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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Existential River

by Daniel W. Weinrich

“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”

The headlines today told of how somebody went missing in the Snake River. I’m not sure if there was alcohol involved, but there’s a damn good likelihood someone was stewed to the gills when they hit the water and sank to the bottom. The message gets repeated. “Don’t drink and boat, or don’t drink and swim, or don’t drink and drive and so on.” In spite of the warning, people still decide to take nasty risks.
A few years ago, a guy I knew, a drinker and a non-swimmer, climbed on a rubber raft to float the frigid water of the Snake River with four other people. Ready for the party, they also dragged along two ice chests full of beer. Oh, and no life vests.  
I can hear them now: “Life vests are for pussies.”
A beer fell off the raft and my friend dived in after it.
Fast forward twelve hours when search and rescue dragged the river for his body.
Here’s something: Instead of having to pull old dental records to identify his body, he owned one distinguishing mark. “Existentialist” was tattooed in big block letters on his back.
“Existentialists” are people who believe they are solely responsible for creating the meaning of their existence. This belief system suggests that personal essence is flexible up to the terminal point of death. No one can define what kind of person you are until all the votes are in and your potential is exhausted. If you have been a bad person for most of your life, at the last moment you can redeem yourself, repent or do something heroic. Up to our very last breath, we have the potential for determining our role in history.
 Anyway, two days after the existentialist drowned, they found his body wedged in a head gate several miles from where he’d dived in to save the beer.
“Is that him?” I imagine a searcher asking.
“Not sure,” another one says.
“Roll him over.”
“What’s does that say on his back?”
“Exist, Exist-ential-ist…something like that. That’s a big word to have tattooed on your back. I’ll bet that cost a pretty penny. Maybe he should’ve spent the money on a life vest.”
 Rather than the cost of his tattoo, I wonder about the horror of dying from the lack of oxygen. That’s got to be such a bad way to go, struggling like mad to find sustenance where there isn’t any. And really, that’s the heart of the existential concept, trying to find meaning where there might not be any at all.

When I was younger I went on a search for meaning in Asia and I discovered how to survive under water. I spent time in Phuket, Thailand learning to scuba dive. The dive shop was later demolished by the Tsunami of 04. Some of the people who taught me how to survive in the depths probably died from all that water. The thoughts of them drowning keep me up at night.
Looking back, I have a history with water running amuck and destroying property and killing folks. While I was in high school, the Teton Dam collapsed and flooded the Snake River Valley, ruining good stuff and killing lots of animals and a few people. After the devastation my friend, Boyd, and I volunteered to help clean up in Rexburg and Sugar City.
Boyd has a dry sense of humor. He makes hilarious observations and never cracks a smile. Recently I cruised to the old neighborhood where we grew up. We used to swim and float in the irrigation canals and were forever getting yelled at by farmers. They didn’t want us drowning in their ditches. “That’s what swimming pools are for,” they would shout.
I stopped over at Boyd’s house. While we were talking he picked up his son’s box turtle and dropped the softball-sized creature into the full wading pool. The turtle sank like a rock, settled on the plastic bottom and started walking as if oblivious to the change of environment. Little bubbles wandered to the surface.
“Do you know what he’s thinking?” Boyd said.
“Not a clue,” I said.
“He’s thinking, ‘where did all the air go?’”
I laughed. The turtle motored along under the water, looking side to side on a leisurely stroll and patiently searching for whatever was missing. I rescued the pet, put him back on the grass where he didn’t miss a beat and walked into a world full of air.
Boyd’s life is similar to the turtle’s experience. His world has changed. My deadpan friend has a serious medical condition. His career as a policeman and DARE officer is finished. Doctors suspected a stroke, but tests didn’t indicate that conclusion. The results of the medical and psychological examinations indicate a problem with his thinking since he occasionally makes wacky decisions. There appears to be a lack of oxygen or a lack of something that occasionally chokes out his rational thoughts.
Boyd’s supposed to stay home and collect disability checks. Some people might see that situation as a windfall. He doesn’t. I don’t either. We want more meaning. We’ve always talked about living a full and complete life where people remember us as being kind and generous. Being remembered for living off the system’s charity feels like the legacy of a parasite. He hates that idea.
Here’s a little good news for Boyd’s life change from police officer to retired citizen lacking oxygen: Instead of hanging with the criminal element and teaching students about the evils of drugs and alcohol he now gets to spend quality time with his kids and grandkids. That’s a nice thing he’s looking forward to.
We need that. Something to brighten our lives so we aren’t overwhelmed by the array of tests and challenges life can serve up. Boyd’s situation leaves me thinking about a quotation from Fredrick Nietzsche, who died from a brain problem, the advanced venereal disease called “tertiary syphilis.” I doubt he died with anything tattooed on his body, although “Existentialist” in capital letters would’ve been quite appropriate.

“They played by the sea, and a wave came and carried off their toy to the depths: now they are crying. But the same wave shall bring them new toys and shower new colorful shells before them. Thus they will be comforted; and like them you too, my friends, shall have your comfortings—and new colorful shells.”
I like the image of that rhythm Nietzsche describes, the waves moving in and moving out, taking and giving. Human beings can learn how to appreciate what is in front of them and not be resentful when predictably our toys are dragged off to the depths, which is pretty easy to preach and extremely difficult to implement.
How do you explain to the mother who lost her son to the river, or to the mother losing her son to some brain disease, not to have resentment or other negative feelings about the workings of the universe? This is the certainty of the past. The universe predictably removes things we value and replaces other things that aren’t always as attractive or functional. And people want to know why we lose good things. People want to know the punch line before the joke is over. What does this all mean? And the answer is? You can’t peek. You have to wait for the ending.

A college friend offered a novel answer to the existential question. We were hunting jackrabbits near Hamer when the topic of life’s meaning came up. A freak-of-nature explosion of the rabbit population caused millions of rabbits to eat everything edible in Hamer’s farming community. The frontage roads were covered in bloody gore from all the varmints attempting to cross the asphalt. My buddy Eric said, “Why do you think rabbits go to the road to die?”
We laughed with gallows humor. The question is pretty ironic if you think about it. All those dead rabbits on the frontage road either were victims of multiple accidents or, according to Eric, responding to an unconscious choice created through instinct.
“Like salmon swimming up river to spawn or birds flying south for the winter, maybe jack rabbits go to the road to die.”
Eric, the potato farmer, expanded on his theory of eternal life: “If all roads lead to death, then no roads would lead to immortality. Without roads to die on, the jackrabbits could live forever. Avoid those things that kill you and you might live longer. Tell people to avoid roads, go back to the woods and deserts and sea-sides and see what happens.”
That’s a silly notion with some profundity. We have the capacity to avoid things that might kill us. There is a ton of academic and medical research telling humans to stay away everything from food additives to iPhones. Our parents and our public service announcements tell us to be careful and not take unnecessary risks. Don’t eat paint chips, avoid exposure to radiation, wear sunblock, use a helmet, put on a damn life jacket, don’t use intoxicants and engage in dangerous activities. Even with that there’s no promise of living forever. From my experience, eventually time sneaks up on you and defines you.  
None of the jackrabbits we hunted in Hamer appeared to live forever. Statistically rabbits that didn’t get run over or shot or poisoned were allowed to starve to death over the long winter. Eric offered this summary. “Death is death, whether injected by lead poison or delivered via lack of nutrition.”
The end is the end. At least that’s how as college students we justified taking the lives of rabbits in the desert. “They were gonna die anyway.” In spite of Eric’s theory of immortality, all the evidence suggests we are all destined to die.
Shooting at a million jackrabbits spoke more to the thrill of camaraderie than some morbid fascination with death. Some of my college chums drank beer while handling firearms. One of them took shrapnel to the face that left a permanent scar under his eye. There’s another example of survival skills given to human beings lacking common sense. “Mindless Youth,” should have been tattooed on our backs. Whether you fall into the Snake River or get hit by a bullet intended for a jackrabbit, you end up completed. Defined for eternity in the local paper.

I spend time reading obituaries in the Post Register and often assume between the lines of those who died after combating a “life-long illness.” The life-long illness creating all this suffering is life, of course. Life is an illness for some people. Existentialists would say human beings “decide” to live in misery. They believe human beings enduring the most horrific conditions can develop positive meaning in their suffering. “It’s not the kind of disease the man has; it’s the kind of man that has the disease.”
That’s a quotation I like. I also like this one: “Life is terminal.” Or better yet: “I have one less thing to worry about. I know I’m not gonna die young.”
I’m at the point in my existence where death is happening more frequently and moving ever closer to me. My mom has failing health. Dad is gone. My buddy’s father is waiting for death. “He’s just tired of being in pain.” Pain without relief might encourage folks to give up. Morphine agitates him and makes him crazy. The pain puts him into a life of unbearable torture and no narcotic can knock out the agony. He just wants it over. He wants the process of aging arrested. He wants to pull a “Freud.”
Sigmund Freud killed himself in addicted approximations with cigars and cocaine. In his final moments he requested a lethal injection of morphine to complete his essence.
             Unlike Freud my current goal is to grow old well and die naturally, if that’s possible. I’ve lived with the delusion that I wouldn’t get old when that’s not the case. Time ticks by, my hair grows thin and gray and my offspring are young and vital as I once was. Look at my cohorts from Ammon. Look at the folks I went to high school with, or attended college with. They look old. Real old.  
Not surprisingly, certainly they are making the same judgment of me. In spite of my stout belief in personal agelessness, people from my past must see me rambling around a Home Depot looking for paint or weed killer and think, “Damn, he’s getting old.”
In the blink of an eye I’m no longer the boy running through the potato fields, climbing barbed wire fences into pastures, jumping over ditches, navigating a trail through the foothills to the succulent apples and plums in the Smith’s orchards. I’m the old man sitting on my back deck watching the kids trudging through the fields and thinking, “I’ll bet those kids are up to no good.” I inhibit myself not to yell at them or to warn them or somehow intrude on their day.
I want to shout: “Watch out climbing the fence that you don’t bust it down or get cut on the barbed wire. Be careful in the big ditch, there are some deep and swift spots.” Or maybe I could warn them: “Look out, you’re gonna get old just like me and that can be scary.” Even though I can argue either side of youth or age when it comes to scariness, I often prefer those summer days, those carefree goal-directed moments when a group of young boys searched for pop bottles to exchange for candy at Kelly’s market or hiked miles for a green apple or floated the ditch in old hot black inner tubes. We gulped water from garden hoses and rested in the shade of ancient trees in afternoons lasting forever.
So I could yell from my deck overlooking the Ammon fields irrigated with muddy canals, “Love these days! Love these beautiful meaningful days!”
The kids would probably remember the grumpy old guy who used to yell crazy things at them while they explored the wilderness around their homes. I hope they would remember me screaming about the love of life and the preciousness of each moment.
Mostly I hope they learn to appreciate the roaring of destiny, the giving and the taking waves that wash over us all.

Daniel W. Weinrich received his Bachelor and Master degrees in Experimental Psychology from Idaho State University many moons ago. He spent a few years in Japan studying the marital arts and seeking enlightenment. Later he did a stint at the University of Utah in Counseling Psychology while working in Salt Lake County for the Substance Abuse Division. While living in Idaho Falls, he’s worked in the public and private sectors dealing with issues related to addiction and mental illness. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Idaho in Adult and Organization Learning, doing his research on addiction. He currently works for the Idaho National Labs as an employee assistance counselor. He has been the Clinical Supervisor at the Addiction Rehabilitation Association for ten years and is involved in the Drug Courts. He has several writing awards for his novels, short stories and poetry. Dan enjoys being with his family, writing, snowboarding, testing prototype parkboards and collecting Godzilla toys. His family enjoys avoiding him.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Night Watch

by Paul Pekin

        I'm no good at political arguments, one side always right, the other always wrong. The current uproar over police shootings finds me outside my comfort zone, finds me disagreeing with very good friends. "I'd like to see," I told someone I very much like and hardly want to quarrel with, "I'd like to see Jon Stewart make a traffic stop on a dark lonely road, walk up to the driver's window, and make that arrest."
        "That's not what we’re saying," she replied, with some heat. Of course there were good police officers, and no one was blaming them, she acknowledged. It was just that …
        My side of the argument was lost before I could find words for it. Could this be because, after many years and many jobs, I finished my working life as police officer? Not something I ever planned on doing, but a man needs work, health insurance, a shot at a pension, and sometimes you take what is out there. Life, you know, happens.
        So I stay out of these arguments. They bring me back to the days when I drove a beat, wore a uniform, carried a weapon, and was expected to routinely do things I never, in all my life, planned on doing. Such arguments feel personal to me.
        Instead of making an argument, let me tell you a little story. Imagine me, a man in his fifties, finding himself working for the county forest preserve police, a small department, but police all the same. Guns, squad cars, uniforms, radios, all the stuff that sets you apart from the rest of the citizenry. Walk into a Burger King on River Road at nine pm and you will be seen not as a person, but as a cop. And, as a cop you will, almost certainly, take a seat facing the door, because you never know who might come walking through it.
        When I drove these late shifts, I was always alone. It was my job to lock up the forest preserve gates and see that no one came into the woods after hours. If it had been up to me, this sunset to sunrise rule might have been a bit different, but it wasn't up to me, just as it wasn't up to me to decide how fast people could drive, or where they could park. I locked up the gates, I chased people out, and I arrested those who were up to mischief, mischief mostly being large bonfire parties involving teenagers and alcohol, parties I would have gone to myself when I was a teenager.
        The night I almost shot the kid happened in this context. I'd already closed all my gates. It took hours to do that. And now I was just driving from one grove to another, looking for a little action. Yes, I did look for people to arrest. The nights were long and tedious, and time passed so much faster when I was processing a drunk driver or, more likely, chasing a gang of kids out of a picnic shelter.
        That night there was someone in the shelter at Davis Woods. When I pulled into the parking turnaround, planning on killing a few minutes going over my reports, I heard what sounded like firewood being broken in the shelter. It seemed odd because I could see no fire, nor could I smell smoke. But this particular shelter, a stone structure built back in the WPA days, was distant from the road and surrounded by trees, which made it popular with certain people. It was a place I kept a watch on.
        But the last place on earth where I thought someone would point a gun at me.
        I got out of my squad-car, locked it, and started down the path, flashlight in one hand, baton in the other. The moon was out, I could see pretty well, and my flashlight was turned off. If it turned out someone worth arresting was waiting for me to arrest him, well, I didn't want to scare him off.
        What seemed odd was there was no sign of a fire in the fireplace. So what was that cracking sound I had heard? As soon as I stepped off the path and onto the concrete walk, I switched on my light, one of those long black police flashlights with about eight batteries, very bright, and also very heavy in case of a fight.
        Instantly I caught a figure in the beam, a male who spun around before I could identify myself and, using a two hand grip, aimed a pistol directly at my face. I'm dead, I thought. My own weapon was safe in its leather and no way to get it since my hands were already full, one with my flashlight, the other with my baton, "Police," I shouted, pointing that metal baton at him, exactly as if it were a gun. "Put that down or I will blow your head off!" I may have used the f-word as an intensifier. In certain situations, a wise cop will try to sound a little fiercer than he actually is.
        This is a story I have told many times, and the next line always is, "It took me and that kid almost fifteen minutes to find his gun, that's how far he threw it." Then I explain it wasn't a real firearm, just a pellet gun, not quite a toy, for no one in his right mind would want to take a pellet to the forehead, but still, not a real firearm, nor did it even look all that real once we had found it.
        The kid, and now I saw he was only sixteen at the most, had been playing "war" with his buddy (who, I suppose, was still running). They had been shooting at each other with these pellet guns and when I arrived with my flashlight, quite naturally he had mistaken me for his antagonist.
        "Don't you know you can put an eye out with one of those things," I said. I couldn't resist a little joke. Meanwhile, I was thanking all the gods that protect the police that I had been reckless enough to approach that shelter with my baton in my right hand, and not my loaded Smith and Wesson.
        I wrote the kid a ticket and confiscated his pellet gun. We met again about a month later in court. I never expected to see him there because these personal recognizance tickets we gave out were little more than invitations. But there he was, and my favorite judge, the one who tossed out so many of my tickets, was in charge. This isn't going to go well, I thought. This judge had never looked favorably upon me or my fellow officers. He seemed to think cops wrote tickets just for the fun of it and routinely lied in court. But this time, fingering the kid's pellet gun (offered in evidence) he got it. And delivered a very well put lecture to that kid. "You can thank this officer for your life," he said. And the kid did. No further penalty was necessary.
        I suppose the point of this story should be obvious. When the talk turns to "police shootings," I think first of myself, and there is no way this cannot be. So I back away. I say, yeah, that cop shouldn't have used the choke hold, shouldn't have fired the extra shot, shouldn't have done whatever they say he did. I leave unsaid the way it feels to get out of a squad car and walk toward the unknown, and why a person would do it.
        I could have killed that kid. I think that.
        And if he had been something more serious than a kid with a pellet gun, who knows what he might have done with me.

Born in 1928, Paul Pekin currently draws a pension from the Cook Count Forest Preserve Police, the last of a succession of jobs that included teaching Fiction Writing at Columbia College of Chicago, English Composition at the School of the Arts Institute, owning a little mom and pop store on Diversey Avenue, and working as a letterpress printer back in the days when there was such a thing.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kitchen Elegy

by Jean Ryan

I need to write a cook book, a friend has told me. By this she does not mean recipes, she means secrets. The kind only cooks know.

We worked for the same catering company, this woman and I, and she wants me to tell our story, to tell the story of all cooks. She wants me to lay bare the work we did so that someone might acknowledge it.

I understand this. I spent sixteen years as a line cook and four years as a caterer, and when I finally left the cooking profession, scarred and exhausted, no one noticed. After two decades of hard labor, I wanted to see some mention of it: a note in the local paper, a plaque with my name newly etched. All those thousands of mouths I fed—didn’t they add up to anything? They did not. Like a plate of food, I was there and gone.

Line cooking is a sort of magic act. Before you are eight sauté pans, smoking and bubbling, and a grill loaded with meat and fish in various stages of readiness, and somehow, amid the firing of orders, you are delivering every one of these dishes in the right combination at the right time. You have no idea how you’re doing this; you’re moving too fast for thought. Suddenly a cowering server appears. He has dropped a plate and needs a re-fire. For a second you look at him without comprehension, and then a murderous rage floods your body. Your tickets have turned into a blizzard. You will not find your way back.

I still have cooking nightmares, endless dreams in which I can’t get my food from the stove to the warming lamps. There is a white scar across my knuckles, a wound from the blade of a food processor. My forearms are blemished with old burns, most of them from oven racks. I can point to each one and tell you which kitchen it came from.

And then there were the other accidents. Walk-ins gone warm. Hours lost replacing a ruined soup or looking for Band-Aids swallowed in bread dough. Never a lax moment in the cooking arena. I recall the day I pulled on one of those giant oven mitts and felt something fast and urgent streak down my arm. I screamed and flung the mitt across the kitchen, and the mouse it had harbored scurried under the sink. I couldn’t blame the little guy—it had been a cold night.

While restaurants are riddled with trouble, catering can be even more dicey: the terrain is unfamiliar and access can be difficult. Once inside these grand homes, you have to figure out how all the high-tech kitchen gadgets work; it’s no good asking the trophy wife—she’s never spent time in that room. The most dreaded disaster is food shortage: one of your ten fruit tarts gets crushed on the journey, or a waiter breaks a wine glass near your mashed potatoes and destroys the entire dish. I don’t think people appreciate the scope of catering: how you have to prepare the food, then load it into a van, then unload and cook it and serve it, and then wash all the dishes, all the pots and pans, all the forks and plates, every water goblet, wine glass, coffee cup and brandy snifter. And god forbid you should break anything.

While I was still working in restaurants, I often escaped into the walk-in, the only place a cook can scream. Sometimes I went outside, sat on an overturned bucket and just let my body tremble. One evening a rat emerged from a dumpster a few feet away and paused to study me, his black eyes bright and questioning. Comrade, I thought, looking back at him with tenderness.

Oh, there were high times, too—I wouldn’t have lasted without them. Magnificent victories. Indulgence. Hilarity. Cooks play as hard as they work. This is the bargain, the immutable law.
In the end, it wasn’t the cuts and burns that made me hang up my apron. Nor was it the work—I figure my body could have lasted another ten years at least. It was the incidentals that finally undid me, the avocado under my fingernails, the veal stock that wafted from my clothes and hair. I was sick of the whole soggy mess: the bloody bar towels, the greasy stove vents, the mountains of innocent carcasses. That’s what began to bother me most, the doomed innocent.

Very early one morning I was in a kitchen fileting salmon when I heard the unmistakable cheeping of a mouse in distress. My heart sinking, I went on a search and found the poor thing under the stove, stuck to one of those horrible glue traps. I tried to pull him off, but it was no use. Drowning, I thought, would be the least violent way to go, so I filled a bucket with warm water—it seemed kinder than cold—and slid the creature in. I turned away, unable to watch, and when I looked back a few seconds later, he was freed of the trap and swimming circles at the surface—the warm water had dissolved the glue! I cupped him in my hands and carried him out to the garden. Not long after that, I freed myself.

I’m employed at a plant nursery now, a gentle job that leaves no blood on my hands. Having traded my chef’s knife for a pair of bypass pruners, I’m happy trimming shrubs instead of meat, deadheading flowers as opposed to fish. Even if I wanted to return to those trenches, I no longer have what it takes.

Before enlisting in a cooking career, one might first consider the lexicon. Cooks work at stations “on the line” and orders are “fired.” Microwaved foods are “nuked,” well-done dishes are “killed,” food picked up late is “dead.” “Buried” is probably the most evocative term. This is what happens when a cook loses track of her orders, when the long row of tickets in front of her face no longer makes any sense. This affliction can strike at any time and there is nothing a cook fears more. Response is swift. The stunned soldier is shoved off the line and someone more fit for duty takes over.

Last week I dined at a posh Napa valley restaurant with an exhibition kitchen. I eyed the cooks with sympathy, remembering when this trend began, how much we resented being on display. Watching my kin in their natural habitat, their heads down, their arms in constant motion, I felt a surge of solidarity. I wanted to make eye contact, to show my support, but I knew they couldn’t risk it.

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Blue Lake Review. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. Please visit her website at: