edge.

“Why don’t you like people?” she said.

“I like you. You’re a person,” he said. “Some of the time, anyway.”

“And mom’s a person,” she said. 

“See? I like people,” he said.

"But you don't like going out there. Where people are on top of each other."

"Well, I don't mind meeting a person like a bear or a moose in the woods. It’s nice to see them from a distance. Maybe you get close enough to wave. But you put a lot on the line when you get too close.”

She thought about that. He bent to retrieve the rope and looped it over his shoulder.

"I would get close to a bear. Because I'm brave," she said.

"Yes, you are," he said. "But then it's my job to protect you, and make sure you don't get too close. To keep you safe." 

He paused.

"The truth is, sometimes it's me I'm keeping safe. Your dad is a man who likes to stay on his mountain."
“I like your mountain. But I want to go down there,” she said. “I think I might like it, too.”

“I went down there once, when I was younger," he said. "It’s where I met your mother.”

“But then you came back up here.”


"Well, I would go down there, and nobody would scare me. Because I would be a grown woman. Maybe even bigger than you!"

She climbed off the sled, shedding the blankets. She stamped her feet and clapped her mittened hands together, a four-year-old’s version of calisthenics .

“I can walk the rest of the way,” she said. “I’m am getting big, you know.”

“I know.” She tramped in huge steps around the sled and towards the cabin, which was just visible through the trees, the glow from its windows a tiny beacon of comfort and warmth.

He glanced again out over the valley. And then smiled, as he heard in the distance a small voice shout “Rawr! I’m a bear!”

Friday, December 5, 2014

What to do with your old National Geographic collection

Recently my in-laws asked if we'd like their old National Geographic magazines. It turns out they've been saving them since Columbus reached the Americas.

Our house is small, and we're pretty dang bad at finding appropriate storage places for things. We've still got 90% of our book collection in boxes, although I plan on that changing once escrow goes through on our house (my dreams are filled with full-wall built-in bookshelves). We almost passed on the collection, but then we were like, "but they're National Geographics!" So we took them. And then they sat around for a long while as we tried to figure out what to do with them.

Makeshift beds were made. Towers were built. Dangerous gymnastic stunts were performed with enthusiasm and daring. At which point we had to recognize the unwise use of stacks of National Geographic magazines as building blocks and play equipment.

I remember, decades ago, sitting at my parent's kitchen table, poring over the latest National Geographic magazine. I'd examine every page and imagine worlds far beyond the scope of my everyday life. There's magic in these things. Mystery. Adventure. Only yesterday, the plumber who came to fix our water heater saw our stack of National Geographics and waxed on about his own love affair with the magazine.

Perhaps most exciting of all was riffling through the pages to find the secret artifact nestled amidst articles on rain-forest spiders or new discoveries about Marco Polo's journeys. The neatly folded map is the cereal-box prize for the kid who has a little bit of Indiana Jones in her heart.

There's no doubt my four-year-old is an adventurer, so much so that she puts this home-body dad to shame. I'm working on living up to her craving for adventure. Baby steps, you know? In the meantime, this homage to her childhood and my own is what we came up with for my daughter's room:

I know that not every map is created or even accepted by the people who reside within the (sometimes arbitrary) "boundaries" that a map describes. And a thoughtful play like Brian Friel's
"Translations" complicates even the practice of naming and labeling on maps, charts and historical and cultural analyses. Yet even accepting those qualifications, I identify with Gilbert H. Grosvenor's (the first full-time editor of National Geographic magazine) thoughts on the volume of meaning, of imagination, and of creativity to be appreciated in these works of art as efforts to understand the world we live in.

"A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams."
- Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Editor of National Geographic from 1899 -1954

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Jabberwocky


If you've been around a while, you've probably noticed that I'm a little curmudgeonly about holidays and parties and anything that involves interaction with other people. But despite all the things that make me twitch, there's something I always look forward to on Halloween.

Every year we try to do a project, something that we'll remember and care about years down the road, something more than just a cute costume. Last year my three-year-old made it through the entirety of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Dang, I was proud of her. The year before that, my daughter was the star of her own Halloween horror story.

This year, my four-year-old pirate princess takes a Jabberwocky's head for a prize. *

You're welcome.

*No mythical creatures were harmed in the making of this video.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

So long as we are dirty, we are pure

"All of earth is crammed with heaven
And every bush aflame with God
But only those who see take off their shoes."

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My daughter's birth marked a landfall after nine long months of a watery existence. Little bit by bit, each additional day she was in the womb, she became a little less fish and a little more mammal.

Sometimes, even four years later, it seems as though she's still trying to make up for her sloshing fetal isolation from terra firma. When she gleefully kicks up the dust beneath her feet, I imagine an ocean-weary mariner whose feet unexpectedly hit dry ground after so many days at sea.

She wants nothing more than to wriggle her toes in it; to savor its taste in her mouth; to pour it over her own head in a perverse mockery of acceptable cleansing rituals. But when I watch her enthusiastic, gritty exploration of the world around her, it strikes me that there is something cleansing in shucking protective barriers and getting dirty. Despite my declared love of nature, despite our move to a rural mountain town, I still spend far too much time with a window between me and the world. My four-year-old is doing her best to cure me of that problem.

*          *          *

At our local public library, there's a song that the kids sing during story time. It goes,

Each of us is a flower,
growing in life's garden.
Each of us is a flower,
we need the sun and rain.

Sun, shine your warmth on me.
Moon, cool me with your night.
Wind, bring the gentle rain.
Earth, take my roots down deep.

It's one of those cutesy songs that I don't want to admit enjoying. I'd be okay if most nursery rhymes and children's songs faded into obscurity. Yet I can't deny there is not much that is better than watching a bunch of three or four-year-olds perform a choreographed dance while crooning "each of us is a flower . . ."

*          *          *

There are treasures down there beneath the dirt. Bottlecaps, old nails, crumbling pieces of brick and ancient tile work and pottery. Worn pennies and forgotten plastic bracelets. Little rocks that could be hidden gems and big rocks that could be prehistoric fossils.

"Getting buried," her new favorite activity
As an adult, I too rarely stoop to break the surface of the ground I walk. But now, excavating a moat and castle, I relive my own childhood archaeological adventures. It feels good to sweat through my shirt, to imagine what's under the next layer of earth, to see our mountain grow taller.

And it feels good to have my daughter by my side. She digs with her own pink shovel, inadvertently throwing dirt back into the hole I'm laboring over. She bends to pluck curious objects before they're lost to the settling soil. She scoops handfuls of dirt and rubs them over her skin like some luxurious moisturizer. And when we're done, she's the very best buried treasure a scurvy pirate dad could find.

*          *          *

Our neighbor, a spry eighty-year-old in a boonie hat and gardening gloves, watches from the back fence.
"What's that yer working on?" he says.
My daughter and I survey our territory, the moat and the castle mound that is currently a temporary home to assorted trucks, dolls, and transplanted flowering weeds.
"We're just digging!" shouts my daughter, waving her shovel triumphantly. 
"Are you gonna plant something?" he asks uncertainly. "Tomatoes?" 
"Not yet," I say, slowly looking around. "Just digging. For fun." 
"Yeah! For fun!" shouts my daughter, emptying a cup of dirt over her head. 
"Huh," he says, and turns away, shaking his head. 
Alan, our neighbor, is a gardening fiend. He can't wait until we stop foolin' about and start growing things. Which we fully intend. It's on our to-do list. Definitely in our 10-year plan. Living an hour from a reasonably-sized grocery store, it starts to make a lot of sense to grow things ourselves.

But for a little while, we're pretty okay with digging for the sake of digging. With examining roly-poly bugs and watching neat lines of ants trooping along the bottom of our trench. With laying on a pile of dirt and watching the clouds go by. With carving canyons with shovels and kitchen implements and with building tiny civilizations on the cliff edges. With getting so dirty that a shake of our clothes leaves a cloud of dust wafting through the air, and perpetually having dirt under our fingernails, a keepsake and reminder to get outside again soon.

The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions . . . mud pies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.
-Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, 1870

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Feel the burn!

Last weekend I ran the Bakersfield 10K Volkslauf for my fifth straight year. I didn't really train much in the "preseason," since we're in the middle of trying to buy a house and, well, because laziness. I almost didn't show on race day, but finally dragged myself to the starting line for the sake of continuity. And because velociraptors. My daughter, enthusiastic about my athletic goals (or lack thereof), has taken it upon herself to help me get back in shape:


She's a tough taskmaster.

I used to try this same maneuver several years back when she was ten or fifteen pounds lighter, and I was ten or fifteen pounds more muscular. If I'm gonna be able to still manage it in several more years, I've obviously got to up my game. It's daunting, but dang-it, I'm gonna make it happen. When I think of a father-daughter obstacle racing team, I can already feel the pre-race butterflies flapping around excitedly in my stomach. Next year, at almost 6, she'll be the perfect age to start.

So, challenge accepted. I'm feeling the burn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

In your image, orange, the world was made

Lunchtime. I consider the oranges at the bottom of our refrigerator. A friendly neighbor unloaded them on us after a weekend of harvesting, and they practically spill from the clear plastic bin like plunder, like hoarded treasure. My four-year-old is happy to announce to friends and strangers met on daily walks that oranges prevent scurvy and that scurvy is something pirates and even regular people really ought to avoid. 'Cause it'll "make you dead." Unfortunately, my four-year-old is still asserting her claim to self-determination by refusing most food that comes in front of her, even that globe of citrusy goodness, the orange.

I take a gamble and begin peeling two oranges. She says "yuck!" and contorts her face in exaggerated expressions of disgust which escalate into melodramatic demonstrations of extreme pain. So I take a break and we go to the internet so I can read her some poetry about oranges. Kids dig poetry, right?

Neruda's persuasive words notwithstanding, my daughter will not be moved. "That's nice," she says. "But I still won't eat any orange." I sigh and finish peeling and then start eating.

I make my way through the segments of one orange, separating each crescent landmass from its companions, musing over the exploding flavor of sun and citrus in my mouth. I handle the textured bumps and protrusions of a piece of peel, and form a continent from it. I show my daughter where we live in North America. I make a Gulf of Mexico with my thumbnail. I sliver off a piece for Hawaii. As I carve out a piece for Central America my daughter absentmindedly grabs an orange segment and pops it in her mouth. I pretend not to notice. With the aid of a map from a National Geographic, I carve Canada and South America, Africa and Scandinavia, Australia and India.

The orange segments disappear, one by one, into her mouth, until all that remains is the shell of the world that once was, the outline of the multitudes it contained.

With a spare lamp we become a sun and cross the face of the earth, waking it with the first rays of dawn and letting it fall into a slumbering darkness.

Each orange consumed offers a brief overwhelming shot of both bitter and sweet, one besting the other but never eliminating it. 

Inseparable the two tastes exist, one the greater and one the lesser. And all packed together into the ever diminishing, juicy heart of the orange. 

In the end, with all the pieces swept together in a final messy Pangaea, the pieces approximate but cannot recapture the wholeness or fullness of their original. We sweep away the remains of this world, and pull another from the bin.