Monthly Archives: October 2015

Day of the Dead

Here in Mexico (we’re in Ajijic, Jalisco now), they are getting ready to celebrate the Day of the Dead, November 2, or All Souls’ Day on the Roman calendar. But yesterday, as my wife Jen and I strolled around town, we experienced a foretaste of that public mourning and celebration.

We walked 2-3 miles down the carratera, or highway, to see if Jesus and Teresa, a couple we became friendly with, were still running their little restaurant, called La Cocineta (the little kitchen), which offered fresh, handmade ingredients and local fare. We found, in fact, that someone else had taken over and changed the name to El Verde (the green place). After two fresh fruit drinks (30 pesos, or about two dollars), we went across the street to a gated community called El Parque (the park), where we stayed one August a few years back and befriended several of the guards.

We asked after one of them, an amigo named Felix, who was quite a colorful and comical character. He was always ready with a bawdy quip and a friendly hand. He invited me one day to come down the highway to a pasturage he had there, where he kept a cow, a horse, and other animals, and experience the delights of the pajarete. What the devil is a pajarete? I asked.

Upon arrival I soon found out. Felix was milking a cow, squeezing its teats while the beast was shitting. Not to worry, he suggested. The cow was still cleaner than the putas (whores) in the town. I took video of this entire transaction (can’t find the file now, but will look), laughing all the time, it was so hilarious. (See this article for a discussion of the custom of the pajarete.)

You gotta put your hands on the teats, boys, to get the pajarete.

A pajarete, it turns out, was a magical morning drink that included, in Felix’s recipe, fresh cow’s milk, chocolate, coffee, and tequila. Down the hatch! Felix and his compañeros and I drank readily. What a way to start the day!

When we asked yesterday about the man, the guard on duty told us that Felix died about a year ago, just north of town on the highway, in a motorcycle accident. Our hands went to our mouths in shock. We stood stock- or shock-still for a moment, unable to believe or comprehend.

But it made sense after all. Felix was not the kind of guy to go out quietly. He was married a couple of times, I believe, and had kids with several women. (His son Antonio, who worked as a guard at El Parque, too, has a family of six kids.) He swaggered about, telling jokes, laughing and making a merry demonstration of the gold in his teeth. Life was a comedy, no, señor? A divine comedy, if you will. Or a tragic one, if that makes sense.

So as Ajijic gears up for Halloween (celebrated by the gringos, and extended now to Mexican kids) and then the Day of the Dead, we remember our friend Felix, the happy one, as the name suggests, and his short and blazing time on this earth. Salud, Felix! As a happy cat, you may have another life or two coming.


It’s a lovely day for an execution

In Arkansas, “the natural state,” we’re now going through a battle between nature and culture, and it appears for the moment that nature, “red in claw and tooth,” has the upper hand. I’m talking about the Death Row inmates here, whose executions were mandated by the new Republican administration and then stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

DP-State-MapAccording to the Death Penalty Information Center, 31 of our 50 states carry the death penalty. As you may know, a few of these states, like Arkansas before the Hutchinson administration, have a legal, or virtual, moratorium on executions. But the bulk of these bloody red states, principally in the South and the West, may be eager to follow through with the termination of the bad guys on Death Row.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, as the new evangelical Bible proclaims. Christ in his glory, and his bloodthirstiness, is on the prowl. Of course, as we well know, conservative Christianity and guns are intimate bedfellows, well and lovingly bundled.

What’s saving us as a civilization, so far, is that the pharmaceutical companies, those paragons of civic virtue and restraint, will not sell the deadly chemical cocktails to death-penalty states. They don’t want their reputations stained by blood, after all. Part of the appeal by Arkansas’s Death Row inmates challenges a new law that would keep the manufacturer of these chemicals a secret.

For blood money is hush money, and the shame must not get out. If we as a state, or nation, or people must have an eye for an eye (consider Israel and the Palestinians), then we must keep the struggle hugger-mugger, under the table, decorous, lest we frighten the children, I suppose, the natural heirs, in this natural state, to our own thirst for violence and vengeance. Pass the butter, please, and the sour cream, we simper. Pass that bloody steak, we roar.

Friending, befriending, and letting go

mike_crOn Facebook it’s easy to “friend” someone, as you know. Apart from the grammatical solecism (what’s wrong with “befriend”?), this process may simply mean you have a six-degree-of-separation friendship. It’s “virtual,” “remote,” “online,” and, typically insubstantial.

In the “real world,” as they say (some of our worlds may be more real than others), friendship comes harder, especially as you age. If you think about how you acquire friends, or how they acquire you, you’ll have to admit a great deal of serendipity is involved. You meet someone accidentally, that is. He or she bumps into you. You go on a hike together, or he tells you to take a hike. She says something funny, charming, odd, or tells you to fuck off, and a bond is made or not.

Sort of like romantic relationships, which start with a sighting (strange new bird there, what species might it be); grow with a joke or two, or a brushing up against a sleeve; and deepen with a meal or drink.

As you age, you acquire friends more slowly and lose them more sadly. You are set in your ways, after all, which may be real or unreal, according to others, and may not accommodate just anyone that comes along with a smile or handshake. You form impressions, or judgments, more readily, which may open up the door to friendship or slam it shut.

Mysterious how the process works, and how, if at all, we can hurry it along. As we age, after all, we have less time for friendship as for everything else. We pick and choose more carefully, and so are picked and chosen. If someone invites us out to coffee, do we go? To a hike? To a bar?

In just the last year or so I formed a good friendship with a guy whom I met on a hike or a bike ride, and who happened to patronize the same gym I do. He would show up regularly at the gym for a workout. I would see him hiking or biking. Like me, he liked to drink (how about that!), liked to laugh (what’s not to like about laughing?), and had a sardonic disposition. Soon we began talking anything and everything, and one of the big reasons I took to him is that he didn’t moralize or criticize. Oh, sure, he thought I was nuts, but that was part of the attraction too. Pretty soon he was partying with Jen and me, at our house, breaking bread, and meat, and veggies for that matter, sharing wine.

When he returned this summer from a family reunion, however, he was changed. Something was working in him, like a worm in the craw. Not that he was unfriendly, just less available, and suddenly he announced that after almost 20 years in Arkansas he was moving back East. In fact, he put his house on the market, sold it in a day, packed up and was gone within three months.

He said he was going back to his family, who live in Pennsylvania, his sisters and nonagenarian dad. But I strongly suspect the driving force was a woman with whom he was set up by a sister. My friend had been married twice; neither marriage took. But here was another chance, wasn’t it? At true love and understanding, not to mention sex? When I first heard about her, I asked, thinking she might be attracted here, Didn’t you tell her about the wonders of the Ozarks? I showed her the wonders of the Ozarks, my pal replied.

Sadness then, as he’s up and gone. I know he doesn’t write. I know that I don’t call. I helped him pack and he left me with all sorts of stuff he didn’t want to take with — buckets, bike stand and carrier, tools. Things that I’ll associate with him as I use them. But to lose him is not something I can appreciate.

We get over losses, don’t we, though less resiliently as we get older? We form new friendships, don’t we, just as we might find new romantic partners? And we certainly, at last, have to work at friendship and can’t afford to simply let it find us out.

Street poet

Started out this morning with sixty-five bucks  in my pocket. Now, when I turn the pocket inside out, it’s empty.

  • $20 for driver’s license renewal at the station on Razorback Rd;
  • $5 for coffee, cookie, and tip at the Arsaga’s at the library;
  • $10 toward a tip for a massage at IM Spa;
  • $10 for lettuce and flowers at the Farmers’ Market (the vendors were packing up and hustling off when I got done with the massage); and, last but not least, out of chronological order here but forming the climax of the list (drum roll, please)
  • $20 for a sidewalk poem (tah-dah!).
street poet
Street poet has typewriter, will travel.

By the time I got to the spa and parked in front and plugged the meter, it was 11 am and my wallet was down to $40. What the hell. When the tall young man approached me for his spiel, I knew I was a goner. He said he was a poet and recited poems aloud. He said he was from Santa Fe, and got kicked off a new acquaintance’s couch this morning in Fayetteville after rolling into town last night. He allowed as to how Motel Six was the cheapest bed in town at $41.95. He held out his hand.

All right, I conceded. Let’s have it. And he gave it to me, standing in the street, between my car and the next, something moral and uplifting, this wannabe Rumi recited, about listening to conversations as if they were the final words between a father and a son, for, it turns out (so the poet suggested), they always are.

Point well taken, I said. I like the strong moral, I allowed. Sure, the poet said, that’s why I like it too.

So I handed him an Andy Jackson from my billfold (I had just two twenties now), and he said, No shit! Thanks, man! Hey, would you like to hear a joke?

Why not? I said. I was agreeable. This was an encore, yes? A good return on my investment? Shoot!

Why doesn’t a blind man parachute from an airplane?

Geez, I said. I have no idea. Why?

‘Cause it freaks the shit out of the dog!

Oh, my young fellow! Oh heavens to Betsy! Heavens, I’m falling on the ground! Don’t do that to an old man, young man! Oh my! My eye! Oh my!

At which he sauntered away, smiling, to ply his trade elsewhere, and I went chuckling into the spa, where I submitted my wrinkled flesh to a full hour and a half of pummeling on the part of the young maseuse.

Damn, girl, I said, when she was done jabbing and prodding and rubbing me. That was both sensual and powerful. I bet you could hold off an army with those thumbs, couldn’t you?

Possibly, she allowed, smiling.



The virtue of surprise

Walking or biking, at leisure, through areas you think are familiar may yield surprises. Any day you go out, in fact, and come back, traversing familiar areas, may heave up discoveries that you and most of your friends and neighbors have never suspected.
So, the other day, I walked from the Nissan dealership on College Avenue, where I’d brought my car, to the gym at Washington Regional Medical Center. There’s no direct way, straight as the crow flies, so I skittered through back lots along the commercial strip and came to the back side of Fiesta Square.

I was astonished, first of all, at how huge the parking lot was: it can hold hundreds and hundreds of cars. The front lot is  never full and rarely crowded, as you may know, at this mall that was a premier spot in the early ’70s, when it was built, but has long since been superseded by larger, more glamorous developments.

The only vehicles parked in this huge L-shaped lot belonged, I suspect, to employees at the stores, especially those stores near where the two legs of the L join and where a passageway allows access to a few stores and joins the two lots. I peered as I walked the back lot for egress through or around the dog-eared fence at the back of the lot, behind which a dozen or so of private homes sat. On the right side of the fence, as I walked west, was a ravine too dense and brambly to penetrate, especially in the shorts and tee-shirt I was wearing. Who owned this land, if anyone? I wondered. How had it been excluded from development? Would it ever be developed? (Fayetteville, back in the day, must’ve had much more informal development policies than it does today, with the city council and a planning commission presiding over every option that comes up before it.)

As i walked, then, south, along the fence, I noted two or three gates into yards. Of course, I was wary of trespassing but curious too, and I tried these gates, tentatively, pushing in, but the gates did not yield easily. Besides, as I pushed, I raised a hullabaloo from dogs in nearby yards, a racket of primitive menace that produced in me only the determination not to enter any yards and an imprecation or two I hurled at the mutts.

As I walked by the backs of the stores, there was a more than pungent smell from one Dumpster, presided over by a lordly crow on the rooftop, which cawed and claimed the garbage as its own. Whew! What rot! I hurried by and had to go all the way south to Appleby Drive, at the southern end of the shopping center, before I could turn west again toward the gym.

A glimpse of the rural and industrial area south and west of the development where I live in Fayetteville, Ark.

As for biking, I took my Trek out the other day along the back roads south of our development of Stonebridge Meadows. I did a leisurely 15 miles, about all I had time for, and climbed up Dead Horse Mountain Rd and then twisted south and east a bit. At the end of this road I came to S Black Oak Rd, which I took east, towards the industrial park, sluicing along and ducking into byways and dead-end streets. I found a couple of things I hadn’t know to be looking for: 1) an old crumbling concrete reservoir built in 1889, a decaying sign said, for Fayetteville’s water supply, and 2) a cemetery.

The reservoir was on the West Fork of the White River, which cuts long the edge of our development and then skirts through farmland south and west. I found the reservoir just by cutting down a stub street, one block long, spying an old stone house and outbuilding, in good condition, and then the peeling painted sign with the history of the project. A couple in their early 30s were fishing at the reservoir and their little daughter clambering among the rocks. This was one of those rocky riparian flows, or floes, you sometimes see in an area of limestone topography (or karst) like Northwest Arkansas. Shelves of limestone stretched away from the river banks, an area that would be underwater during springtime rush and flooding.

The cemetery was along Pump Station Road, or one of the nearby country roads. I didn’t stop and check it out but was amazed, even in flying by, to spy this extra evidence of earlier settlement. Ah, yes, the dead were tucked away so safely and squarely. Who would disturb them, or remember them, now? Well, I would like to return, some day soon, not to haunt them but sit down and visit a spell, talk nonsense with them, perhaps take a few photos.

All of these secret places, some maybe sacred, are susceptible of being visited, meditated, recorded. So remote, and yet so close, they can be remembered if we simply slow down and drop in.


Gun control, 2

Umpqua CC students
Umpqua Community College Students being frisked by police on the day of the massacre that killed ten, including the shooter, 1 October 2015.

A story in today’s Washington Post discusses the possibility that in the wake of the latest horrific gun massacre, in Oregon, President Obama may take executive action on gun control. Obama has asked his team, evidently to determine “what kinds of authorities … we have to enforce the laws that we have in place more effectively to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”

Of course, the far-right gun-rights wingnuts think that Obama is something of a criminal himself for proposing restrictions on gun sales and purchases. What he may be proposing now is simply the licensing of dealers who sell more than 50 weapons per year and background checks on purchasers.

To me, an anti-gun nut, it seems quite obvious that this measure in not enough in itself; and that this measure in itself will not keep guns “out of the hands of criminals.” In using this phrase, Obama simply echoes the simple-minded psychology, the naiveté and disingenuousness of the NRA and too many American citizens.

For any of us, any time, could break through the brittle mask of our civilized selves and become criminals. Haven’t we learned anything from Freud and modern psychology? Haven’t we learned from modernist writers, whether Ibsen, Faulkner, Genet, Hemingway, Sexton? Haven’t we considered how violence pervades contemporary literature and art, whether highbrow or low? Have we been deaf and blind to the daily news, which brings us, as Obama says, a new massacre every week or so?

Any of us could become criminals at any time. All of us are born with an innate capacity if not genius for evil, from childhood on. All of us are criminals, in potentia, if not in fact.

So the deliberate naiveté and falseness of the right misrepresent us at our core. There is no simple gulf between the violent and non-violent, the criminal and the bourgeois, the career hitman and the minister or lawyer. Nor is there any reason why we human beings, with our atrocious record of murdering each other individually and en masse, cannot become more peaceable, more reasonable. If only we can calm down long enough to study and unlock our genius for good.


Birthday boy

Today is my birthday, which comes up like yours, willy nilly, every year.

This particular year, I have to admit to 68 years, which admission is a pleasure and privilege as I haven’t yet appeared in the obits in the morning newspaper. And am still more or less capable of hiking, biking, gardening, reading, writing, and being a good husband, occasionally, to Jennifer Jean, my good wife of all these amazing years.

Nevertheless, I am struck, as you are, by the passing of time, the impermanence of our time here on the green planet Earth. By the loss of our loved ones, the tenuousness of relations and connections.

Chair_ZeckboysI ran across this photo the other day taken in 2005, near Cherokee Village, Arkansas, where my mom and dad were retired for many years. Mom died in 1991, but here, in the big chair in front of the King Catfish restaurant, are (left to right) Gerry, my older brother; Dad, the goateed mini-god; and Greg, the younger, less wrinkled version of me.

Since 2005, Gerry has gotten divorced (from his wife of 40+ years); Dad has died (February 2008); and I have wrinkled and crinkled, acquired a hearing aid but no new wife,  thank the gods; a prostatectomy; a recurring case of bursitis; a number of delightfully smart and lively young Indian-American students (whom I tutor); and a Trek Madone carbon bike that I’ve ridden more than 60 miles at a time.

Next year, the gods willing, I will ride up to 75, then 100 miles at a time; continue to love my wife Jennifer truly, and my son Gabriel, his wife Heidi, and their daughter Ruby Mae, who have returned to Northwest Arkansas, to be with us and give us joy, this last summer; write the Great American Novel; cultivate my garden, in the Voltairean manner; and put off, for the time being anyway, my ascension into heaven.

How about you, friends? Where are you going? Are you seizing the day?


Gun control

The Oregon community college killer, too confused and cowardly to be named,
says the sheriff, was enrolled in Writing 115. Before he began picking off his
classmates, he handed over to one of them, “the lucky one,” a manifesto
of obscure resentments and rages. Whether he was failing or passing
this writing class, who knows? Whether the manifesto contained run-on
sentences, subject-verb errors, pronoun agreement problems, dangling
modifiers, incoherence galore. He killed his teacher, Lawrence Levine, 67,
of Glide, an avid fisherman and good writer. Grandma, a survivor sobs,
He killed my teacher. I saw it. The community will pull together, according
to the mayor. He was wearing a flak jacket, camo gear and more ordnance
than you would need to blow up the entire MLA Committee on Community
College Best Writing Practices. He is said to have practiced with his mother,
toting guns, not pens, the two of them, to shooting ranges, making a point
of squinting and taking aim at the obstacles life presented in their long trudge
since divorce from daddy the Englishman. Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59, died
at the scene, a very energetic, very kind, kind soul, according to her ex,
who loves her still, an exceptional woman. Lucero Alcaraz, 19, died too.
There is no sense in talking about it, his father says, though he says it
in Spanish. What is the point in showing our pain? Jason Johnson, 20,
had just begun his first week at the school after passing a Salvation
Army drug rehab program. Quinn Glen Cooper, 18, was funny, sweet,
compassionate, a wonderful loving person who loved martial arts,
dancing, and acting. Our lives are shattered beyond repair, his family
says. Lucas Eibel, 18, an amazing soccer player, had just graduated
high school with outstanding marks. Sarena Dawn Moore, 44, a Seventh-
day Adventist, was among others singled out as a Christian. Treven Taylor
Anspach, 20, a name that might’ve been fresh off the boat,  was one
of the most positive people you could ever know. So too was  Rebecka
Ann Carnes, just 18, just starting on life’s mysterious, shall we say glorious path?
Her beautiful spirit will be enormously missed. May they all rest in peace.