Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notes from the Field: Time

Recently I have had problems with birthdays and especially my own.  I spent this one in the skies ostensibly, flying to various cities to visit clients, and, I must admit, my family was not pleased at all as I didn't answer phone calls, return text messages, or communicate by email.  It sounds horrible in writing this down, though that wasn't my intent; I just didn't have anything to say and certainly nothing to celebrate.  

I remember one birthday spent in Costa Rica, and, again, I chose not to call home or acknowledge the day as anything special other than a day I spent alive in a tropical rainforest.  

I like the idea of getting into a car on your birthday and driving with your camera and shooting whatever moves you.  I like the idea of freedom to mourn the passing of time...  to take snap shots of items surrounding the day, pictures for the crypt.  

I decided that it was nice to be flying on a series of planes hither and yon right through my birthday.  At one point I got off a Southwest plane late one afternoon in San Francisco and got back on a Southwest plane the very next morning to Denver, meeting up with the exact same airline crew -- they must have thought I was a security official or someone from the airline, who knows.  In the middle of the flight the stewardess came up to me and said, "How are things with you, Mr. Giles!"  I can only guess at the machinations she went through to learn my name -- certainly she didn't ask me and no one had assigned seats…  

I didn't tell her my traveling on Southwest had nothing to do with her, that she and the crew were only a funny coincidence in my marathon run through time...  

On the plane I was thinking of regrets I have, and the one that kept coming to mind is not hiking the Inca Trail when I was in Cusco, Peru.  I had signed up for it months in advanced and even received official clearance from the Government of Peru, but family pressure resulted in my deciding at the last minute not to add a week to my journey and fly home.  

Now, in looking back at the opportunity I missed and looking ahead at my life, I don't think I will ever get that chance again.  I would have liked to have taken my camera and, walking behind the porters carrying my camping equipment, food stuff, and backpack, shot whatever came to mind, items surrounding the day, pictures for the crypt, all the while climbing to God sitting at the top of the world...  

Did you ever have a premonition on what day you would die, like June 5, or October 23, or February 12?  I always thought I would die on my birthday.  It seemed like a good way to bring a life to a fitting conclusion, like being born at 7:23 AM and dying at 7:22 AM many years later.  At 7:22 AM, I was on a plane flying to Las Vegas and thinking what my last breath would feel like.  My chest expands, air exhaled, and then a nod of the head, a slump of the shoulders, a relaxing of the muscles...  The stewardess coming over… "Mr. Giles, let me turn off your reading light and slow the cold air on your neck.  Unfasten your seat belt, relax your feet, your flight has landed..."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Swami in Encinitas

Just back visiting Houston and San Diego.  Took to the skies Wednesday morning (with a two-hour unscheduled delay in Baltimore) and was home three nights later, right on time. Two days into my speed trip through America sitting in a java joint in Encinitas, CA, I discovered I was missing the key stroke between "d" and "g" on my keyboard.  (What the uck!)  To use my computer, I would need to write without using any words that required this particular letter.  That seemed somewhat mystical!  Well, no wonder, I later learned that Encinitas is home to Swami Paramahansa Yogananda.  His Realization Institute and Temple was just down the street!  

Here I was, now, by chance, sitting so close to the actual temple door, that with a simple knock I could realize the answers to all the questions I never asked!  In truth, though, unless the swami could give me a quick or abbreviated answer, say, a simple yes or no, this would have to wait.  I had no time to seek drawn-out universal truths as I had just arrived in San Diego that morning and now was in Encinitas on a power mission to speak to a prospective client and his spouse about their wealth!  

Talking about time, Encinitas appeared to be a laid-back beach community lost in time!  Clearly, we were going to have problems!  Upon arrival, I grabbed a minute and paid homage to the ocean -- that is until I realized just beyond the water breaking against the beach were about 500 people in black body suits sitting on their boards like penguins polluting the view, waiting on "their wave."  Three guys with balding white hair and beer bellies jammed in wet suits walked by me carrying boards down the beach; they looked like they could be my age -- what the uck, don't these people work?  Behind me I realized I was listening in on an old beach dude talking about the USSR.  Hearing slurred Russian history and eyeing old guys waiting on a Tsunami was too much!  Swami!  

I immediately got back on task and met up with my contacts!  We decided to have lunch in a highly-recommended Peruvian hole-in-the-wall on Main Street.  On the menu’s opening page I read the owner had discovered god on a trip to South America and was compelled in tribute to open his restaurant in Encinitas.  I didn't think we were eating anything special but then realized he never mentioned discovering god's recipes, just god -- bummer!  

Later, my couple gave me a once-around tour of Encinitas and the low-down on the original Swami who arrived in town back in the 1930s and now owns millions in land next to the ocean.  My contacts assured me that the word on the beach was that Swami's Cove was the spot where only the most enlightened chose to ride.  

Secretly, I wondered about the connection between the swami, his exclusive cove, the Peruvian owner neglecting to ask god’s about his recipes, and the penguin-like particles of humanity bobbing out on the ocean like plastic ducks in a shooting gallery.  But I said nothing; I needed my contacts to like me.  So I pressed my plea and said goodbye and soon was back on the road in my rental car roaring down to San Diego and an engagement later that evening with another client and his spouse.  

Perhaps it was easy to put Encinitas in my rear view mirror, knowing that when I woke this morning -- just as spaced as ever, totally broke, and more-than-slightly hung over -- I would have the Encinitas swami still to consider.  The thought occurred to me, I should have slipped a note under his door asking him about the universal truths I had just witnessed.  Was it Encinitas that was so enlightened, the bobbers, or me?  I simply couldn’t tell -- though his advice on reawakening my “ucking” key sure would have been appreciated… 


It's cancerous!
Snow-like, drifting through our lives.
Silence, long and sad.
Friends emerging, suffering,
Madness, sweeping through their lives.
It's freezing!  Wake up!
Your touch so cold.

Concert at La Selva

It's five AM, and I am writing from the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica.  I am listening to a howler monkey outside in the forest letting everyone know he is awake and hungry.  His bark is long and low and seems to roll across the forest like a shiver of wind.  But, there is no wind.  It is hot and sticky.  Two-shirt-days, another at night.   The last couple of days I have gotten up early and gone hiking with a guide to see the most spectacular birds (even though, personally, I wouldn't know a bird from a bush).  La Selva is an incredible site, with iguanas in the trees, peccaries eating unafraid less than three paces from my feet, a troop of spider monkeys crossing in the canopy overhead.  A little bit of paradise in a tropical rain forest.  Yesterday, I climbed one of three metal towers recently built out in the forest that allowed me for the first time to emerge above the canopy.  It was beautiful with a sea of tree tops as far as the eye could see and three volcanoes hovering in the heat off in the distance.  I thought of how there was so much to describe, but I was speechless.  Today it's off, once again, as the guide is waiting for me at six.  A pre-breakfast concert of motmots, tanagers, toucans, and hundreds of other brilliant birds before a long journey that returns me to the U.S. by week’s end.  Breathe it, smell it, feel it, bask in it... it will be gone that fast.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

William, Marcus and Eve

There are these two kids here in Durham County, North Carolina -- two kids literally out of thousands of teenagers in the county.  For example, my daughter went to one of six high schools in Durham, which had a population of over 2,000 students.  This is typical of all of the schools. 

The kids in my daughter’s school range from A to Z in terms of who they are, their interest, and how they live their lives.  One girl, an African American, let's say on the "A" side of the scale, was accepted into Yale, the only student in my daughter's class that went to that illustrious university.  

However, this story concerns two African Americans on the "Z" side of the scale.  In fact, one of them is a drop out from my daughter's school.  He is 17 years old and tired of working menial jobs.  His friend is 19 and in a similar situation.  

They have been in trouble with the law all of their lives and are currently on probation for a number of offensives, including breaking and entering and terrorizing a family with a baseball bat.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina's probation system is overworked, and probation officers have too many cases.  In fact, no one has checked in on these two boys in months.  Not that they are hiding, they simply are sitting on the couch at William's home egging each other on as to how they can make some easy money. 

The younger boy, William, who is the drop out from my daughter's school, has moved up in the world since the bat incident.  He now has a 22 caliber pistol that he bought from a friend several months back, and it is the one possession that he owns in which he is most proud.  

He constantly reminds his other friend Marcus, about something he did two months earlier after getting the gun.  William had broken into an apartment of a Muslim student going to Duke.  After pistol-whipping the boy and taking all the money he had in his possession, about $50, William put a pillow to the student's head along with the barrel of the pistol and, while the student literally pleaded for his life, shot him several times through the pillow killing him instantly.  

No one heard the gun, and it wasn't until several days later that anyone found the body.  The incident barely made the papers and certainly no one knew it was William who had committed the crime.  In fact, the word in the press was that the Muslim student probably had been a drug dealer.  

So William and Marcus agree that this was something they could do together this time.  However Marcus was concerned that he didn’t own a gun.  He suggested that he could steal his stepfather's shotgun and that that might be the additional firepower they would need.  

So they agreed to try it a second time, only this time they would go over to Chapel Hill and find one of those rich Carolina girls...    

So, one early spring night, they drive to the university town about ten miles away and begin the hunt, trying to find the right person, the right place, trying to work up the nerve.  

All night they drive the streets of Chapel Hill getting more and more agitated.  Finally, they spot a small house on a quiet lane and one of the boys thinks it might be a sorority.  They see girls coming in and out of the house and decide that, if they are going to do it, this is the place.  

So, after things settle down, at around 5 AM in the morning, they go to the door and simply walk in.  The house is unlocked.  It turns out no one is home except for one person.  She is pulling an all-nighter working on a paper that has to be handed in that morning.

She thinks she hears something, turns from her computer, and there they are, William and Marcus, with pistol and shotgun in hand, demanding money.  She has no money; she is exhausted and can't believe that this is happening.  

This girl, Eve, is an incredible person.  With blonde hair and good looks, she easily could have been a cheerleader – a Carolina girl through and through.  In fact, she is in her element.  She grew up in Athens, Georgia, the home of the University of Georgia, and is quite used to campuses and life alongside a major university.  

She is at Chapel Hill because she received a Morehead - Cain Scholarship, which is one of those incredibly unique scholarships in which anyone in the world can apply but only a select handful receive.  The Morehead-Cain pays for everything, every year, every summer, every trip abroad, every meal, everything.  

She, in fact, has used her scholarship already to go to an extremely remote area of Ecuador to work with an elderly doctor in a one-room clinic treating the indigenous people of that region.  

Eve, however, was no innocent abroad, and it is clear she understood that she was alone in a remote, rugged part of Ecuador in which horrible things could happen.  She did it though because she truly believed she could make a difference – a trait for which she was famous and that had earned her the scholarship.  

She comes back to Carolina that much stronger and that much more confident in her beliefs and abilities and decides to run for student government president.  

Amazingly, she convinces enough kids, whites, blacks, Hispanics, everyone, that even though she’s a blonde-haired beauty who easily could have been mistaken for a rich, sorority chick, she could represent the students at UNC better than anyone else.  

She wins the election and takes the leadership position on the student government as well as the seat that comes with it as the student representative on the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees.  

Well, at 5 AM one night in early spring, all of Eve's dreams and hopes and accomplishments are reduced to a single moment standing by a computer, staring in shock at William and Marcus screaming demands at her.  But Eve gets them to stop shouting and suggests even, when finally they are prepared to listen, that she can find an ATM machine and give them what they want – only, however – if they will let her go.  

They agree and get into Eve's Pathfinder and start driving around Chapel Hill visiting first one ATM machine and then countless others until they have withdrawn more than $1,500 from Eve's checking account.  

Finally she has no more money.  They are back on a side street trying to decide what to do next.  

Eve reminds them that they said she could go free, but William knows they will be free only if she is dead.   Marcus wasn't involved in the Muslim student slaying and now is not so sure he wants to go through with it, especially with her sitting next to them, calming, asking for her life.  

Finally, Eve, with all the power of persuasion that she has accumulated from all of her life experiences, from all of the committee meetings, from countless interviews for the Morehead - Cain, convinces them to let her go.  

She gets out of the car slowly and starts walking down the street.  William watches her walk a few yards but knows clearly what must be done.  He opens his door, aims his pistol, and shoots her in the back.  

He gets out of the car and in point blank range shoots her four more times.  Only Eve's not dead....  

Marcus gets out of the car and cannot believe this.  There is Eve still moving, maybe even begging for her life.  

William has no more bullets in his pistol and yells at Marcus to do something.  Lights are coming on in houses nearby.  Marcus lifts his stepfather's shotgun and aims it at her at point blank range and, with William screaming at him to do it, shoots her, straight on, right there, killing her finally.  

The boys run back to Eve’s Pathfinder and drive to their car and back to Durham and the safety of William's mother's couch. 

 Only, now the community is awake to the horror of what has happened.  A student body president, a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, a Morehead - Cain Scholar a year returned from saving indigenous lives in remote Ecuador is now dead, riddled with bullets on a sleepy side street where professors and lawyers and good people bring up their children to be like her – in fact, just like Eve was brought up in Athens.  

She is one of their own, one of their best – and she is dead.  

After a couple of days, William thinks he has gotten away with it, once again, but then, with the morning papers, he realizes that this one wasn't as clean as the Duke one.  The papers are showing front page, semi-blurred pictures of the three of them taken from an ATM camera in which Eve is at the wheel, William is beside her and Marcus is in the back.  

The heat is on for anyone knowing who the boys are, and Marcus, in a state of panic, tells his girlfriend what they've done, looking for her help in getting William and him out of town.  

However, it's too late, too many African-Americans in the Durham community recognize the two of them, and within hours they are arrested, and, shortly thereafter, Marcus' girlfriend tells the police everything.  

The hunt is over.  

The combined forces of the Chapel Hill and Durham police have them squarely.  Even the Feds are involved and have them nailed for aggravated kidnapping.  

For William and Marcus, it is over.  

The full weight of justice is upon them.  However, William is a minor and cannot be put to death for either of his crimes; he gets life in prison without parole.  Marcus, an adult at 19, plea bargains and, because Eve was adamantly opposed to the death penalty, also gets life without parole.  

Finally, with a parting gift from Eve, an incredible person who easily could have been mistaken for anyone, it's over.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

So He’s Dead

So he’s dead.
A life well lived,
Lived well.
So they said.
Died yesterday.
Born eighty years ago,
Died in a coma –
104 days from diagnosis.
A man we thought would
Live forever.
Twenty-three years my senior,
Who admonished me
For not exercising enough
Even in winter.
Getting fat! He said.
I said to my wife,
Is he crazy?
Still –
Feeling nearly dead
Jogging with the man.
She said –
How can you let a 90-year-old
Put you to shame?
At work –
Leading the way,
A hard-charging man
Pushing me whenever he said!
A man’s man,  
Forced out way too young!
So we said.
Ran till he was a hundred.
That’s winter for you!
A life well lived,
Lived well.
So she said.
He should have lived forever.
What was she thinking?
We all thought she would go
Long before him,
She did too.
She never ran.
Almost divorced him instead –
After he spent six months away
And came home
Nearly dead.
A man’s man. 
So we said.
There is a price for being his kid,
For not being him.
Who could have been,
A life well lived.
Lived well.
So they said.
A man’s man,
Only a hundred-and-ten.
Like blue oxen,
We all ran after him.

I Was In a School Bus Accident

I was in a school bus accident once, back when I lived on a farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. I went to school in Berlin, Pennsylvania and took the bus every day. Late one winter morning it started snowing really bad, so they let the school out early.  Of course, the roads were horrible, and a driver coming the other way lost control of his car and slammed head on into our bus! Everyone was freaking out. Here we were on a back county road with a busted bus, two injured drivers, and a raging snow storm. My oldest sister Holly pulled out her clarinet and started playing it to calm everyone down. Unfortunately, Holly couldn't play a lick and only made the situation worse. It sounded like a cat screaming! I wanted to tell her to stop and sit down, but I was way too young. My brother Charley said he was going to make snow shoes out of his books and go get help, but the bus driver wouldn't let him off the bus. He took his busted up leg and jammed it into the door just before he faded from consciousness, saying something like "somebody shoot that squawking duck." I swear, that's the truth. They found us later that spring... my brother and sisters and I decided to eat the driver, and we were the only ones to survive.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Catching a Train

I have this old, cardboard
Suitcase, black, rusty-claps shut,
More like a trunk really,
Hidden with years and curiosities.
This old, cardboard –  
Suitcase, stuffed-full, packed – 
Away, nearly-forgotten. 
My trunk.
More like a suitcase, really,
That tramps would use –  

Why didn’t I get rid of it?
Scuffed cardboard,
Scorched Black,
An open boxcar, really.

The Lobster Lady of the Meyersdale Fair

The Firemen's Carnival at Colt Park was one of the highlights of growing up in Gettysburg, but, in looking back, nothing compares to my first visit to the Meyersdale Fair in Somerset County.  Meyersdale is tucked away in a deep river valley below Mount Davis on the edge of Pennsylvania and Western Maryland and is famous for the Maple Festival held there every year.  Though, for the longest time, the chief industry in Meyersdale was not maple syrup but coal, and even today with coal in decline in the area, the town continues to survive.  The Meyersdale I recall as a boy was a dirty, fighting town, tight against a river with steep, clear-cut hills and not a lot of fun to be had.  What I remember is that when the carnival came to town, the locals really hooped it up and had a good time -- they earned it though, toughing it out for a year at the top of the Allegheny Mountains.

One summer 
evening back in the early 1960s when we lived on the farm in Somerset County, we decided to go to the Meyersdale Fair -- just like we went to the Firemen's Carnival in Gettysburg a number of years later.  The fair was farm-boy fun, full of ruckus, family entertainment and the promise of wild rides, stuff-animal winnings, cotton candy treats and, yes, vinegar fries.  When we got to the fair, my recollection is that my family split up with my sister Allison and I promising to stay together.  My sister, Allison is just a year-and-a-half older than me and we were often together – much like an Irish Hansel and Gretel.  I am sure my mother watched over us when we were at the fair, but she also gave us money and allowed us to choose our own rides and to explore the grounds without supervision.  Growing up on a farm reading Boys Life and going to Sunday school every week, I don't think I had the slightest idea what a freak show was.  When we came up on the barker who convinced us to pay our two quarters and go behind the closed flap of the tent, I don't think we had a clue as to what we would see.  After all, what is a Lobster Lady anyway and, for that matter, what did we know about lobsters growing up on a farm in the mountains? Trout maybe, but lobster?  

Inside the 
tent, I recall vividly that the lighting was really dim, but there were chairs on which to sit and a platform at the far end with a closed curtain.  When the room was full of laughing kids, teenagers, and young couples, the show began.  To tell the truth, Allison and I were really too young to be there, especially on our own, but we tried to look older and more confident than we were, especially as the lights went down in the room and the lights came up on the platform.  The curtain slowly opened displaying a strange, aging lady with long curly black hair and a massive amount of red lipstick and deep eye shadow.  She was lying on a small dirty sofa wearing a glittering bathing suit staring at us as we gasped at her -- purposefully she moved, and we saw her large lobster claws instead of hands and legs that weren't legs at all -- but flippers! Allison and I were horrified -- not because of her deformities, but because she looked like a cross between a human and a monster fish!  Could such a thing be real?  She started cackling at us, snapping her claws and thumping her flipper-like legs, and I remember everyone started pointing and laughing at her and calling her names, but Allison and I simply wanted out of there.  She was horrible looking, and mean, and she started yelling at us, telling us all how she was going to rip us apart with her snapping claws!  This was worse than a scary movie -- this was real!  A live, living half-human woman who also was a live, living half-lobster who also was threatening to tear us to shreds! Could others be out there like her and could these decrepit lobster/people/things be on our farm or, worse yet, near our bedrooms?  

The Lobster
 Lady and her inhuman claws ruined our visit to the Meyersdale Fair and had us in a frightful panic for many a night the rest of the summer.  To this day, both Allison and I laugh about our encounter, and, even now, we try to rationalize what we saw, but, as kids, we knew what was inside that tent, and we knew we were taking our lives into our hands if we ever met up again with the Lobster Lady of the Meyersdale Fair.


I can't sing or play an instrument

I can't sing or play an instrument.  In tenth grade the music teacher, Mr. Parcells, kicked me out of chorus and band within a week of each other.  I can't remember why in chorus, but it would be fair to say everyone clapped when I left.  Band was a bigger deal.  I had played drums and was in my prime in elementary school, especially at home on the drum pad, but, unfortunately, I lost my drum pad when we moved to Gettysburg and the snare drum in high school proved to be another instrument entirely.  Of course, it would have helped had I practiced...  It didn’t take long for Mr. Parsells to put me on the base drum, and a week or two after that he moved me down again, now to the cymbals.  When he decided I should play the triangle thing-a-ma-jig, I had had enough (and clearly he had too!).  I was talking to the new cymbals player and suddenly the band stopped playing, and Mr. Parcells was speaking to me.  What?  What?  Oh no, he was asking me to leave the room in the middle of practice.  Everything was dead silent and, believe me, silence in band class is not a good thing.  I remember how embarrassing it was to be singled out from the other percussionists, to walk from the back of the room through the trombones, the trumpets, the flutes, the clarinets, and past him out the door.  I couldn't believe it – it was like déjà vu -- wasn’t he sitting on the same stool and wasn’t this even the same set of kids as earlier with the baritones, tenors, altos, and sopranos?


It helps having spent so much time in the hallway outside the principal’s office.  Getting kicked out of another class simply gave me more time to contemplate my escape.  There's a certain focus one can acquire in being alone sitting or lying on the cool, tiled floor outside the office...  just me and the occasional UPS man walking by in the morning with his dolly full of boxes.  On your way out, buddy, take me along; deliver me anywhere other than here!  Sometimes, in looking up, I actually thought he would too – a slight smile or nod indicating that he understood, that he had been in my situation, and if he could get away with it, I would be long gone.  Sometimes, in the late afternoon, I thought the Drivers Ed teacher would let me hitch a ride.  His lucky two or three kids walking by in that awkward way of pretending I wasn’t there but having to walk over me or around me none-the-less.  The Drivers Ed teacher always gave me a thumbs-up, but never switched them for me.  Though, I swear, with me, we could have broken free of the county and left his tired old routes behind! 

Sometimes, I ignored them all and simply spent my time reading science fiction.  Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or Herbert’s “Dune” or “The Little Prince” or “Sidhartha”  – all seemed so much more relevant than algebra or biology or chorus or band.  Sometimes, I would write and try my hand at poetry or a new short story or a one-act play.  There was one theme, in particular, that captivated me: escaping into another world, down a hole, up a chimney, away from here.  Sometimes, I would read out loud the opening lines to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” repeating them over and over until I had them just right or until one of the secretaries came out of the office to tell me to hush, to stop disturbing people in the hall!  Even though, after she left, when I looked down the corridor past the classrooms and the administrative offices there was no one there, no one at all, all the way down to the cafeteria at the far end of the building, just me.

The staff in the office really didn’t care as long as I was quiet.  They were busy, and I was a daily fixture coming and going as the class periods rang through the building.  I am sure they lost track of when I was supposed to be sitting outside the office and when I wasn’t.  When I first felt like walking, I simply got up and went across the entrance way to the gymnasium to look in on the different PE classes.  After a while, the PE teachers would come out and close the doors.  Sometimes, then, I would study all the trophies and historic pictures in the glass cabinet on the wall next to the gym doors.  The school seemed to be so proud of these ancient warriors, team after team posing for future generation of high schoolers.  I wondered if they realized that the only kids who wound up studying them were the kids ignominiously regulated to the principal’s office.  These sports heroes frozen in time in their gym shorts must have meant something to someone, but they had no meaning to me.  My family wasn’t from this area, and I didn’t have a clue as to who they were or what they represented to the town or the surrounding county.  Just crew-cut guys crouched down low, looking funny, posing like they were about to reach out and wring my neck.  Well, it was perfectly clear, at least according to Mr. Parcells, no one was going to huddle with me, and certainly I wasn’t ending up in anyone’s high school trophy case! 

Sometimes, rather than studying the glassed-in display, I would turn instead to the principal’s office and stare in the front window at the three secretaries huddled down together trying to get the attendance just right, looking to see who had escaped the county the night before or had found their sanity hiding in the woods until their buses rolled past.  The doors to the principal and vice-principal’s inner offices beyond them were always closed, like something was going on that would be no good for any of us.  Or one or the other would open suddenly, sucking the air right out of the room, shaking the glass window.  Then, I, alone of the student body, the invisible one, would hear the demands of madness coming out from behind those doors!

Sometimes, I would glide past the window, like a vague shadow, and walk down the hall, the “principal’s main man” checking in on the classes.  The first room across from the office was the typing class, and it was always full of girls I didn’t know; it was hard not to wonder why they were working so hard to become secretaries in this town.  One or two of the kids would look up and blow the hair from their faces but most never lifted their eyes from their manuals, nor would their fingers stop clanking on their typewriters, and the teacher too seemed so caught up in her latest Glamour magazine that she never saw me silently lingering at the door.

Sometimes, I would review the recruiting posters outside the counseling center next to the principal’s office.  In our school, the concept of college played second trombone to the army, navy, and air force.  With wars raging beyond our doors, how anyone could consider the military was beyond me!  Yet many of the kids in my class were choosing to serve rather than go to college or work the farm.  How could that be?  What were they teaching these kids?  Me?  I was thinking about San Francisco or New York or Pittsburgh or wherever, all seemed like a better option than the reality facing these guys.  I should have stopped in and asked the counselors if they thought our only escape was to die for this town.  Or, maybe, lie down on a couch next door and consult with the nurse on exactly what drugs she was putting in the food to keep the kids from going crazy and destroying this whole building brick by brick!  Unfortunately, the nurse was never around and the guidance counselors simply didn’t care, as long as they made their quotas.  What a joke!  And the library next to the nurse’s station might as well been closed too, you never saw kids in there unless it was a mandatory retraining session on the Dewey Decimal System.  The librarian specialized in keeping whatever joy she had locked inside her index file behind her desk and far and away from the kids at the tables suffering dementia under her control.  This was not how a library should be run!  This was not how the joy of dreams should be conveyed.  This was not how one could learn to escape the horrors ahead!  In fact, I could have told anyone, everyone, this was not your journey to enlightenment but a direct ticket to the Principal’s Office.  I had received that pass a few times!

For me, clearly, it was the classrooms on the other side of the glistening corridor that offered the most pleasure.  Beyond the typing class I had ample opportunity to study the kids squirming stifled in their seats while their teachers droned on and on.  I was like a visionary vice-principal.  If I wanted, I could have reached out to a select few from each class and given each of them a new lease on their lives.  You there, step out of that room.  And, you there, forget civics and Dickens and modern math!  And, you, isn’t that a clarinet case under your seat and weren’t you the alto who snickered the day I obtained my freedom?  Everyone, outside!  Past the cafeteria, past the kids huddled in a corner smoking their quicky cigarettes, past the Driver’s Ed car lurching away from the curb with three more idiots who didn’t realize the opportunities they were being given, nor the teacher himself staring out from the passenger window, not seeing the world in front of him, only his old picture on the gym wall.  Past the street with the beat up, yellow school buses lining up to deliver their broken down charges for another night, past the old football stadium and the athletic fields beyond, past the corn fields and the forest and the battlefield and the towns, past the cemeteries to nowhere and schools teaching nothing, past the cities, past the coast, past the ocean and the world.  Feel the stars on your face, feel the cosmos in your soul, see child, who is the wiser.  I ask you, who is the wiser.


Mites and Hummingbirds

It turns out there is one species of mites that lives in the beaks of hummingbirds. As you no doubt remember from biology, the mite is the size of a little black spec, smaller even!  When a hummingbird flits on a flower, at the very instant of contact, the mite races down the hummingbird’s beak as fast as his hairy legs can carry him, and he jumps lickety-split onto the flower!  This, you would think, would be the leap of a lifetime. Yet, when our mite has had his fill of nectar and sees another hummingbird attracted to the flower, in the instant the hummingbird sticks his beak into the petals, the mite leaps lightning fast back onto the bird’s beak!  If you ever saw a hummingbird, you know, this must happen faster than the blink of an eye!  However, if you happened to have an incredibly large zoom lens attached to a super slow motion camera, you would see clearly our hustling, mighty mite timing it just right and lunging for all he's worth onto the hummingbird, and the frisky bird, in slow motion, rearing back and sneezing violently and wildly shaking his beak to throw him off.  But, you would see also our little hero clinging on for dear life, fingers gouging deeply into the beak, and then, when the hummingbird pauses, as they often do in mid-air, like they've forgotten what it is they were about to do, he leaps up and races into the hummingbird's beak – just as the hummingbird remembers his bearings and whooshes away!  Yes, unlike most mites who live their entire lives on a single flower and never see beyond their immediate horizon, this species has learned that by mastering the fear of riding hummingbirds, they can experience the world!