Thursday, May 29, 2008

At the mercy of the river wild

The Chatanika churned past our campsite on the bank. Steve and I carried the canoe about thirty yards upriver to where a gravel bar provided easy entry. We climbed in, pushed off, and were immediately carried directly towards a clump of low-hanging branches: a sweeper, in river terminology.

I leaned back as if I was doing the limbo and tried to push the canoe away from the trees as the branches overtook me, but the water was too swift. The front of the canoe was driven under the water, and then the canoe flipped.

We plunged into a river so cold that, a little ways upstream, snow still lined the banks.

I popped my head out of the water and looked back for Steve. He was still under, and stayed under for what seemed like an agonizingly long time before his body also broke the surface.

We were shoulder deep in the river as we tried to lift the canoe. The suction of the canoe against the water held it tight to the surface as the flow continued to push us downstream.

My entire body moved as my sandal stayed in place. "Fuck!" I shouted. "I'm losing my shoe!"

My jaw was so cold the words came out like I was having a stroke.

"Leave it!" Steve shouted back.

"Throw that fucking paddle on the shore before it gets swept away!" I replied. The words sounded strange in my head.

We were right next to our campsite; this was the shortest canoe trip ever.

"Katy, throw more wood on the fire!" Steve yelled.

Somehow, we were able to drag ourselves and the canoe from the river. Steve was struck by a bout of laughing. Deja paced nervously. Katy stirred the fire to life. I stripped naked and searched for dry clothes, walking around in one sandal.


Despite those struggles, the next day we decided to put in eleven miles upriver. Around the second bend, we hit a half-submerged clump of trees. We took in water but didn't flip, as the current held us in place against the timber. We struggled for five minutes before we were able to pull free. This is going to be the worst canoe trip ever, I thought, but the rest of the trip went without incident.


Overall, the vacation was nice. We played frisbee and catch with the baseball, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire, and performed group sing-alongs of all the tunes we could remember.

We were continually visited by a native guy camping further down the river; he informed us that he was there for a week celebrating his birthday. We never saw him sober. His name was Seymour; he informed us that everyone called him "See-More Butts," including his numerous girlfriends. One of his exes had borrowed twenty dollars from him to buy him booze for his birthday. We learned later from his sister that he also had the nickname "Skidmarks." He once wiped out on his bike while drunk.

Some military types near us kept firing guns. This lead Deja to act somewhat erractically, even after the gunfire subsided. At one point, she stood balancing on a log, back curved, all of her feet within inches of each other. "That's it," Steve said. "She's lost it. My dog has gone insane."


Overall, the weekend was quite enjoyable. But it had to end eventually. And a shower never felt so good.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Life is good

In twenty minutes (12:45) the boss lady is letting us out of work early to go to Big Daddy's for barbecue and beer.

Then I will go rent a canoe for the long weekend.

It's a rough life I live, I know. Hopefully, my cohorts and I don't go all Alexander Supertramp this weekend.


When Rowan and I were discussing American Idol, Rowan referred to David Archuleta as David Enchilada, which prompted me to say that I hoped Enchilada would get Cooked, which he did. Long live rock!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The savant frolfs with the good doctor

Last year while playing basketball, one of my friends, for some reason, called me autistic.

This year while frisbee golfing, or frolfing, that same friend made a reference to the Lethal Weapon movies, which I have never seen, which I admitted.

"I guess I'm just culturally retarded," I said.

"I think you're more culturally autistic," he said.

I had never heard the phrase "cultural autism" before. However, it seems to get thrown around a lot but rarely defined (just google the phrase). Some folks seem to use it almost interchangeably with the standard DSM definition of autism, except using it as a limiter relating to only the interpersonal manifestations of the disease. Others use it in a cross-cultural context, relating to those people who are unaware of the cultural norms of other places, such as stupid tourists.

My own definition, at least in the context of what I think my friend was hinting at, would probably be something like this: "an inability to engage with the the popular culture by which one is surrounded." I think this parallels the definition of actual autism: some autistic individuals are extremely intelligent, but lack the ability to interact with the world in a normal way.

So, am I culturally autistic, or autistic in any way?

No. I just haven't seen Lethal Weapon. I was busy doing other stuff. Very important stuff, I am sure.

Also, I am not incapable of properly engaging with others in a social context, I just don't want to, because I hate people.

I do not know why my friend keeps "diagnosing" me as autistic. Perhaps he has some weird pathology of his own that he tries to transfer on to me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must stop typing so that I can rock repetitively back and forth in my office chair.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My song of the spring: four years later, has anything changed?

I popped a CD into the Jeep's player over a week ago, a CD that my brother burned for me a couple years back. The last song is "We can't make it here" by James McMurtry.

(The video is an acoustic performance; check YouTube for some fan-made videos of the more rockin' study version.)

I've been listening to the song repeatedly. It's from 2004 and depicts a crumbling economy and the ongoing battle between big business (the "man," so to speak) and the working poor, set against the backdrop of a war nobody wants. Four years later, does this still sound familiar?

At one point in the song, McMurtry examines class separation, and calls out the business owners who have been outsourcing our economy:

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war
And we can’t make it here anymore

Will work for food, will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
So let ‘em eat jellybeans let ‘em eat cake
Let ‘em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can’t make it here anymore

The song portrays a separitist mentality, but the fact is that we have an ever-widening class gap in this country.

It reminds me of the scene in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (which I hated, by the way; it seemed too much like biased propaganda) where he asks senators and other "important" folk if they would send their children to fight overseas.

McMurtry has little use for metaphor, and instead whacks you over the head with bluntness. But I like bluntness. It's easier to "get." I'm a busy man; I don't have time to search for meaning.

The song rouses something in me, and I'm not sure why.

Growing up on a farm, economic hardship was just a poor season away. But weather is something beyond man's control. When things failed, there was rarely someone specific to blame.

In McMurtry's world, and in places such as Moore's beloved Flint, MI, economic hardships are the result of decisions by people at the top of a hierarchical structure, a structure which implies some culpability for those at the top for the struggles of those at the bottom.

The sad thing is that our country has the resources to provide for all of its people. But somehow we manage to fall short.

Maybe our government is failing the lower to lower-middle classes, but I suppose it is doing something. We got our stimulus checks. That will make everything okay! Or at least shut me up for a while.


This morning I woke up to the alarm clock going off and found myself talking out loud. "You're so very confused!" I practically shouted as I sat upright. I looked around, saw that I was in the bedroom, and realized that I was now the confused one. I have no idea what I was dreaming about.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Don't let your babies grow up to be...

I've been dogsitting this week at a house not too distant from my place of employment, allowing me to partake of eco-friendly transportation methods such as walking and biking. The Jeep has not moved in three days.

The other day while ambling slowly home, I passed a yard where a large group of kids ran around, kicking balls and chasing each other. It was an almost utopian scene: a mix of boys and girls, several races, kids varying in age by a half-decade or more, all getting along and all seemingly happy.

When I was nearly past this scene, the sound of a man yelling made my head turn.

"Did you wear makeup to school today?" he shouted at a girl I assumed to be his daughter, and who looked, to me, to be about eleven years old. "Don't lie to me. I heard about you. If you do it again, I'll beat your ass."

While I don't advocate the beating of any child's ass (though some might argue that it worked for earlier generations), I felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. I don't know what it's like to raise a child, but I can't imagine it's easy.

Recently, the Boston Globe published an article on single-sex classrooms. The idea of segregating boys from girls has a lot to do with the theory that the sexes have different learning styles.

But the line that most caught my eye was this:

Enter the flirt-free zone at the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston, one of the few public schools in the state experimenting with single-sex classes as a way to tame raging hormones, refocus students on their studies, and begin addressing a worsening achievement gap between boys and girls.

Boys still will be boys - and launch their paper planes - but their antics have toned down, teachers said. Girls have stopped preening in class.

Perhaps the difference is not so much learning styles, but the fact that young minds drift elsewhere.

This is where I could leap into a diatribe about the oversexualization of our culture and how it affects younger and younger children, and how our technologically "advanced" culture is physically causing this earlier sexualization.

But we've heard it all before.

I'm at the age where I am questioning the biological imperative of fatherhood. The answers divide themselves:

If I answer no, I must realize that it is a decision that is not completely my own.

If I answer yes, I also have to deal with the same concern as above, but a new question arises: When?

If I decide to have a child, I want to have it before the baby-making process goes all Gattaca on me. And this potential reality is getting a little too close for the comfort of some of us.

And the thought of bringing a child into this current world mildly terrifies me. I feel like an old geezer when I say it, but the world seems less safe than it did when I was a child, and I don't know how much of that is my changing perspective or a changing world.

And what if the child was somehow different, with mental, physical, or emotional problems? Am I strong enough to deal with that?

The last several times that I called my brother, I was struck by how much my brother's voice sounds like my father's. And when I see some of the pictures I have of myself with a mustache, I realize that there is no doubt that this apple did not fall far from the tree (my dad has had a mustache for the last forty years).

One of the weird things about being a parent, I would think, is that our children are, in a way, us. If we fail them, we fail ourselves. And how can anyone deal with that?

Just some thoughts to consider as we linger in that time after Mother's Day and before Father's Day.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mother's day: sentimentality is acceptable

In a gift-giving transaction more mainstream than I normally like to operate, I am sending my mother chocolate for Mother's Day. (I am also giving her a fancier gift, but that only involves me sending my brother money and him taking care of things, since he is older and therefore more capable of such endeavors.) The chocolates have centers made from real Alaskan wildberries, so that's cool, since my mom will probably like the idea of it.

But as I was purchasing the candies, I realized that I really have no idea whether or not my mother even likes chocolate. We always had a bowl of miniature candy bars sitting on the kitchen counter, but I think these were more for my stepfather.

So many years living with and knowing the woman, and I don't even know this somewhat basic detail.

When I went to the post office to send the chocolates, the graying old hippy with long hair and the worst teeth I've ever seen told me I needed a haircut. He didn't seem to be joking. Why would he say such a thing? Not even my mother tells me that.

Garrison Keilor has written a wonderful ode to Mother's Day. He makes many strikingly relevant insights:
Mothers were, at one time, young women with Possibilities who might have taken a different route and become glamorous and powerful figures in Size 2 dresses and instead found themselves cleaning up excrement and jiggling colicky babies to get them to stop screaming. They hardly ever get to London anymore or have time to read James Joyce. They sit down to dinner with adults and feel brain-dead. A bouquet of flowers hardly seems compensation enough. How about a million dollars and a house in the south of France?
He's right. How can I think chocolates, even Alaskan chocolates, are enough?

And I can't help but wonder if my mother's life would have turned out differently if she hadn't become a mother.

Keillor muses that his mother
might've modeled evening gowns at Dayton's Sky Room and maybe been spotted by a Hollywood scout and wound up in pictures, playing the village girl who charms the world-weary tycoon stranded in Littleville by the blizzard. Instead, she became a suburban pioneer, making a home in a muddy cornfield, putting up the stewed tomatoes and canned beans every fall, raising six children, slogging through bouts of mumps and flu, whomping up big Christmases, fishing the laundry out of the washing machine and putting it through the wringer and hanging it on the line.
Though I do not know whether my mother likes chocolate and I cannot know how her life would have been different without me, I can rest soundly in my belief that she was a woman who loved being a mother. She was always there, always, and not once did I hear her complain about how life could have been.

She deserves thanks every day. Keillor writes, "You entered this cold world causing her more pain than she thought possible and now she won't ever give up on you." And he's right.

I don't call or write as much as I should. But she knows how I feel.

And if she doesn't, I'm sure those Alaskan chocolates will clue her in. I even sent a card. It's big and unfolds into multiple pages, because more pages equal more love. And it rhymes, because rhymes are the language of love.

I know it isn't enough, and can't be enough, but because she is a good mother, it somehow is.