Thursday, April 30, 2015


Ithuriel's Spears after Rain

     The five senses register stimuli, translating the energy fields surrounding the body (itself an energy field composed of particles in space that form the cells of the body based on DNA, ultimately creating consciousness through the central nervous system--or is the body only a vehicle for consciousness?) into a consistent and believable "reality." The mind, I thought as several huge drops of rain splattered on the windshield, filters out information not essential for survival, such as a dead dog next to the curb or an angel hovering above the street, the brain focusing usually on what poses the greatest threat, such as red lights blinking on and off. The mind has the amazing ability to construct levels of meaning simultaneously, I noted; for instance, I was feeling a slight sense of loss as I was wasting time in my car waiting for the train to pass with vehicles packed together all around me, the signal clanging. My car would be unable to move until something happened to raise the arm and the traffic inched forward, so my brain, I realized, was also registering that I was trapped. Three minutes and still no train. The social contract requires that I remain in my car so that everyone else will be able to move forward if and when the arm finally lifts. Even with this miraculous vehicle of consciousness, I have never been able to establish continuity in my life, I thought, as rain plastered the windshield and suddenly I heard a sound like gravel hitting the car. Still no train. White insects hopping in the grass. Hail.
     I could see an arm lifting in the car ahead of me. I glanced at the watch on his wrist. Could it already have been four minutes, I wondered, as the striped arm, orange and white, swayed a little, pounded by hail and rain, the beat of the song on the radio suddenly stronger. Great, I thought to myself, I am sitting in a car feeling trapped, deconstructing the meaning of the social contract during a mechanical malfunction which is paralyzing more and more cars by the minute, unable to construct lasting meaning in my life, and here I am one energy field out of uncountable energy fields composed of particles whirling in infinite space, all connected on one plane of being, perhaps part of one infinite creation composed of infinite planes of being, each with innumerable energy fields that, as this particular being in this particular form, I will never know. I'm pretty sure, though, I thought, that I'll never create lasting meaning. 
Ithuriel's Spears, Chinese Houses, Tarweed
   Constructing meaning while certain that I will never construct lasting meaning. How good can it get? All the uncountable years of evolution, from the smallest one-celled organism to the diversity and sophistication of life forms in the present, has led to that profound insight. I began to suspect that I would never escape the mind's basic need to construct meaning at all times even if that meaning was simply stupid or depressing, or both. Why was I sitting in a rainstorm mildly tormenting myself even though I was dying? I would never construct a satisfactory answer for that one.

     The students in my alternative education class had never heard of a social contract (and probably never would). In fact, they seemed to despise anyone who attempted to provide structure for them. They had been expelled for bringing weapons to school, for lighting plastic toilet seats on fire with lighter fluid, for threatening to kill themselves with sharp objects in the classroom, for threatening to kill others, for saying the "f-word" an unacceptable number of times, for calling the principal a faggot. All of that was just the tip of the iceberg. One of them came to school with bruises on her face; one of them, eleven years old, didn't want to sit alone with a male psychologist because he might rape her (the most obvious case of child abuse he had seen in twenty years); one of them threatened to shoot up another student's house until he killed her mother; one of them talked nonstop about being a gangster when he grew up, despite numerous warnings from teachers and administrators; another flipped other students off or mouthed the "f-word" constantly when he thought the teacher wasn't looking, creating an uproar whenever possible. This was their “Opportunity” (as in "last") to show they could behave in a classroom. The previous teacher had quit for health reasons; according to the aide the previous teacher claimed his heart would start fluttering whenever he entered the room.
     I had been called to take over that class for one day and had ended up in that classroom for eight weeks. I will never be anything but a professional substitute who takes over desperate situations all the time, I thought. I listed the assignments in my head, one where a teacher had been suspended for screaming and cursing at the children, two where the teachers were on medical leave, unable to stand the stress anymore, one where the teacher (a nice, dedicated young lady) had quit because of death threats. In the past year alone, I had ended up in four classrooms where the teachers, some of whom had been teaching many years, had been blown out of the water. I was the babysitter until the administrators could find someone else who could tolerate the aberrant behavior of the students on a more permanent basis. Honestly, I thought to myself, I don't think I could do it either, not day after day for a whole year, for a lifetime, not without blowing my brains out or strangling one of the kids or having a heart attack, at least not in any of the public schools south of Bullard (an area encompassing two-thirds of the city).
Chinese Houses, Tarweed

     I grimaced and then looked around. As far as I could tell none of the other energy fields in the cars surrounding me could tell what I was feeling, thank goodness. Each energy field, no matter what it is composed of, is trapped by the limitations of the moment. Some traps, of course, are a lot nicer than others. I was experiencing irregular heartbeats again as well as a slight shortness of breath. A doctor had never diagnosed me since I couldn't afford to go to the doctor, but I knew the palpitations meant I was dying, very slowly, of celiac disease. My digestive system had been ravaged by gluten so much that my heart was going haywire. Of course, if I managed to stop eating gluten completely, there was a chance that I could live another twenty or thirty years. I looked at my watch again, realizing that I'd also spent much of my life afraid that I was dying, another perk of celiac disease, but now I was about eighty percent sure that all those particles, trillions of them probably, that formed what I called me and everyone else called Jim, or Dad, or sweetie, or Mr. Robbins, were soon going to dissolve and form something else, the earth and the air and the water. I wasn't really afraid, just amazed that I was going to disappear and/or change into other forms of energy, mildly amazed that I was a collection of whirling particles forming an energy field aware of its own imminent destruction and transformation.
     The signal was still clanging away like crazy. You're being pretty damned cerebral about your own extinction, I thought. Just wait until you're heart stops beating, and you can't deny any more that you're dying, the universe completely indifferent, and you truly have to face that you might disappear into oblivion, aware of nothing, unaware even of experiencing nothingness. How cerebral are you going to be then? I was testing myself to see if I could make myself feel afraid. Well, if I was dying, I would just cross that bridge when I got to it (the right cliche in a clutch...), just like I had dealt with everything else over which I had no control, which had the ultimate effect of leaving me exhausted, unafraid of nothingness, at least when I didn't really have to face It. Sometimes, deep down, even though I have had numerous experiences with spirits, I still fear that there is only nothingness after death.
Path 24
     In a dream the night before, I was swimming, drifting near a concrete structure, and someone screamed, “No,” as if I were drifting too close to something dangerous. Suddenly my body was pulled into the structure, like a fish into a pump, and chewed up. I could not fight it. My life was suddenly extinguished, despite all my hopes and dreams and desires, and all I could think was, “Oh, well,” as everything went black and I woke up. I, in fact, had a similar experience when I was six years old in a doughboy pool. The neighborhood kids “dogpiled” on top of me, and I couldn’t move. I don’t know how long I was drowning before I realized that I was finally losing consciousness. All I could think was, “This is it. Oh, well.” At that moment they let me up.
     The traffic was backed up all the way to the intersection. A few above-average people closest to the intersection backed out when the light was in their favor, but someone else soon took their place. Nine minutes and still no train. The music from my radio, hopelessly juvenile, banged away, stirring up more feelings of sadness tinged with longing. Ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty percent of my life since I had become a teenager, I'd spent listening to one ludicrous song after another, all manufacturing some emotion. Those songs at one point had been my religion. How many songs really meant anything to me now? I could think of only one or two. The vast majority of it was cheap sound contrived to stir up my chemistry so that I would rush out and crack open my wallet. 

Ithuriel's Spears, Fairy Lanterns, Tarweed

     Everything affects your chemistry, whether or not you're aware of it, I thought. For instance, the only reason you feel slightly lost could be due to the fact that you accidentally ate foods containing gluten, and you are simply having a reaction. I tried to imagine the process of chemicals interacting with each other to create an emotional response, the food digested in the stomach and entering the bloodstream as energy, ultimately reaching the brain and affecting the centers of emotion, but I couldn't picture in my mind how chemicals affected emotional states, a failure of imagination, no doubt. I would occasionally eat foods that gave me a reaction and I became severely depressed and could barely function, and everyone thought I was just depressed, which I took as a euphemism for "weak." People could understand the positive and negative effects of drugs and alcohol but couldn't believe that I could have an adverse reaction to basic foods such as wheat, barley, rye, milk and eggs. I suddenly noticed that I had been staring out the window a long time, for how long I couldn't say.
     Twelve minutes. Absurd, I thought. If it weren't still pouring rain, I would get out of my car and organize a retreat from the railroad tracks and establish a detour and have someone call the city about the malfunction. Though usually reticent, I often felt an overwhelming urge to organize people to fix a problem, another reason for my downfall. I had pissed off powerful people for years, which was one reason I had remained a professional substitute even though I had obtained a master's degree, or at least that was my rationalization. What caused me to feel this need to organize the world around me, I wondered, even to the degree that the desire could end up ruining me financially, even destroying me personally if I were too effective as an activist? Not a very effective strategy on an evolutionary scale, at least not for me as an individual, though perhaps yes for the species as a whole since my sacrifice might end up benefiting the community. I decided to let someone else organize the party this time, however. I wasn't heading anywhere.
     I shifted my attention to the sky. In the distance, the clouds were breaking up, revealing blue sky beyond while rain fell in sunlight. I turned and noticed a rainbow in the distance. At that moment, I failed to understand the purpose of beauty. I was failing to understand a lot within the past few minutes, I realized, yet my failure at that moment made little difference. I was digging the smell and the sound of the rain, the sunlight jeweling the raindrops, the signal clanging over and over for no reason.
     I suddenly remembered sitting in a boat on Huntington Lake, the water black, still two-thirds night and freezing. My father was with me; I couldn't, however, picture my father, only the aluminum boat and the black water and the huge pine trees surrounding the lake. I didn't like the idea of killing fish, of reeling them in with a hook in their mouth or their throat, and leaving them in the bottom of the boat to die slowly with their gills fluttering. I didn't want to be there surrounded by the chilling darkness in a cold aluminum boat, but I didn’t complain because I wanted to be with a man I would never know, who pulled the chord to start the motor. That's all I remembered, just a few moments until I turned and gazed into the black water, even though my father died six months later. 
Madia, Fairy Lanterns
     What use was that memory? Who knows what I would remember in another twenty-five years, I thought. But you probably don't have another twenty-five years, remember? I still couldn't believe that I would die completely, as if all the moments in my life were recorded in some tangible form, as in a hologram, innumerable bits of sensory, emotional and intellectual information recorded on a holographic film of ether, stored who knows where in the universe, every possible bit of meaning, no matter how trivial or significant or horrible. My consciousness imprints experiences through some inscrutable chemical process, so why couldn't all experience be imprinted on the universal consciousness (assuming that there is one)? 
     How long were we all going to wait here? We all have too much faith. In technology, in the government, in our fellow man, in our own beliefs, in whatever keeps the world working, I thought. We all just keep doing it, whatever It is, going to our jobs and back to our houses day after day believing that our world will remain the same, that our nuclear arsenals are not going to vaporize us, that the population explosion is not going to suck up every last resource, that the web of life is not being irrevocably ripped apart, that our pollution is not going to heat up the planet or poison us out of existence, that we're not going to die today or tomorrow or ever, that we will survive even our own deaths with every bit of the spirit, or whatever you want to call the consciousness, intact. We just have too much goddamned faith, I thought. 
     The radio played "Stuck in Lodi Again" while I sang along: "Stuck on Clinton Again." Too many things had happened to me on Clinton to be a coincidence, as if some greater force had decided that the avenue would be a major conduit of memory and meaning, the road taking on another layer of significance every time I traveled it. My first job as a substitute, I remembered, had been at a school on Clinton, a classroom of incorrigible children--after my stint as the director of a non-profit environmental organization in an office that also had been located on Clinton. The Gulf War had begun while I was canvassing on Clinton. When I was in high school, I had kicked off a relationship with someone in a car on Clinton. People were being murdered in El Salvador and Nicaragua by death squads as I traveled, completely oblivious to the fact, up and down Clinton. While I was growing up, riding my bicycle down Clinton, people were dying in Southeast Asia because of a police action, millions ultimately. Twenty years after the Vietnam War, a Hmong child was shot down in a parking lot next to an Italian restaurant on Clinton--ten years after I had worked there at the restaurant as a pizza deliverer. Of course, I hadn't thought at all about millions of people dying in conflicts caused or supported by my own government while I was pedaling my bicycle or driving my car or eating or making out or working in restaurants on Clinton. Two of my own families had lived near Clinton, struggling together for several years before breaking up. It was a street like any other, except that I, Jim Robbins, had layered it with meaning. Layers of meaning creating continuity. I closed my eyes and relaxed deeply.
     I found himself at the edge of the galaxy, gazing at the beautiful, cold disk floating in empty black space, totally removed from all human striving, understanding that my physical condition was no more stable than a bubble, that all physical matter was like foam thrown up on the shore. My consciousness was an atom whirling in infinite play, a divine spark in an ocean of fire.
     Suddenly people were tapping on my car window. The signal had stopped clanging, and the orange and white striped arms had lifted. The lane next to me was empty, but there were a few cars still in back of me. I waved at the people who had alerted me, turned on the car, and gazed at a rainbow as I drove in rain falling through sunshine. I'm going to turn the car around, I thought, and head out to the river. My wife won’t be home until five or six, and my daughter will be watching TV anyway.
     The swallows had returned, brown and white bank swallows looping above the creek, disappearing into deep holes in the steep embankment, the flock somehow never diminishing, violet-green swallows weaving between them, jewel-like when the sun struck their deep green and purple feathers. A blue heron stood motionless on a rock, waiting, waiting for a shadow to move in the water. A lazuli bunting, smaller than most sparrows, foraged in the brush, its shrill, melodious call dominating the river. 
     I identified birds by losing myself in my surroundings, waiting
Ithuriel's Spears, Tarweed
for a sound or a movement. By the embankment, I lost myself in roots lacing the earth and sucking up the water, the branches like roots in the sky soaking up the sunlight, each individual creature distinct yet part of one ocean full of swirling currents of water and breath. Sometimes I felt more like an ocean of consciousness than one distinct creature while other times I felt like a distinct individual lost in a great ocean of being whose currents swirled on without end.

     Ron had sued the county for inadequate review of the rezone application for this property. The landowner had obtained a permit from the planning commission to build an upscale development near the creek even though the rezone would establish precedence for other development in the river bottom. The planning commission had not even required an environmental impact report to study the growth inducing and cumulative impacts of the project--just rammed it right through. Ron had appealed the decision to the county board of supervisors, which then unanimously approved the rezone application.
     I realized that I might never see Ron again. I had searched half-heartedly for him for several months, on weekends and holidays, concluding that he had gone underground or offed himself in some secluded wood or changed his name and moved to another country. I couldn't rule out murder, of course. Ron was skinny, almost skeletal, with thin, shoulder-length hair that made him appear slightly feminine. One day as we were heading to a public hearing, Ron insisted that a study had actually been conducted that proved that corporate managers who were forced to wear dresses during a high-level retreat actually showed more sympathy for their employees afterwards. That same day, when saying goodbye, Ron had squeezed my leg for an uncomfortably long time. Ron just smiled for a moment and then got out of the car.
     Though he was articulate about complex issues at public hearings, Ron tended to be reticent. One time, however, at a public hearing, he froze for over a minute, just stood at the podium without saying a word, to everyone's embarrassment, as though he had completely lost his nerve. At that point I began to think that something was terribly wrong. That same day, however, Ron convinced me that we should commandeer an attack helicopter and blow up a hazardous waste incinerator if it should ever be built. Fortunately, thanks partly to our continued political pressure, the incinerator was never built even though the company had received the necessary permits.
     Ron alluded several times to a nervous breakdown he had suffered in the army during the Vietnam War, but never provided any details. He preferred to dwell on the issues, occasionally mentioning spiritual matters in conjunction with his description of LSD trips in the sixties. One time, for instance, his friends were in a circle and they began passing around thoughts as if they were all reading each other's minds, finishing each other's sentences, until they were all sure that they were so connected on some level that they just stopped talking because they didn't need to.
     After Ron disappeared, I noticed a homemade billboard on a stretch of Freeway 99 between Tulare and Bakersfield, which read, "Wake up and drop out--get your new identity here," followed by a phone number. I could imagine Ron making fake ID’s for a living, so I called the number and asked if anyone by the name of Ron Manroe worked there. "Everyone here has a new name, so I wouldn't know," was the reply, but I left my name and phone number just in case anyone with that name happened to pass through there.  
     Ron's commitment had transcended the desire for material success or prestige or even a little financial security, superseding every personal desire, even the need to survive, it seemed. 
Pretty Face, Chinese Houses, Tarweed, Ithuriel's Spears
     Since he was largely ignored and defeated on a political level by good ol' boy politicians, Ron had chosen finally to work his way through the legal system, demanding higher review of local land use decisions. He used the tools of the masters until he became effective, and then the masters used the same tools to crush him. Judge Adam Cane bankrupted Ron, fining him $300,000 for pursuing a "frivolous lawsuit." The Judge claimed that Ron had not established an adequate record on which to base a lawsuit since Ron had only gone on record opposing the rezone application at the final meeting of the county board of supervisors. The Judge apparently had conveniently forgotten the constitution or had never read it. No matter. Ron appealed the case and won, but only after he had been forced to declare bankruptcy. The developer then turned the tables and appealed the decision of the appellate court, eating up more of Ron's time and money.
     Somehow, though, the property by this creek had remained untouched even though the landowner had the permit to alter it beyond recognition. Maybe Ron had ultimately had some effect after all, but not on the governmental level. Yet, as far as I knew, the bulldozers were already lined up and every acre of land in the world had already been surveyed to determine how many board feet could be logged, how many acre feet of water could be diverted, how many houses and strip malls could be built. Perhaps even the air had been inventoried to determine how many more molecules of pollution it could contain before everyone choked to death.
     Like Ron, I had fought too many battles and stood alone, powerless and ignored, but at least I could lose myself in the stream, could almost feel it slide over the stones, could sense the roots gently sucking the water up into the trunks and stems. The water was perfectly calm in places, where one world penetrated another, the connection between worlds suddenly disturbed by ripples and then restored, both worlds a flowing of past, present, and future in a never-ending cycle where nothing was lost, only changed. For a moment it seemed to me that even the trail might always exist in the grasses somewhere in that flowing, in some ether that permeated everything, a Universal Consciousness that remembered every atom.
     The night flowing around me and into me, I felt the air cooling as the bunting sang, the swallows looping overhead, the heron winging away to some more secluded part of the creek.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Ithuriel's Spears, Tarweed
(All photos April 26, 2015)

     I am a fortunate man. I have a place where I can go to relive my childhood, a place that contains a kind of magic that few people believe. In that place, I feel like I am eleven again, and my adult life is only a strange dream. At the same time objects around me, especially human structures, take on a dream-like significance. And, for reasons that I have never understood, sometimes when I am there my daimon communicates with me through a voice or a vision or an intuition.
     While exploring the single-lane road next to the North Fork of the Kings River last weekend, I noticed a cable extending across the river. Curious, I found a path down to an odd metal contraption. After climbing down a short path, I discovered that the metal object is a crude aerial gondola or tram that can slide along the cable to the other side of the river.      
Aerial Gondola
Suddenly I remembered discovering the aerial gondola when I was a boy. At the time, I was surprised to encounter a human structure of any kind along the river. Even though I suspected that someone had a good reason for using this form of transportation, it remained a mystery.  

     That day over forty years ago, I climbed into the contraption and attempted to stabilize it as it bounced from side to side. Then, after imagining for a moment that I was sailing across the river, I tried to get it to move. I had no success, so I examined it carefully to see if I could pull some lever or hit some button to free it and soon discovered that it was chained to a metal post. 
     Disappointed, I got out of the gondola and grabbed the cable, tempted for a moment to swing like a monkey across the river, but when I hung above the ground from the cable for a moment, my arms felt like they were about to disconnect from my shoulders. I gazed down and realized that if I fell into the river below, I would be seriously injured or killed. I knew that my arms would get tired at some point, and I would be unable to go any farther, so I would just hang there ridiculously until I dropped, and my family would not know that I had been swept down the river until someone found my body hung up on some branch or rock. And what if, I thought to myself, I could swing all the way across the river only to find that I had just reached another rock, and I had not unraveled any mystery or achieved anything noteworthy? 
     Nevertheless, I had the feeling that the contraption would someday have significance for me, like a symbol that I had dreamed and suddenly remembered. 

Ithuriel's Spears, Chinese Purple Houses, Tarweed

     Last weekend, I again felt inspired for a moment to swing hand over hand across the river, but this time I couldn’t help viewing the struggle in terms of a major life-choice, such as pursuing a career or a relationship. 
     Then I remembered a dream that I’d experienced that morning. In the dream, I was a young man, with short, blonde hair, and I wore a Nazi uniform. I turned to a man next to me and stated that I was through with this life. In the previous scene, I was working as a substitute teacher, leading children in line from the playground to the classroom. I was haunted all morning by the statement that I was through with this life because I have celiac disease and have been facing my own mortality for over a year now. Something about the statement, however, didn’t make sense.
     Suddenly I realized as I gazed at the aerial gondola chained to the post that I was through with my life as a substitute teacher, during which I had often had to act like a Nazi. The past few weeks I had been happy and optimistic:  I was finally healthy for the first time in over forty years because I had stopped ingesting gluten. Next to the aerial gondola, I felt like I was eleven again, with a bright future ahead of me. I could be anything, and this time I could make a meaningful choice. I might no longer be chained to a dead-end job due to chronic illness.
     Just as I was feeling so hopeful, I looked up the hillside and
Fairy Lanterns, Wind Poppy
noticed a wind poppy, then another and another--dozens of them. I had encountered wind poppies only a few times before and had never seen more than four together in any one place. I had discovered a great, unexpected treasure. I climbed the mossy cliff, but after the recent rain, the moss kept giving way beneath my feet. With poison oak on both sides of me, I clung to the cliff side, trying with all my might to shoot a decent picture, which I knew would not happen, until I slid, still ecstatic, back down to the road.

     Last weekend I developed a theory about the aerial gondola: the cable crosses the river about fifty yards south of a gauging station.  On the other side of the river, a faint trail heads north from the rock to which the cable is connected and disappears in the grass, and a faint trail also appears south of the gauging station. When I was eleven I had no clue what the gauging station was; it appeared to be a small rocket or silo or smokestack extending out of the water next to a cliff. The aerial gondola was positioned so that people can’t easily see it from the road, perhaps to avoid tempting anyone to use the cable in some ill-conceived manner or perhaps to keep thieves from finding the way to the gauging station. 
     Two mysterious posts, which have always baffled me, stand next to the road across from the gauging station. Last weekend I noticed holes that suggest a sign was once screwed into the posts. Over forty years ago someone must have ripped the sign away, perhaps realizing that it drew too much attention to the station. Only the two posts remain, without any information or reason for their existence.
     If I were to reach for some symbolic significance, swinging across the river on the cable might suggest some unprofitable pursuit, a Herculean struggle to reach some pointless goal. If it were a dream symbol that represents some aspect of my adult life, it could easily stand for a job that I had as a political activist after I graduated from college. 

Aerial Gondola

     As I stood on the road above the aerial gondola, I suddenly remembered one week in particular.
     My posse was racing towards Firebaugh, ready to take the town by storm, five in my vehicle, eight in the company van. The fields stretched out endlessly in every direction without another human being in sight. 
     Hundreds of pale yellow butterflies were fluttering across the road from one field to another, many flopping around or unmoving, like ripped-up pieces of paper, on the asphalt. More than once, I witnessed butterflies dipping down to fluttering comrades on the ground, as if to offer help, just before a car rushed over them. One suddenly slapped against the windshield, leaving a streak of transparent jell spattered with yellow powder. 
     "This is a massacre," I mused.
     Another butterfly slapped against the windshield. "What was the last thing to pass through that bug's mind?" a canvasser asked.  
     I stared at him in the rear view. "Good question," I replied.
     "It's asshole," the canvasser dead-panned.
     I chuckled, noticing a crop duster banking toward the road. The plane, about a hundred yards in front of us, managed to clear the telephone wires.
     "You know," I said to my crew, "if an Indian somehow time-traveled to the present, he wouldn't know where he was. Instead of grasslands with herds of antelope and elk and deer, he would find farms. Not knowing that he shouldn't trespass, he'd probably forage for food, but, of course, all he would find around here would be grapes and almonds and pasture grass and cotton--not really the bread basket of the world, now is it? He would probably become sick from the pesticides if he did eat the grapes. Then they'd throw him in jail for stealing and tell him that his sickness is all psychological. But if he did manage to survive undetected, he might look for water. The San Joaquin River, once a mile wide in places, is now just a trickle of polluted water. In fact, Andrew Firebaugh established a ferry over a hundred years ago so people could cross the river and that became what is now the great city of Firebaugh. Anyway, our Indian friend wouldn't find a salmon run, just a few fish belly up and a lot of trash. He wouldn’t know, of course, that most of the water from the river is being used to irrigate the fields on which the farmers are dumping voluminous amounts of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Look, there's a plane about to strafe us. Roll up yer' windows. A hazard of the job, folks." 
Indian Paint Brush

     We rushed through viscous rain falling from the crop duster, the wipers smearing the drops on the windshield. 
     "That pilot’s a good shot," I smiled. "I guess he heard we were coming. We should remember to bring our anti-crop duster artillery next time." 
     Lynn smiled even though she had heard that joke before. We were nearing Firebaugh, so she turned to the back seat and stated flatly, "It's time to do some raps." Everyone took out a clipboard and soon we were talking about "The Right to Know More," a recently proposed piece of legislation that would require industries to disclose more information to the surrounding community about the pesticides they were using. When a new canvasser weakly asked for money and then muttered "okay" after the first blow-off, Lynn snapped, "You've got to target high and then scale down. Don't just take the first blow-off and leave. It they're concerned at all, they can give a few dollars at least. Everyone can give a couple of dollars." 
     "Look, man, we're in the belly of the beast," I chided the canvasser. "This issue affects everyone in the community. Don't be ashamed to ask for money. You're here to help these people. But we can't help them if they don't help us a little. They've got to give a little, and I mean, they've got to put their signature on your petition, they've got to write a letter to their congressman, and they've got to give you some money if we are going to keep doing this work. Nobody else is out here doing this for them, man. Nobody else is out there working in their interest. Don't be shy!" Lynn and I and the other managers had to go through a variation on the same theme practically every day. 
     "Look out there at those fields, man. A few corporations own all of this. A few people are getting obscenely rich, but is their main concern feeding the world? They're going to turn the grapes into wine for alcoholics. They're going to put the almonds in little chocolate kisses. They're going to feed the the hay to the cows so that you can have your fast-food hamburger even though it takes as much water for the feeding and care of a cow as it takes to float a battleship. They're going to keep dumping defoliants on you until there's nothing left but your clothes. They're taking the water out of our river to flood irrigate crops that have no business being grown in a desert, and they just keep dumping their chemicals on everything. They just keep dumping away. And our politicians are making damn sure (pun intended) that you and I subsidize their water and their crops with our tax dollars even though we'd get our asses shot off if we dared to step into those fields. We are paying them to continue polluting our water and air, and they, strangely enough, don't want anyone to know what chemicals they're using. You, man, you are out there to tell those people they have the right to know. You've got to get fired up! You can't be wimpy about mobilizing the public out here. This is the belly of the beast." 

Tarweed, Fairy Lanterns

     Lynn asked the canvasser to try again. The second time he tried harder and she rewarded him with a pretend contribution. Then another new canvasser tried, butchering the rap badly. 
     I had hoped to end the rain of poisons, to put some water back into a dead river, to preserve the foothills and the last wetlands, to end urban sprawl. My organization had  blocked the effort to site massive toxic waste incinerators all over the valley, had stopped the attempt to ship coal from other parts of the country into the valley for coal-fired power plants, had forced the oil industries down in Kern County to follow the same permitting and enforcement procedures as the rest of the counties in the valley. All of that could be reversed any moment depending on the level of corruption, which was always extremely high in the valley. The accomplishments were nothing compared with what needed to be done. My career choice had been a mistake, considering all the other threatened, blackballed, and ruined political activists in the valley, and I was sure that I would pay in one way or another for a very long time.

Posts across from Gauging Station

     Fast forward: I would indeed lose my job and become vulnerable to a person named John Blackmore, who let my family live rent-free in one of his rental houses while my wife worked for a teaching credential.  My wife and I reunited after a rough patch caused partially by little pay and the stress of my job as a grassroots organizer, and partially by the intensity of my relationships with the other organizers, one of whom, Lynn, became my lover during a work-related conference. I had met Blackmore during public meetings on community issues, and I thought I could trust him because we had the same aims. My wife, coincidentally, had also met Blackmore at meetings while she and I were separated, and they had become friends.  I had no idea then, of course, that he would allow us to move into his rental house so that he could let himself in with his key at night and murder me in my sleep when no one else was there.

Stone Crop

     Rewind: I listened to the raps. The same format over and over--I am, we are, we do, we want. The same mistakes by inexperienced canvassers over and over. Only the cleverest and most articulate, many of whom had never even gone to college, survived. I had witnessed graduate students washing out in a matter of days. You had to put quota, $600.00 a week, in the bag, every week, or you were back out on the street, nothing.
     It was absolutely freaking poetic that a progressive organization was now being taken down by a bogus sexual harassment lawsuit tantamount to legal extortion. The woman was a total liar and didn't have a leg to stand on, but the organization was going to pay tens of thousands of dollars to make it go away, instead of going to court, which would be much more expensive in the long run, and the doors of the Fresno office were going to close forever, in a matter of weeks or months. None of the other employees knew. The same freaking enthusiasm, false and otherwise. 
     Another butterfly slapped against the windshield. We were approaching the San Joaquin River. I gazed into the rear view mirror and actually saw hope in the eyes of a few canvassers, or at least what I read as hope. I had crossed the river so many times, with so many different people who had felt hope for their job, for their families, for the world. We were all nothing as we crossed the bridge over a trickle of polluted water that just kept flowing, the water unaware that it would never reach the ocean.

Indian Pinks, Madia

     "Remember," I demanded, "I am, we are, we do, we want. I am, we are, we do, we want. Follow that basic format and you'll do fine. Don't worry, everyone's a little nervous at first." The canvasser tried again as we were driving into town. "You're doing fine," I reassured him as we pulled into a Taco Bell. The canvassers had an hour to eat while the field managers cut turf, allotting about eighty houses to each canvasser. I cut turf with Lynn even though I was the program coordinator and should have stayed at the restaurant to boost morale. 
     Several weeks ago, my supervisor had made me swear not to tell anyone about the lawsuit. 
     "Ingrid is suing the organization for sexual harassment," I told Lynn, as I was driving through a "boozshie" (canvasser slang for "bourgeois") neighborhood. 
     "What the hell?" Lynn muttered. 
Ithuriel's Spears, Chinese Houses
     "She's suing Pat for sexually harassing her, and she's naming me and the canvass director and the organization for allowing the harassment to continue in the workplace." 
     "Pat was a lousy field manager and said some pretty stupid things, but I don't see how she could claim that he sexually harassed her. I really doubt that anyone would believe her." 
     "You never know. They might get you up on the stand and have you explain your relationship with me, you know, how you're having an affair with a married man. I'm sure everyone would love that." 
     "I didn't think of that." 
     "She might even say that I created a hostile environment in the workplace. She could claim that I was sexually harassing you, for instance, especially since you had a boyfriend who was also working for the organization when we first got together. Imagine a lawyer asking you how I first expressed my affection for you." 
     "Oh, my god, and I bought pot from her on more than one occasion." 
     "I doubt that she'll want that to become public knowledge, but she will claim that 'party night' has helped lead to sexual harassment." 
     "It has been getting a bit wild on Thursday nights. Damn, what are we going to do?" 
     "I don't know, but she wants $200,000.00. She won't get that. She'll have to scale down, of course, but she could nail us for a big chunk of money, just because the organization, which is almost broke anyway, will want to settle out of court to avoid the court costs. It has some insurance, but not enough to cover what she wants. This is nothing but legal extortion, but she’ll probably get away with it. What do you know about her, Lynn? What can you tell me about her?"      She had stopped counting houses. "I really don't know anything about her. I just thought she was cool." 
     "She is not cool. She is very, very uncool. Don't ever think she is cool, ever again." 
     "Remember when Dora let us use her room that first time at the conference and Tom came looking for me? What if all that comes out?" 
     "We're screwed." 
     "Wait a minute. Dora might not even live in Fresno anymore." 
     "Yeah, but they could find her and depose her and maybe even ask her to take the stand. She was a program director and she encouraged sexual misconduct." 
     "We're going to be sweating until this is over, aren't we? 
     "And it could take a long, long time." 
     "How much are you going to tell the regional director about us?" 
Hooker's Onion, Tarweed
     "I'll tell him as little as possible, but I'll probably have to tell him everything sooner or later, I suppose, and that's probably going to mean the end of my job." I pulled the car over to the curb. "How many more turfs do we need?" I asked. We still had half an hour. 
     "Just one more," she replied. "This is the worst god-damned timing." 
     "You think this is all coincidence?" I gazed at the clock while Lynn quietly stared out the window. "Look at all the other crap piling up on the organization. We just got an eviction notice last week for overdue late charges. Not for late rent, mind you. For overdue late charges. The 'Fresnoid' Chronicle published that article claiming that the organization keeps one hundred percent of the funds that we raise, which is total bullsh-t, and it’s publishing our recruitment ad in the sales section of the classifieds, even though we are a political organization exercising our right to free speech. We've stopped a hazardous waste incinerator and coal burning power plants and have helped create a regional air quality control district. Now, we're scaring the crap out of the farmers and the pesticide companies. We’ve become effective, and the powers that be are coming down on us." 

Ithuriel's Spears

     "We've got to cut that last turf," Lynn stated flatly. She didn't say another word to me until after we had dropped off the other canvassers. She refused to canvass the same turf with me because I distracted her. Before we split up, she said that she wanted to go out after work. She was ten years younger than I am. I wanted her to be with her friends as much as possible, so I shrugged, "No problem." 
     A week later, after we got home from work, I stated, "You know, I was going to go into teaching when I graduated from college, but I realized that schools are just maintaining the status quo, churning out good little wage slaves who get way over their heads in debt by the time their twenty-five and can't do anything but struggle to dig themselves out of it the rest of their lives, and all the while big corporations are stealing the last resources and poisoning us out of existence. Now I don't know what field I'm going to go into. This was the perfect job for me, at least until recently. I think I'm going to take it one day at a time. I'm going to hang in there until it all falls apart, if it ever does." 
     Lynn gazed at me with a weak smile. "Well, I'm going to go back to school to get a degree in social work. I'm getting out of this town. I might go to Santa Cruz." 
     "But isn't Tom going to Santa Cruz?" 
Fiesta Flowers
     I stared at her, waiting for her to elaborate. "Why do you just close me off? I never know what you're really feeling about the important stuff. Moving is something huge for me because my kids are here in Fresno. What are you trying to say to me?" 
     "Did you ever see this as a long-term relationship? Were you ever planning to divorce your wife?" she asked. 
     I couldn't answer for a second. "Well, I never thought of it as temporary. I left my wife, you remember." I looked her over carefully. "Wait a minute." I glared at her. "You haven't seen Tom, have you?" 
     "Well, yeah, I did, like a week ago." 
     "Why didn't you tell me?" 
     She didn't say a word. 
     "Oh," I groaned. "That was the night you stayed out late." I stared. "You went to bed with him, didn't you?" 
     She didn't answer. 
     "Did you?" 
     "He told me that he took acid, and when he looked at his eyes in the mirror, he saw my eyes. He said he realized then how much he loved me." 
     "What the hell are you saying? Did you go to bed with him or not?" 
Wind Poppy
     She didn't answer. 

     "You did, didn't you. I'm going to take your silence as a yes." 
     Flustered, she finally answered, "All right. I did. But the whole time I was asking myself what I was doing." 
     "He asked you to marry him, didn't he?" 
     "Yes, he did." 
     I was genuinely shocked by my intuition as well as by her sudden willingness to confess. "And what did you say?" 
     "Look, you've had a long day. I really don't want to talk about this anymore." 
     "What did you say?" 
     "I said yes." 
     I plopped down in the dark on her couch. "You know I read recently that the universe is composed of energy fields--energy fields upon energy fields. Each person is an energy field that is part of all the other energy fields. We are all just connected, inter-penetrating energy fields, and yet we believe that we are separate. Maybe the energy fields flow on forever, but why does it all turn to shit?" I started sobbing. She scooted next to me and placed her arm around me. I wept for almost half an hour while she held me. When I stopped, I said, "I better go." I got up in the darkness, turned, and, without saying another word, walked out the door. 

Friday, April 24, 2015


Ithuriel's Spears, Chinese Houses

(All photos April 19, 2015)

     Since you still believe that what I am telling you is pure fiction, I have woven two stories together, one  fictional, the other “real,” just to see if you can figure out the difference.

     Friant Dam was built during the nineteen forties, the canals branching from the reservoir diverting approximately ninety-eight percent of the water from the San Joaquin River for urban and agricultural uses (about 15 percent for urban uses, the rest for agriculture). The river, which had once flowed from headwaters high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, down through the valley to the delta and into the San Francisco Bay, died at a sinkhole thanks to the dam, and the Central Valley’s wetlands, once replenished periodically by the river's overflow, dried up. A problem with drainage of agricultural wastewater began to plague the west side of the valley due to an impermeable level of clay a few feet below the soil. The drainage water, contaminated by trace elements in the soil like selenium, also contained varying levels of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and defoliants, depending on the crops. The corporations that had received the water for a fraction of its cost thanks to the taxpayers ended up convincing the government to dump the contaminated wastewater in a wildlife refuge, causing strange deformities. Many blackbirds, for instance, were born with two heads or three legs. 
     During the time when the problems with drainage water were becoming apparent and the city was dubbed one of the worst in the state for air pollution, my mother remarried. The city continued to receive surface water from the reservoir to recharge the aquifer but existing recharge basins were not adequate to accommodate population growth, so the farmers near the city were allotted water for irrigation under the rubric of "recharge"; they also of course used abundant chemicals on their crops. My new family consisted of my mother, my older brother (who had moved to another state), my stepfather and my stepsister. We continued drinking the water and breathing the polluted air without a second thought, and my parents paid their taxes on time.
Fairy Lanterns
     Even though I was seventeen and she was thirteen, my stepsister and I played board games after school, sometimes for hours, especially Fantasy Island, where goblins and trolls and vampires lurked every few spaces on the board. Normally reserved, with a straight face she would mimic people we both knew. She was able to capture people with a few words, a few exaggerated facial expressions, revealing the hypocrisy or absurdity lurking below the surface of their behavior. Everyone was a target, but she never mocked me, at least not while we were playing the game.
     One weekend, my stepfather found a fishing hole in the Kings River. While my mother and stepfather fished, my stepsister and I explored the area, helping each other climb over the slippery rocks. As we were heading back, I decided to follow a different route, taking a faint path along the river instead of climbing up a steep slope, even though it appeared that our progress might be blocked by a jagged wall of rock. Finally, we came upon a small promontory that jutted into a deep pool, and we could not go any farther. I helped her over to the promontory, and we both gazed silently into the deep green water, pointing now and then at the shadow of a trout.
     She was the first to turn back. She took two steps and screamed, leaping into my arms. Spiders with long, spindly legs and bulbous, spotted abdomens were crawling out of a crack in the stone, marching towards us, five, ten, twenty--they just kept coming as we scrambled up the face of the rock wall, finally stopping on a thin ledge. As we huddled together against the rock wall, I told her to close her eyes and stay still until the spiders passed, and soon a few spiders were crawling on us, their legs like tiny gentle fingers. I watched her as a spider crawled over her cheeks and eyelids, her face relaxed but absorbed in the myriad touch of the spider's legs. I was surprised that she remained so composed. I closed my eyes again, terrified at first, but then as I felt the touch of tiny gentle legs I experienced an unexpected sense of peace. The spiders passed over both of us in a minute without injecting their venom into either one of us.
    I thought that we had opened our eyes at the same time before we slid down the stone wall together and dashed, laughing hysterically, up the trail on the steep slope, returning the way we had come. I realized that if we had not been so terrified, we could have just leapt over the crack and avoided the spiders altogether, and I grabbed her hand. When I revealed my insight, we both burst out laughing again. She leaned on me, giggling between gasps for breath, then screwed up her face to mimic me. 
     We liked to read to each other. We especially liked reading children's poems and nursery rhymes, humorously trying to "figure out" what they "really meant." One time we even wrote a poem together about a deep-sea fishing trip that we both abhorred:


Nothing would stay put in those heaves. 
They stabbed and stuck, with spiny gills,
needle-like teeth; sharp fins sheared
through burlap--I wanted to murder
them there.  Lingcod gorged
on snapper even in my sack,
tails protruding
from insatiable maws,
heads stuck
in dead throats--and me,
with hopeless legs, clinging
to the railing
while the deckhand chuckled,
and the whole world rolled,
unable to leap into the waves.

     We acted out the poem, rocking back and forth together as we recited it for our parents, who both smiled and clapped when we were finished.
     My stepsister had secretly started delving into the occult and soon tried to get me involved as well. She had obtained a deck of Tarot cards, unbeknownst to our parents, and was also reading a book on the Qabalah. One night, she tried giving me a Tarot reading. 

     "Do you have a question to ask the cards?" she asked. 
     I thought a moment. "I'd like to know what's going to develop in a special relationship that I have," I grinned, elbowing her ribs. 
     "Intriguing," she murmured. "Let's see what the cards reveal to us." 

Path 29

     She began dealing out the cards on her bed. The first card, called "The Moon," showed a lobster crawling up onto a path that emerged from the water and snaked between two towers. Near the water, on either side of the path, two canines were howling at the moon, which hovered about the path, as bright as the sun. The moon’s eyes were shut as if it were in deep concentration or meditation. 
     "Is that good or bad?" I asked. 
     "The lobster is a creature that connects your dreams with your conscious mind since it can live in the water and on land. This is a time when the moon has dominance. Your path is set, and your way is clear, but you must be careful of your bestial nature." 
     "Why, miss fortune-teller--you're scarin' me," I mused, making a ghostly noise and pushing her down a little toward the pillow. 
     "Pay attention, and don't interfere," she commanded. "This is serious." 

Path 27

     The next card she dealt was called "The Tower." Lightning was striking a tower and knocking off its crown. A man and a woman were falling head first out of the tower. 
     "Uh-oh," she muttered. 
     "What do you mean, 'Uh-oh?'"  
     "Oops, I'm not supposed to say that. Well, anyway, this means upheaval in your life. But you might benefit from it." 
    "How can I possibly benefit if I fall out of a tower and land on my head?" 
     "It'll wake you up, maybe, if it doesn't kill you," she smiled. 

Path 31

     The next card she dealt was called "Judgement." 
     I squinted at the card. "Does that mean I'm going to die and rise from the grave?" 
     "Look more carefully at the card, idiot. The coffins are floating in the water, a symbol of the subconscious, where your dreams come from. The souls are being reborn, rising from the confinements and limitations of the physical world into the spiritual realm. Their focus is all on the angel who is blowing the trumpet. They are sensing a greater life." 
     Just then we heard car doors slamming. She quickly gathered the cards together and hid them in her dresser while I dashed out into the living room, quickly turning on the t.v. and diving onto the couch as our parents stumbled through the door. 
     One night, our parents went out to a movie with the next door neighbors, and we were stuck at home babysitting the neighbor's six month old. She decided to take a shower while I fed the baby, who wasn't at all happy with a bottle. The baby screamed in protest, pacified by the milk only a few seconds at a time. While I was struggling to keep the bottle in the baby's mouth, smoke started pouring from the oven. I ran with the baby to the bathroom door and pounded on it with my free hand while my stepsister was blow drying her hair. She opened the door immediately and grabbed the baby before I could even yell "smoke." I rushed into the kitchen and threw open the oven door; a large patch of grease had caught on fire while an apple pie was baking. I threw baking soda on the fire, which hissed and went out immediately, and sprinted back to see how the baby was doing. My stepsister had gently placed the baby on our parents' bed. Her towel, held firmly under her armpits, covered her budding breasts but hung loosely on her buttocks, her back still moist from the drops dripping from her hair. The baby had stopped crying as my stepsister leaned over it. For the first time I wanted to touch her. I had an overwhelming urge to pull her towel away and gaze at her naked body. I stepped toward her as she picked up the baby, and she handed it to me while I grunted about a fire in the oven. She went back to the bathroom and finished blow drying her hair.

Ithuriels' Spears, Chinese Houses, Pretty Face

    A few days later, while I was stretched out on the couch listening to the stereo, she stomped into the room with her bathing suit on, pushed a tape into her Walkman and pressed play. She exercised intently, swinging her legs and arms as if she were fighting an invisible enemy, while I leered at her, trying not to show any surprise on my face. I got up slowly. When I took a step toward her, she began kicking her right leg back, rhythmically, following the instructions on the tape, glancing at me with a frown. My laugh, which she could not hear, was strained, as I turned and slinked out of the room.
     I was still seventeen, and she had just turned fourteen. Soon, she started avoiding me. My presence was charged with an ambiguous, threatening energy, so I locked myself in my room after school every day, drawing pictures of her that I never showed anyone, writing music for her that I never sang, even going through her room when she wasn't home. At that time, I passed out occasionally from terrible headaches and intestinal pain. I didn't know that I was suffering from celiac disease that caused debilitating stomach pain and made me feel self-loathing, intense sadness and lack of connection with other people at a time when my hormones were shifting into full gear. 
     You see, gentle reader, confidante, psychiatrist, that was the first time I ever poisoned a relationship. I have always been in denial about my inability to function in a way that provides adequate support for the people I love. I now believe, alas too late, that it is morally wrong for a chronically ill person to have a serious relationship--unless the other person goes into the relationship with the full knowledge of what it means to be in that situation. I am not feeling sorry for myself--I am simply being honest. 
     No doubt John Blackmore noticed my moral and physical weaknesses at some point. I’m sure he has used them to justify his actions.
     My stepsister died when my stepfather pulled out from a gas station and the car stalled. A Mac truck collided with the car, killing her instantly. While my stepfather was in the hospital in serious but stable condition, my mother and I visited the funeral home to make arrangements. The funeral director motioned us into a room with numerous wooden and metal caskets. While the director discussed prices with my mother, I stumbled into the lobby and stared at a grandfather clock, the pendulum swinging smoothly back and forth. As the pendulum swang upward I noticed her body for a moment reflected in the glass of the grandfather clock, her hands crossed over her chest.
     I tiptoed into the room and stared at her face, composed but pasty, like a wax figure, her body emptied of blood and pumped full of chemicals. She did not appear at peace; instead, her face was slightly screwed up as if she were contemplating an unexpected, difficult proposition. I wanted to touch her face as gently as a spider, but I was suddenly afraid that she would move or that her ghost would appear, so I stood still, without breathing. My mother, without being specific, had claimed that she had died mainly of internal injuries, and I scrutinized her without seeing any signs that she had suffered pain. Though repulsed by the life-like aspect of her corpse, I wanted to touch her one more time. Before I could pick up her hand, my mother and the funeral director strolled out of the casket-viewing room, obviously in agreement about the arrangements. My mother and I stayed only a minute longer after she confirmed that the body looked presentable.
     We had to visit the cemetery to decide what kind of vault to bury her in. One kind was cement and would last fifty years. The other vault was reinforced concrete and would last about one hundred years. The latter was twice as expensive. When asked for her decision, my mother looked flustered, started weeping, and opted for the expensive vault. I wanted to tell her that my sister didn't need any vault at all, why would she? But I didn’t say a word.

Ithuriel's Spears, Tarweed

     At the funeral, my stepfather got up out of his wheelchair, and my mother propped my stepfather up by the elbow. My stepfather reached into the casket and grabbed his daughter’s stiff, lifeless hand, and he would not let go. My mother stared at my stepfather's face, both of them sobbing. Next in line to view the body, I charged out of the chapel, gasping, a tear scalding my cheek, unable to go back in. I stared at the door as if it were locked or too heavy to open, until the funeral director, with a dignified, pitying smile, approached me on the sidewalk and opened the door. I stood a few feet from the casket, grimacing as tears streamed down my cheeks, until finally I tore myself away from the body.
     I met my first wife in high school. She had open sores on her face from a severe case of acne, which she kept picking. She also had a haircut that made her look more like a boy than a girl. She was outgoing with a few people, revealing quickly to anyone who got within range that she hated her stepmother and that her father gave all of his attention to her pretty blonde step-sister, which seemed terribly unfair to me since I had watched a zillion hours of t.v. and was in the habit of questioning parental authority. I was attracted to her immediately.
   On our second date I drove her in my late father’s Dodge to a performance of a choir at her church. The minute the performance ended we rushed out to the car and drove to Sky Harbor, a picnic area above Millerton Lake. On the way, we stopped and gazed at the sunset for a few minutes at a vista point along the road. We could see the top of Friant Dam etched between the hills, and beyond that the lights of Fresno were beginning to form a galaxy in the haze. I hugged her as the grass swayed in the gentle breeze, the crickets chirping and a woodpecker hammering the trunk of a nearby oak. At that moment, as I kissed her, a sexual charge coursed through my body, beginning with my toes and rushing into my cheeks. 
     (A decade later I would drive out to that point to bury the letters of my second wife below an oak tree, so filled with bitterness that I hardly cared that I had stopped there once many years before; I wanted only to rid myself of every last trace of the woman who had ruined me and terrorized my son. Then, twenty five years after that first stop, I returned again at sunset, the Dodge junked long ago, my father and stepsister in a cemetery that I no longer visited, my first wife remarried and living in San Diego, my son attending college. The grass swayed in a gentle breeze, the crickets chirped, and a woodpecker hammered the trunk of a nearby oak while I gazed at the lights of Fresno in the distance.)
Chinese Purple Houses
     I lost my virginity in the back seat of the Plymouth. I could hardly feel it because of the rubber and the awkward position of our legs, but I persevered, partly because I had a perverse desire to experience a cliche. Before she finished, she had left a huge stain on the upholstery which would never come out. I never experienced with her again anything as sexually charged as that first kiss, except for one night a year later when we were in a cabin with two other couples. I had forgotten the birth control, and though I told her that I would be careful, I must have oozed at least a teaspoon of pre-sperm before I finally ejaculated on her leg. Her face glowed (as if another soul had entered her body, I told her later) all the next day as we hiked along an old, dirt road. All I knew was that she was happy and I would do nothing to ruin her mood as we threw snow balls at each other. Unknown to us, we would play like children for the last time that day.
     Our son was born nine months and two days later. The hospital room was cool, dim, undecorated. The nurse, cold and uncommunicative, seemed unaware that she would be remembered for a life time. Knowing nothing about the author, I read Kafka short stories between contractions and held my wife’s hand during the many long moments of agony. In the delivery room, the light glared on the tile and the stirrups and the metal table, the black doctor spoke with a German accent, and the nurse provided the doctor with a huge needle that he inserted into her vaginal area. My son's head emerged quickly, and the nurse groaned, muttering that something was wrong. The rest of his body soon followed, covered by a slimy cheesy substance. The doctor clipped off the placenta as if he were cutting off a toe or a finger. The nurse took prints of feet and thumb and handed the baby to his mother, who was weeping uncontrollably. The nurse mentioned that the baby had a harelip and cleft palate, which meant nothing to me, then she checked on the spelling of the name. I stood in my hospital gown with the mask still across my face, noticing the odd clefts in his top lip, the gum beneath the nose balled like a tiny head and blanketed by the thick skin extending from the nostril. I had a bizarre suspicion that all babies were born that way but that nobody ever mentioned it. The nurse reiterated that our son had a bilateral harelip and cleft palate, which still seemed Greek to me, and claimed that our son would be seeing a doctor very soon as she left the room. My wife continued weeping while I stood there awkwardly, finally taking the baby in my arms.
     We occupied a tawdry one bedroom apartment in the El Dorado District, also known as Sin City, in the Twentieth Century Apartments. Neither of us had a job at first, but my wife soon found employment as a seasonal employee with the Internal Revenue Service as a file clerk. I stayed home and took care of the baby. Even though I cut a large X into the top of all the nipples, it often took more than an hour to feed the baby with the bottle. I would sit naked in the rocking chair because it was so hot, while my wife slept, the feedings usually at eleven, two and four-thirty in the morning. I was still painfully shy and seriously depressed and didn't mind that we never went out. I was also suffering from the inability to digest milk and wheat; all I knew, however, was that something was clogging my plumbing, trapping gas and making it impossible for me to belch. Every now and then while feeding the baby I would have to wake up my wife and go into the bathroom and throw up just to clear my digestive system a little.
     The landlord unexpectedly knocked on the sliding glass door one day with an offer. We could live in a two-bedroom unit rent free if we would manage the apartment complex. Since we were not making ends meet on what she earned at the IRS, we agreed.
     Around this time, the baby had his first operation: The doctor stitched up the bilateral harelip. After two days, however, the tension in the lip proved too great; the stitches began unraveling at the bottom. We immediately phoned the doctor, but it was Saturday and we could only contact his exchange. As we were driving down the street to the hospital, the baby began squealing. My wife unbuckled the baby from the car seat and placed him face down on her lap, the baby's favorite position for sleeping, trying to position the head so his upper lip would not touch her leg. Suddenly the baby let out another scream. Blood was spurting onto the diaper that covered her lap. The lip on one side had ripped like cloth all the way up to the nostril. The baby wailed for a few minutes longer but calmed down before we reached the hospital. The plastic surgeon stitched up the lip again. A week later the lip came apart because the doctor had not waited long enough for the lip to heal before stitching it together.

Hooker's Onion
     When we became managers, only four of the twelve units were occupied, so we rented units without doing serious background checks. The first couple was an obvious risk: She wasn't eighteen yet (she was probably only fourteen or fifteen) and he worked sporadically in construction. They paid their rent on time the first two months, and they would sometimes come over to drink beer.  The women chatted and the my friend and I played guitar, hammering out three chord progressions and simple leads. Because the couple appeared trustworthy, we rented a unit out to their friends, a family where the husband also worked sporadically in construction and the wife (also under eighteen) stayed home with two children.
     However, the new couple did not pay their rent on time the first month; in fact they only paid a fraction of the rent by the deadline. They swore up and down that they would get the money to us later on in the month but only paid another forty dollars. The next month they didn't pay anything at all. In fact, the under-aged girlfriend came to the door and asked for a few dollars to feed her children; she was dressed in a ratty housecoat with holes large enough to reveal bare skin underneath. I forked over ten dollars. She returned two days later in the same housecoat, and I told her no, I had no money, which was the truth. Grimacing, she stumbled away, pulling the housecoat tightly around herself. After the deadline the third month, the owner instructed us to provide the delinquent tenants with a three day eviction notice.
     I filled out the form in triplicate and knocked on the sliding glass door, the only door to the apartment. The tenant, skeletal and pale, pulled it open, his eyes magnified by the thick lenses in his glasses. In the front room a black Harley leaned against a wall and two sickly children sat on a futon on the floor in front of a television. The only other furniture was a small table with no chairs in the kitchen. The tenant screamed at me to get the hell away from his door, using a few other choice words, and threatened to burn down the apartment complex if I ever came by again. The tenant then wadded up the eviction notice, tossed it on the ground, and slammed the door shut.
     This came as a surprise to me. I had expected the tenant to be reasonable. I called the owner and described the tenant's reaction, suggesting that the owner call the police and complain about the threat. The owner called back in a few minutes and claimed that the police wouldn't do anything. That afternoon I picked up garbage around the parking garage since I hadn't spent a lot of time cleaning up the complex. All afternoon I felt oppressed by the chain link fence with barbed wire that the owner had placed across the back of the apartments in lieu of garage doors. I felt like I was trapped in a refugee camp. I was free to leave but had nowhere else to go. We would all stay until the bitter end.
     That evening through my window I watched the owner chat with the evicted tenant. The tenant made a sweeping motion with his arm, and the owner frowned, staring at the ground, digging his hands deeper into his pockets. They were not arguing, and when the owner turned to leave, the tenant stooped down to inspect a broken sprinkler. The next day at eight in the morning, the owner called to tell me that I was no longer manager. I could see the formerly evicted tenants moving into the other two bedroom unit after I hung up the phone.
Ithuriel's Spears, Fairy Lanterns
     That day, after moving the gray metal desk out of my apartment, the new managers weeded the complex and raked up the litter, leaving the rake and the garbage can outside. I had never stolen anything in my life (except for a few candies when I was five years old). After dark, I put on a black woolen cap and a navy blue sweatshirt even though it was the end of summer, grabbed the rake and garbage can and hustled all the way to the end of the alley, which was deserted and eerie in the light of the street lamp. I glanced around furtively, certain that everyone was watching me, aware that I was a thief. Then I noticed a wall between two apartment complexes and quickly heaved the trash can and the rake over to the other side. Halfway down the alley I tore the wool cap off in disgust because I felt like I was wearing a Halloween costume, laughing suddenly at how easy it was to commit a crime. (Coincidentally, a week after the debacle my wife and I moved into an apartment next to the complex where I had dumped my ill-gotten booty. Five years later, I peeked over the wall and the trash can was still there. It might still be there now, twenty years later, if you really want to arrest me.)
     That evening when I got back to the apartment, I spent an hour meditating and envisioned a tall white tower with two people, a man and a woman, falling out of it. I went to my closet, remembering that my stepsister had let me borrow a New Age book, along with a book on the Tarot, a few weeks before she died. I remembered the cover was blue or green and the front showed a man sitting in the lotus position. My closet library was in complete disorder, so I had to rummage a few minutes before I found it. CHAKRAS was the name of the book, which was blue all right, and strangely the man sitting in the lotus position was also blue. Six circles were spaced at intervals along an invisible central pillar corresponding to the man's spine, and the man had a many petaled rainbow-colored flower as a hat, or what might be mistaken as a shower cap.
     I noticed a green star in the heart center, formed by interlocking triangles, one pointing upward and the other downward--the Star of David. I remembered the same symbol in a glyph my step-sister had shown me before she died in the car accident. What was it called? The Tree of Life, a symbol of ten different spheres or states of being which had emanated from the one pure Source of being. The Tree, I remembered, represented man and God, both microcosm and macrocosm. The symbols on the Tree resembled the chakras, except that they were arranged in three pillars, not one.
Ithuriel's Spears
     I suddenly realized why the man was blue. At first I had considered the artist amateurish, unable to capture skin tones, but then I realized the artist was not attempting to capture skin tones at all. The artist had painted the energy centers not of the physical body but of a much subtler body of energy known as the soul. After my step-sister died, I had occasionally meditated, hoping perhaps to retain some aspect of our relationship. She had encouraged me to meditate often, and once we had even meditated together on her bed, breathing together, arms lightly touching. That day, after twenty minutes, I fell into a peaceful slumber. She had insisted that through meditation I would discover that I have an eternal spirit, and she had often mentioned the symbols of the Tarot and the Tree of Life, but I hadn't paid much attention. In fact, I had often good-heartedly poked fun at her. She, fortunately, had a sweet disposition and a good sense of humor. 
     Ever since her death I had found it impossible to believe in the existence of the soul or in any rational order in the universe. I looked at my books stacked on one another, the ones on top threatening to cascade down to the floor. They were more like junk than a collection of the greatest wisdom and imaginings of the human race. Suddenly I saw a book that my step-sister had given me as a gift, called THE MYSTICAL QABALAH. On the cover was the Tree of Life. As I gazed at the cover, tears streamed down my cheeks. I hadn't noticed the book in years. I had begun reading it several days before my stepsister died and had never finished it, the descriptions of the different spheres seeming nonsensical to me at the time.
     I looked at the spheres in the central pillar. The second sphere from the bottom represented the astral plane, my sister had explained, called Yesod. There was a naked man standing in the middle of the sphere with a moon over his left shoulder. The sphere was violet, a rainbow forming its border. "You just like looking at naked men," I had joked when she pointed it out to me. Now I realized that the naked man represented the spirit in a particular state of being, the rainbow representing the aura, all of these associations bubbling up into my conscious mind from seemingly out of nowhere.
     "What do you do when you discover that you have an eternal soul?" I asked out loud, another tear sliding down my cheek.
     The next morning my wife heard screams from the apartment of the new managers. She picked up the phone and dialed 911 after I had jokingly suggested that we call the police. She informed the police that someone was getting beat up. In fact, the new manager was yelling, threatening to shoot his buddy (the one who had helped him get the apartment) for sleeping with his girlfriend. Someone else had also dialed 911. Before the police arrived the new manager's buddy threw open the door and ran out in cut offs, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was never seen at that apartment complex again. The police arrived a few minutes later, leveling shotguns at the door. After the police entered the apartment, they tossed the place for drugs and guns and handcuffed the new manager, encouraging him to proceed a little faster to the car by butting him with their rifles.
     A detective knocked on my door and asked if I knew anything about the person who had been threatened, describing him as a white male, with a ponytail, Fu-manchu mustache and no chin. He was wanted in connection with the robbery of a 7-11 two months earlier. I told the detective that I knew this guy would try to get high on everything, even downing whole bottles of vitamin C for a rush, and that, according to one source, the guy beat his girlfriend (who had also disappeared) practically every night. The detective gave me his card and told me to call if I saw the suspect again. I did see the suspect again two years later on the street with the same girlfriend. After chatting for a minute with the suspect, I couldn't help smiling, and Mr. Fu-manchu got a wild look in his eye and hissed, "Are you laughing at me?" As the conversation disintegrated, the girlfriend stepped in (a role she was obviously used to, or at least good at), and we managed to part without any further loss of dignity (and without any loss of blood).

Ithuriel's Spears, Tarweed

     After the police left that day, I inspected the apartment of the Fu-manchu suspect. The door was unlocked, so I walked right in. The place was trashed, with cigarette ashes and dirt and food on the floor, every room littered with beer cans and permeated by a vaguely urinous odor. Something was missing: some reason that had brought us all together for a few months in one apartment complex, leaving nothing but trash. I surrendered to the cushionless couch, musing about why my son had been born with a birth defect. (The doctors couldn't supply a satisfactory explanation, only something about the defect being caused potentially by many different factors, environmental and genetic, even though the defect had not shown up before on either side of the family). I trudged back to my apartment as grass was sprouting in the cracks in the sidewalk and weeds were flourishing in the flower bed, the dandelion seeds slowly drifting across the lawn.
     After we moved, my wife complained more and more that I didn't wash the dishes or take out the garbage often enough. One night, as I was feeding the baby, she railed at me for writing songs while other people walked all over us, for forcing her to support them, for doing nothing to keep us from going down the tubes financially. She was right. I could only sit on the couch cradling the baby as it sucked the bottle while she screamed at me. I had poisoned her against me.