The Albatross And The Vulture

Albatross

What’s it like to float upon misty air?

Way up there upon winds of turbulence,

where your wings tame them, 

as a cowboy does the wild Stallion.

–Dara Reidyr from “On Flying

Four hours ago, I was finishing my iced coffee at the Java Cafe in the Outlet Mall.  Even with the AC, the plastic cup was dripping on the article in the local Fort Myers newspaper.  I was totally absorbed in a breaking story about an 18-year old guy who was arrested for roughing up his girl friend because she refused to go out and buy him some “clean” urine.  He was on probation and he apparently needed to pass a random drug test.  The water drops from my coffee obliterated some of the story, but not the part where he pushed her head and then threw bananas and a metal comb at her.  More wet newsprint.  Then the story ended with his breaking down in the kitchen, crying, and grabbing a carving knife, threatened to kill himself.  It seems that a friend captured the whole thing on a cell phone.

It’s good to have friends.

Now, I was in the pool at the RV Resort where we are staying.  I was leaning back with my head against the rim.  I was intent on getting some exercise one way or another, and since its way too hot to go bicycling, the decision to go to the pool wasn’t hard.  I was doing a peddling motion with my legs and practicing the scissors kick.  Nearby, at the shallow end, there were a dozen seniors doing water exercises.  A woman’s voice was telling them what to do.

“Now, turn around and lift your left leg–that’s right, just like that.”

“Okay, now run in place–do the best you can.”

I looked at each person in the group trying to identify the speaker with the tiny headset microphone.  I couldn’t find her.  She seemed to be joking with someone in the group.  I looked again and still couldn’t find her.  Then I spotted a cable from an outlet.  It led to a small boom-box that was placed on a pool chair.  Everyone was listening to a tape.  But, how could she banter with the group?

I was puzzling over this when I looked directly across the water and noticed that a man was staring at me.  He had on sunglasses, so I couldn’t be sure it was me he was watching.  He looked exactly like Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC.  Same hat.  Same white goatee.  I would have bet my last fiver that it was the Colonel himself.  I didn’t place any bet– there was no one to place it with and besides I remember that Colonel Harland D. Sanders died of leukemia in 1980.

The clouds were slowly thickening.  The forecast called for late afternoon showers.

I looked up.  There, in the pale blue of the sky was a soaring bird.  I looked at its wings.  It wasn’t an eagle–it was a turkey vulture.   Both are built for soaring.  Both are symbols–metaphors to us.  So is the Albatross.TurkeyVulture

I looked over at the seniors who were busy treading water and then back to the turkey vulture, making slow circles above my head.

You do not want to know what goes through my head at times like these.

I’ve always found the Albatross very interesting and enigmatic.  I’ve never seen one in the wild but from photos, they have an outstanding appearance.  But, the poor bird is cursed by being a symbol of  “a burden”.

“Oh, he has to carry that Albatross around his neck–too bad for him”.

We have Samuel Taylor Coleridge to thank for that.  One of my favorite poems is “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  In case you don’t remember your 10th grade English class, a sailor shoots an arrow into the sky and kills an Albatross.  This brings really bad luck to him and his crew.  He is condemned to carrying the dead bird around his neck while the voyage of his ship wanders the seas.

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He is the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three…

Sometimes, I feel like I am like the pitiful sailor–condemned forever to carry the wrongs and sins of my youth around my neck.  It can depress a recovered good Catholic altar boy like me.

AncientMariner

However, there are many times in my life that I’ve felt more like the Albatross and not the archer/sailor who killed without thinking.  These great birds (some with a wing span of twelve feet) are designed to soar–to ride the thermals–for unbelievable lengths of time.  Some say that these birds can go weeks (or longer) without landing.  They eat by swooping and catching the unfortunate fish who came too close to the surface.  They don’t need much food because they don’t expend much energy.  Their wings are engineered by nature to lock in place.  When you watch a skein of migrating geese, they flap their way from horizon to horizon.  The Albatross hardly ever uses its wings, except to stay aloft.

It has also been said that they only land to rest briefly, on a calm portion of ocean.  And, more importantly, they need to alight on a solid surface to find a mate and procreate.  The Albatross generally mates for life.

But, to soar above it all–only coming to the ground when necessary–seems like an amazing way to spend a life.  I feel the need to wander, sometimes far from home (like Florida), but I’m held by gravity to the surface of the earth.  Yes, I can take American Airlines to Puerto Rico, if I choose, but you get my point.

To soar above the aches and pains and heartbreak of life–to dream with your eyes open–of faraway lands and people who fill this world.  To soar and day-dream about the minute life below me and the sky, so blue and intense, above me, is enviable.  I would make an extra circle high above that red-haired woman who is crying on the empty beach.  I would make two extra circles around the Eiffel Tower and hear the cries of the Parisians.  I would soar above the lonely man, broken by war, meandering a boardwalk and thinking of ending his life.

But, I would make sure that I soared low enough so that the dim eyes of an old person could see me.  I would soar slow enough so the children, playing in the fields, would stop and point at me.

All this I would do, If I had the wings of an Albatross.  I wonder if that is what death is like–we can soar around the heads of the loved ones left behind?

All this I would do, even knowing that I would never be totally unencumbered and without the dreams that live in the living.

Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

–Bob Dylan

[Images: Google search]

I Was a Teenage Blogger

DepressedTeen

 

The road to perdition is paved with little things.

My own dark and tragic personal story begins with little pieces of paper.  Not small bits the size of confetti that are thrown out of windows on lower Broadway during “ticker-tape” parades.  No, larger slips white or yellow ripped from notebooks, steno pads and the backsides of shopping lists…once the items are ticked off.  I have even been desperate enough to use flattened toilet paper tubes.  These are hard to use unless you have a dark pen because penciled words are difficult to read on cheap cardboard.

Besides, they don’t use ticker tape machines on Wall Street anymore, haven’t for decades.  They just use baskets of shredded documents that probably contain incriminating evidence of fraud and widespread corruption.  Once, that is used up, say during a parade of returning astronauts from Mars or the unlikely event the Mets ever win the World Series, they probably have a warehouse full of illegal aliens, working for a fraction of the minimum wage, punching out thousands of chads from discarded voter registration forms or racing forms from Hialeah.

What was this insatiable need of mine to possess these small scraps of paper?  In a word…words.  I have this uncontrollable urge to write down my every thought, however mundane, goofy or obscene.  I started by keeping these notes in used large mailing envelopes from places like the Publishers Clearing House or the IRS.  Anything would do.  Old letter envelopes, the contents of which I would toss away, only to get to the blank, whiteness of the backside.  Soon, I had shoe boxes full of these bits of my writing.  When I wrote something really interesting (which, to me, was everything), I would stash the papers under my mattress.  I did this while most boys my age were using that sacred place to hide copies of Playboy or, better yet, National Geographic (the Holy Grail, of which is the much coveted October, 1953 issue with the article “The Native Women of Tongatapu Island”).

This accumulation of my thoughts and ideas began to grow to uncontrollable dimensions.  I was running out of hiding places.

That was when it occurred to me that these gems of wisdom were really not for my eyes only.  No, the world needed to see them.  So, I began to paste these scraps onto the walls of men’s rooms and construction site walls and car repair shops.  When the mechanic was bent over to check my parents oil level, I would attach one or two of my paragraphs to the wall behind the quarts of Quaker State motor oil, close to the STP cans and the Valvoline.  Someone would read them.

I was even bold enough to sign my first name because I was proud of these short articles.

But, it didn’t stop there.  As I grew into an older teenager, I began to tell stories and not just relate my thoughts.  I was actually writing fiction, like Dickens or, later, William F. Buckley.

My fame grew.  I would walk past a bus stop and there would be small groups of people reading one of my written pieces, but that was never enough.  I had to have more.  More attention.  More glory.  More places to paste my posts.

I was getting desperate.  Only the people of the mid-sized city in the mid-west where I lived knew anything about me or the things I felt the urge to share.  Once I was nearly arrested for hanging around the soccer field of an all-female private school and opening my trench coat showing my posts super-glued to my hoodie.  This was during goalie tryouts.

Then, the techno-miracle happened.  The Internet was invented.  K-Marts began carrying personal computers.  The need to own them began to spread like swine-flu virus throughout the world.  I purchased, at no small cost, an IBM desktop.  Social networking companies began to flourish.  I set up an account with AOL and was able to send out my writings to the dozens of friends.  My network grew and soon I had several million followers.  But I was always struggling to comprehend the language of the IBM.  They were calling it a “PC”.

Then, faster than you can say Steve Jobs, an alternate universe opened up for me.  I dropped my PC faster than a high-end prostitute would do once she found out you could only afford to buy her a Miller Lite.  I bought an apple, chewed things over in my mind a few minutes, and ordered a MacIntosh.  Now I was cooking with real olive oil.

Those who understand these things and control them, began calling the posts that people were sending out, “blogs”, which I felt was odd indeed.  The very sound of the term conjured up images of “black” and “fog” or “smog”.  Dark imagery for sure.

But still, I could never get enough.  Sending photographs became possible on something some kid started called Facebook.  I began posting pictures of flower pots and kittens but felt that was going to go out of style before I could grab an audience.  I backed away from dogs and cats in creepy sleeping positions on plastic sofas and started writing more.  (I had a moment of self-doubt when, after I posted a blog that I considered a profound meditation on the eternal struggle of human inequality,  I only got 17 “likes”.  A day later, some woman from Toledo posted a photo of her potted petunia and got 1,355 “likes”.)

That self-doubt began to take over my life.  Was anyone reading my stuff?  My Twitter followers remained at a constant number of 32 for months.  I got desperate and began a long slide down to the gutter, literally.

I pawned my iMac and took a cheap room over the Hi Ho Motel along state route 47 outside of Dayton.  The motel was just across the street from Ron Stokowski’s Girlie Galore Gentlemen’s Club.  The flashing red neon sign below the owner’s name read: HOME OF THE ORIGINAL POLE DANCERS!

Friends, the few I had, would stop by to see if I needed anything.  The kitchen trash was filled with empty bottles of Night Train Express and cheap tequila.  On the little night stand next to my bed was a half-empty fifth of Jim Beam and a crumpled pack of Chesterfield’s.

I had hit rock bottom.  The only lower place for me was the first floor.  That would be the motel lobby.  Outside the lobby was the street…the street of broken dreams…the street of red lights, cheap wine and even cheaper women.  I didn’t have enough money in my pocket to afford a shot of penicillin at the local clinic.

It was raining hard the night I began to think of the railroad trestle about a mile out-of-town.  I put my trench coat on, ready for the short final walk to last stop junction…when Pinkie walked into my room.  I called her Pinkie because she wore hot pink nail polish on the nine fingers of her hands.  The hue matched her lips and eyeshadow (and her hair and tattoo and 6 inch stilettos).

“Look at you,” she said, glancing around.  “Where’s your laptop?”

I pointed to the little table with the steno pad and BIC pen.

“Hey, big guy, Mr. Steinbeck…I’m talkin’ to you.  This ain’t the way its supposed to end.  Not for a guy with talent like you got.”

I stared at her two-inch lashes.

She poured a hefty hit of Jim Beam into a plastic tumbler with a Betty Boop logo on the side, in full color.

“Take this and get a grip.”

I put the mouthful away in one swallow.

“Now, get out there.  Get back into it, big guy.  You can do it.  You got the stuff.  I was down there too, once.  Lower than low. But look at me now.  I’m a regular dancer again.  That’s cause I got the stuff, just like you got the stuff”.

I began to wonder what stuff she was talking about, but I got her drift.  She was right.  I was too young to consider myself a failure…there would be plenty of time for that when I reached my sixties.

It had stopped raining.  There was a heavy fog, like a blanket, covering the suburbs of Dayton.  I stopped under a street lamp with my trench coat draped over my shoulder.  I took off my fedora and waved at Pinkie, who was standing on the balcony of the place I once called home.

I went back to the pawn shop.  The iMac was gone!  So, I took what they had.  I walked out with a Dell.  Life doesn’t get any meaner.  Soon, I was staying in a Ramada in Bayonne, but staring at an empty computer screen.

Maybe I had wasted my youth, my good ideas, my so-called talent too soon.  Too soon and too fast.  They say you were born with only so many blogs in your heart.  My heart was empty.

I walked into the church basement with my head held high.  When my turn came, I calmly walked to the music stand that was being used as a podium.

“Hi, everyone.  My name is Patrick and I’m a blogger.”

 

Travels 10: The Good, The Sad and the Ugly

Venus goddess of love that you are.  Surely the things I ask can’t be too great a task.

–Frankie Avalon

I’ve just walked to the hedge of cedars and watched the sunset.  As usual, Venus is the evening star…leading us westward…like something Biblical.  Our clocks are set to Pacific Time.  We’ve crossed the Great Divide.  We’re camping for the final night in the center of Washington State, in the Columbia Basin (some might say The Palouse).  This is more prairie-like than much of what we drove through in Iowa and Nebraska.  There’s little out here.  Hardly even a grain silo.  It’s lonely and it’s empty.  At least for some people like us who drive, gas up and drive on.

In one sense, our journey is over.  But only the first half.  If you, reader, have enjoyed my posts, I’m happy.  If you didn’t, I’m not so happy.  What I’m really happy about now is getting out of the car for a week or so, or sleeping somewhere different from the tiny space we’ve been using.  No, it’s to hold my grandson, Elias…hug my daughter, Erin and embrace my son-in-law, Bob.  And not doing this after being picked up at the Sea-Tac Airport.  I also wanted to do this under my own steam as it were.

What did I see?  What did I learn?  What was the sum of my experiences thus far?  Remember, I still have to drive back home…more posts from different places.

I met people who didn’t care where you came from…they saw only fellow travelers.  I’ll always be grateful to the man who got us out of a serious jam (and I mean jam) in Stroudsburg, PA.  I felt somehow connected with a drifter only a few days along on the highway.  The wind on the plains blew me off my feet.  The rain fell like a monsoon in Valentine, Nebraska.  A pretty blue-eyed woman struck up a conservation in a town she probably never left, growing up in a house under trees that sheltered her from the intense heat and glare of the rolling prairie.  I was caught by an early winter snowstorm in Bozeman, MT and was forced to stay an extra night.  Next to a spa that had nine heated pools.  I simply had to spend hours in those pools waiting for the snow to stop.

I was locked out of the greatest National Parks of the west.  I couldn’t show Mariam Old Faithful.  The Grand Tetons.  The awesome National Forests…all closed due to the insane demands of the Tea Party.  (That was the ugly part…that was my karmic luck to be out here when the “Shutdown” happened.

Just today I met a young woman.  She ran the register at a gas station in the middle of a gentle pasture that went on for a thousand miles.  She was ebullient.  But she had many reasons not to be.  We spoke.  She had three children she can’t see.  She had been in three psychiatric institutes after three suicide attempts.  She had bad, really bad luck with men.  Yet, she laughed and smiled and spoke freely of her troubles.  (Her main man now was Jesus).  I’m not much of a praying guy, but I muttered a prayer for her continued joy in her otherwise joyless world.

Today, the last full day of driving, I saw three mounted cowboys a half-mile from the Interstate.  They were rounding up about fifty head of cattle.  If I ever come through these parts again, I hope their sons and daughters are still in the saddle.

I have no illusions about this trip.  It was too fast.  I didn’t see everything and talk to everyone.  And I didn’t do what a million others have done before me.  Sitting for hours in a car made my leg as painful as I can remember, but I would do it all over again.

This is one amazing, large and wonderful country I was lucky enough to be born in.  I’m not saying America is the fairest and most just land on the planet, but we’ve all tried, haven’t we?  Lewis & Clark wouldn’t know a Red State from a Blue State..but they had formidable courage to explore.

Let’s not stop exploring.  Let’s not lose sight of that Evening Star…the goddess of love.

Something of a photo gallery:

I’m no herpetologist, but I’m pretty sure this is a rattlesnake:

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Some forgotten rancher broke sod with this:

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Seen alongside the highway.  Lost?  Forgotten?  Thrown out?  The tiny photo on the right ear piece…the owner or a logo?

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The obligatory sunset picture:

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Happy Trails, friends…and now to watch a Grade B Cowboy Movie “Massacre Time.”