Saturday, April 28, 2012

Outwitting Your Personal Temptor

He gently turns your head so you can see them:  freshly baked doughnuts arranged in neat rows. He opens your senses -- visual, olfactory -- and walks you down memory lane, the lane that passes by the bakery, all the bakeries. By now, your taste buds are in a state of high arousal. You are salivating copiously. You yearn to lick the icing on the maple bar, savor the sweet custard inside; you think of crisp, warm apples fritters, sugary orbs filled to the bursting point with jelly...

He knows you are borderline diabetic, that you are at least twenty pounds overweight. He knows you struggle against temptation; that is why he tempts you. It gives him enormous satisfaction when you succumb and he can whisper in your ear, "junkie, junkie, junkie..." Later, he will direct your gaze to anything -- polished table tops, random mirrors, car doors -- anything that gives back the reflection of a bloated, sugar-saturated, post-binge food abuser. "Fat," he will whisper, "corpulent, blubbery, tubby, morbidly obese..."

Sometimes you can resist him, but a victory or two or three won't motivate him to back off. In fact, your success redoubles his determination to dominate you, to render you helpless before the thousand temptations he summons to attack and overwhelm you.

Essentially, he is trying to poison you, send you to an early grave after a period of acute suffering. He wants you to suffer and that is why he lines your path with temptations. He is a sociopath whose only genuine emotion is a sense of triumph. He is a junkie, too, a power junkie, a malevolent, contriving imp, a malicious micro-devil assigned just to you.

The only way you can outwit him is on a case-by-case basis, by saying, "This time I won't," and turning away from the bakery case filled with doughnuts.

If, on the other hand, you say, "Never again!" he will twist your declaration into a whip and flog you with it endlessly, repeating as he does so, "Never! never! never!

The only way to trick him is to keep him in the dark as regards your intentions. Thus, when he sends you, salivating like a St. Bernard, in the direction of your local cafe, you will turn abruptly right instead and go through the door to your fitness club where you will exercise until your body dissolves into sweat and...yes!...the blessed endorphins come.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Way Out Here In Coyote Land

In the mountainous region of the remote Southwest, nature in the raw still dominates.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, where I now live, is still geographically isolated, though less so than when it was the site for the Manhattan Project. The Pajarito Plateau, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, consists of mesas dissected by numerous canyons (some as deep as 800 feet). These canyons are visited during the day by hikers, joggers, and various wildlife enthusiasts but only wild things actually live in them. Walking alone, it is highly probable that you will encounter tiny preoccupied rock squirrels, families of deer, coyotes (individually or in packs), and -- somewhat more rarely -- a mountain lion or a black bear.

This is a savage land dominated by sage and juniper interspersed with chamisa, yucca, and other shrubs. Growing near the Rio Grande are clusters of cottonwoods and aspens whose leaves, in the autumn, turn to liquid gold. Poderosa pines dominate elsewhere and I have lately learned to sniff their bark which smells either of vanilla or butterscotch.

The weather here is savage, too, at times, and prone to sudden mood swings. Thus, a series of warm days can be followed, in April or May, by a snowstorm. In spring, high velocity winds threaten to move your car, like a chess piece, into an adjoining lane or tear off your screen door and toss it onto your neighbor's roof. These are the same winds that can fan the tiniest spark into a raging forest fire, threatening towns, and devouring thousands of acres of national forests.

During the monsoon season, which begins in mid-July, siege towers comprised of cumulus clouds attack the earth with lightning bolts, hailstones and bullet-sized raindrops. But Thor and his minions never linger and soon the sky is blue again -- that throbbing, pulsing, ever-deepening blue that no combination of paints or dyes can ever reproduce.

Right now, Los Alamos is experiencing what natives call "the moth Apocalypse." Moths are everywhere -- inside and outside, trapped in cars and houses. My usually lethargic cat has become an ardent hunter, making up in enthusiasm for what she lacks in stealth. I have been assured that these are not the kind of moths that eat your clothes. I don't actually know what kind they are -- Southwest mountain moths, perhaps.

Coyotes out here are substantially bigger than the ones you find elsewhere. Some people speculate that this is because they have mated with dogs (German Shepherds, possibly, or Rottweiler's). That same speculation could also account for why they sometimes travel in packs instead of alone the way coyotes are supposed to.

I met a coyote on the road a couple of nights ago. I was in my car and he had just come up out of the adjacent canyon. Since there were no other cars on the road, I stopped and rolled down my window to get a better look at him. He stood still and stared right back at me without showing the slightest hint of fear. The staring contest went on for about five minutes until the coyote turned and, with casual indifference, sauntered on down the road. His confidence was unmistakable. Clearly he knew the night belonged to him and not to me.

Though I am a long way from being an eco-terrorist, I find it comforting to know that there are still places where homo-sapiens is not in charge. Thus I am inclined to applaud, rather than to resent, the sense of entitlement eloquently conveyed by a lone coyote.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Woke Up This Morning

Woke up this morning. Many songs begin with that phrase:

Woke up this mornin' feelin' blue,
My gut was full of sour mash,
My neurons swam in glue...

Well, maybe not quite that graphic. More romantic probably...

Woke up this mornin' feelin' blue,
Teardrop stains on silken bed sheets,
My only memories of you..

Woke up this morning...When he spent the night with me, my oldest grandson, then age two, would wake up, look out the bedroom window, and exclaim, "It's not dark anymore!"

A miracle. Morning is a miracle. Another day has been given to you. It is a tabula rasa in a sense. You can fill it up with disagreeable chores and the resentful mutterings they generate. Or you can say, "Screw it!" and go hiking out by the lake, filling your day with sunlit ripples, assorted wildflowers and the plaintive cry of a redwing blackbird.

You can go to work and carry on the same old resentments you had yesterday and the day before, or you can create new possibilities for camaraderie.

You can eat the same things you always eat, or you can try a new food.

All this is easy to write, more difficult to carry out. Many of us are comfortable in our little ruts, afraid to jump off the treadmill.

For some of us, life seems to offer little in the way of possibility. Survival demands sameness -- backbreaking work in an eighteen-hour-a-day job, submission to a boss we hate, getting up before dawn, going home after dark. For some of us there is no new day -- just the same day over and over.

Some of us go to bed in pain, wake up in pain, and spend the day managing for our pain.

Some of us wake in a drowsy cucoon only to have it torn brutally apart by the memory of a tragedy that happened a few days before, or maybe even years before, when someone we loved died, or someone abandoned us or we lost our livelihood or the use of our limbs.

Nevertheless, morning is a miracle. The Aztecs knew this; they did not take the sun's return for granted. And, before we jump on the bandwagon to condemn human sacrifice, let us remember that all cultures, in one form or another, demand human sacrifice.

I suspect that, despite the Aztecs' conviction, the sun probably doesn't care if human beings are alive to greet it.

To me, this indifference of the universe to our existence is part of the miracle.

Today I wake up -- an old woman who, in twenty years or so, will probably be dead. My senses, though dulled, still function. They tell me my morning coffee tastes rich and strong. They tell me this Southwestern sky is bluer than blue can ever describe, that cherry trees swell like pink and white cumulous clouds, that the soft sounds of Sunday morning traffic probably mean that people are going to church.

Absurdly, incredibly, a whole new day was given to me...

when I woke up this morning.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


When I think of dancing, I am reminded  of an old Welsh tale in which a man is gifted by the faeries with a harp. It was no ordinary harp, for when the man played upon it, everyone within hearing distance was forced to get up and dance...

and dance... and dance...

Farmers abandoned their plows and danced in the fields. Shepherds cavorted among their flocks. Women left off scrubbing and baking and weaving to leap, stomp and twirl like frenzied dervishes. People danced until their shoes turned to rags and their feet were blistered and raw. Some people fainted from exhaustion. Others dissolved into puddles of perspiration. "Stop!" they pleaded. "Enough now!" they entreated. But the harp playing went on...and on...until one day the faeries in disgust took back their gift.

When the man, whose name was Morgan, lost his harp-playing privileges, all the villagers were greatly relieved -- all that is except for Ariana, the miller's daughter, and she wept copiously and secretly for days on end.

Ariana, you see, like most Welsh villagers had been given a sobriquet which, in her case, was Ari-the-Ungainly because, from the time she could toddle, the poor girl couldn't walk into a room without tripping over the door sill and it was impossible to keep track of the number of spinning wheels she'd knocked over or the number of milk pails she'd upset.  All by accident, of course.

Now, when she came into maturity, Ariana wasn't a bad-looking lass. Except for a bit too much padding about the hips, she had a shapely body and her face was fair with widely-spaced dreamy-looking eyes as blue as cornflowers. Only a rich man could afford to marry her, though, because she broke more things than the average peasant could afford to replace. Eventually a rich man did marry her  but he was twenty years her senior with a face as ugly and full of lumps as the back of a common toad.

Ariana did her best to keep up the image of a devoted wife but late at night and especially when the moon was full and bright, she would steal out of bed and, standing in that cold lunar stream, cry her eyes out over the loss of Morgan's harp.

Because, you see, it was only when Morgan played his harp that Ariana had dared to dance -- well, she couldn't help it now could she? What was truly astonishing though was that Ariana's dancing had not been heavy and clumsy as you might except. There was no stomping on toes, no bumping or tripping or colliding.  In truth, it was only when doing the bidding of Morgan's harp that Ariana had felt completely and effortlessly in control of her movements and at the same time light-hearted and giddy with enchantment.

It Truth be told, it was dancing to Morgan's faery harp that gave the poor girl the only real happiness she'd ever known.

"Oh, come now," you'll say. "Wouldn't the faeries by now have taken pity and sent one of their own to play the magic harp for poor Ariana?"

Well, if that's what you're thinking, you don't know faeries very well. The thoughts and feelings of the Little Folk have evolved on a different plane from ours. Nor do they appreciate humankind for haven't we driven them underground into mountain caves and into the hearts of our darkest forests? When faeries bestow their gifts on humans, it is usually more out of curiosity than in a spirit of pity or generosity.

The single exception to this is human children, especially uncommonly watchful children, the type who keep their own counsel and like to venture off alone. The faeries call such children moon-born and are drawn to them as if they were some lost kin of their own born, by accident, into the human world.

Well, it turns out Ariana and her rich ugly husband (who was given the sobriquet Evan-with-Warts) produced five healthy children -- all boys. Four of them took after their father in most ways but the fifth and last, a boy named Elidorus, was unlike either of his parents with the sole exception that he had his mother's big dreamy-looking blue eyes.

Now, Ariana took great pleasure in her youngest child and the two would spend hours together laughing and whispering while fashioning floral crowns and constructing tiny houses from pebbles, twigs and clumps of moss. And this Ariana could do, though she could never thread a needle without pricking herself or make bread without dropping the dough before ever it reached the oven door.

"You're making a proper sissy of the boy," Ariana's husband always said but Ariana paid him no mind because, by now, Even-with-Warts was too feeble and sickly to wield a stout branch or a leather strap to the backside of an errant child.

Sometimes Elidorus would wander off on his own over the hills and into the forests and be gone for days on end. "Where were you?" his father would croak in a rasping, old man's voice, and his brothers would scowl and repeat louder and more clearly, "Where were you?" Then Elidorus would glance at his mother who would be sitting somewhere out of sight of the others and smiling ever so slightly. "Just over the hills and through the woods," Elidorus would reply casually.

When Elidorus was twelve, his father died and soon after that his two oldest brothers took off on their own to seek their fortune. Then Elidorus himself disappeared. At first, Ariana expected him to return as he always had, smelling of gorse and pine needles and smiling his secretive smile.

But weeks went by, then months, and Elidorus did not return.

"He has made a good supper for the bears and the wolves," his brothers insisted, but Ariana shook her head. "I think not," she said quietly.

Years passed and Ariana's two remaining sons got married and moved away. Ariana spent most of her days in the garden murmuring to herself and braiding twigs and grass blades into crowns and tiaras. On nights when the moon was full, she followed its silver path over the hills and down into the forest, returning the next morning with new lines of sorrow etched into her once comely face.

At last, Ariana grew too old and frail to wander off in the moonlight or even to visit the garden. Mostly she lay in her bed, thinking and dreaming. A loyal servant brought her cups of tea and broth which she sipped occasionally but mostly left untouched.

One night the moon rose bigger and brighter than usual, and Ariana feeling its light upon her, turned toward it as she lay in her bed. "I have lost all that I loved," she thought, "and now I am ready to meet my maker."

As the old woman closed her eyes, she felt a slight touch on her shoulder. "Mother," a soft voice whispered, "Mother, it is Elidorus, your son, come to see you and -- look you! -- I've brought a gift."

Slowly, with painful deliberation, Ariana turned away from the window and toward the voice, scarcely daring to hope -- but yes, there he was, her beloved Elidorus, unchanged since the day he left,  and in his hands was an ornately-fashioned harp, all brilliant with silver light just like the moon's.

"Shall I play for you you, Mother?" the boy asked.

"Yes, please," Ariana whispered.

So the boy, Elidorus, lifted up his hand and stroked and plunked the silver strings and soon Ariana rose up out of her bed, out of her ruined body and danced...

...and danced.