Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Mid October is not the usual time to see shore birds in Alberta. I was at the pond to look for muskrats and to see how many ducks were still hanging around. The geese were abundant and there were Lessor Scaup, Common Goldeneye, and Mallards. No muskrat.

However as I picked my way through the thistle and willow beside the pond I spotted something move among the shore reeds along the shaded side of a tiny spit of land that jutted into the pond. I brought my binoculars up and saw the snipe. I was about 100 feet away and could only tell by the shape, size, and the straight long bill.

I set up the tripod, took some pictures and then moved 10 feet closer. I kept taking photos and moving closer until I was about 20 feet from the snipe with the sun behind me. The snipe prefered to feed in the shade and this was one of the few sun shots the bird allowed me. I continued to move up and got within about 15 feet but by then the bird was camoflauged in some red brown reeds that seemed to match his feathers pretty precisely and the few shots I took at this distance showed a two dimensional bird.

I've seen more snipes in Alberta sitting on fence and telephone posts than on the ground. I've never heard the winnowing sound the birds make in the spring. They fly to about 350 feet and dive fast enough (about 25 to 50 mph) to make their outer tail feathers vibrate with a sound that is apparently like that of a reed instrument.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A string of tiny black balls.

The mid-afternoon sun in the back yard looked attractive and I decided to read outside. The clear sunny sky suggested the need for shade and I decided to unfurl the umbrella at the patio table. With my chair strategically placed to offer my back to the warm sunlight but my book to the shade, I sat down to read Mosquito Coast, the Theroux story about a family driven to the brink of destruction by a brilliant but socially dysfunctional father. I only had a few more chapters to read.

I settled into the chair and reached for the book, which I had placed on the table only a few moments before. Beside the book was a string of tiny poop balls, three in all, each black and not more than 2 mm in diameter.

Not bird poop, I thought, as I brushed it off the table.

I opened the book and read for awhile. The characters were in sweltering jungle heat and I was soon thirsty enough to reach for the water I'd brought with me. When I reached for the glass I saw a string of three tiny poop balls on the table.

Must not have brushed it away, I thought, and I brushed the poop away, but with more authority.

What made that poop, I wondered? There was a chipmunk in the yard, but this poop was too tiny.

Looks more like a mouse, I thought as I picked the book back up.

The neurotic father had just about killed his entire family when his make-ice-from-fire invention exploded. The whole book was like that. The family reeled from one father-created disaster to another. The inhospitable jungle he had moved them to was filled with all manner of treacherous insects, amphibians, reptiles, and animals. As I reached again for the glass of water, I was thinking about how lucky I was to live in Alberta where creepy crawly things weren't common.

Two stings of poop were lying on the table, side by side, as if to mock my previous efforts.

The sudden realization that there was something alive above me and that that unknown something was literally shitting on me was disquieting.

I didn't look up. I stepped back from under the umbrella and then I looked in.

I couldn't see anything.

Must be a mouse, I decided.

I walked around the umbrella and saw the culprit trying to squeeze behind one of the ribs of umbrella. The critter was small, brown, furry, and mouse size, but wasn't a mouse. I moved the umbrella a bit and the animal hung from one leg and looked at me menacingly with a mouth that gaped red and ugly.

I'd disturbed the daytime sleep of a bat, and the animal didn't look happy about my intrusion.

Bats eat enormous numbers of insects and would, you think, be welcomed by anyone who preferred less mosquitoes and the such, but this just isn't the case. Bats carry rabies, are linked with vampires, and are generally not welcomed. Bats apparently have a predilection to fly into human hair.

As I considered how to encourage the bat to leave, a very funny movie that starred John Candy and Dan Ackroyd immediately came to mind. During one of the many hilarious scenes in The Great Outdoors, these great Canadian comedians do battle with a tiny bat in a cabin.

The bat curled into a corner and I decided to find my camera to document the event. I reached for the water glass to take upstairs and noticed four strings of poop, three right beside the glass and one dangling on the rim. I considered for a moment that the bat had purposely defiled my water. Poisoned my well, as it were.
I also considered the arithmetic. First one string, then two, then four, and I decided the next dump would be sixteen. I picked up the book too.
The pictures I took from outside the umbrella were not great and I decided I needed to get closer. I maneuvered around and got within a few feet but the bat was too scrunched up beside the rib to see much.

I moved the umbrella a little to encourage the bat to move. Nothing happened.

I moved the umbrella a bit more. Nothing happened.

I shook the umbrella a bit hard. Nothing happened.

I really shook the umbrella and the bat slipped from the cozy crevice and dangled upside down.

Great photo op I decided.

When the flash went off, so did the bat, which fell down from the roost as I hastily backed away. The bat flew into the yard.

Great, I thought, gone.

But as I watched, the bat did a tight 180 and flew right back at me.

Not possible; a bat would never attack a man!

My heart started to race and I put the camera in front of my fact as a shield and the bat swerved above me.

Coincidence I thought; the bat must be half asleep.

As the bat made another 180, I realized the first attack was not a mistake.

The bat came right at me again and I actually considered swinging my camera to fend it off, but prudently decided just to put the camera in front of me as I ducked. The bat flew right over my short cropped hair and I wondered what might have happened if I were not so bald?

The bat settled back into the umbrella as if this were a permanent residence.

I decided that the bat had won and went back inside.

Louise returned with Pierre and Carol and everyone decided the bat had to go. My thoughts returned to the John Candy movie. Pierre and I had brooms. Louise and Carol wore scarves over their hair.

The three inch bat didn't give up without a fight. He swooped both Pierre and I several times before our superior numbers forced him to relocate to the shady side of a pillar in Gwen and Gerry's next door back yard. The bat stayed there until after dusk. 

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bear Poop

Save the Semen, Inc

The Sunday morning editorial caught my glance. The editorial reported that Monica Lewinsky has supplied a dress, which will be tested for the President’s semen. DNA typing will be used to confirm or refute the sample as that of Mr. Clinton.

The statement conjured up a variety of images and questions, but mostly I wondered why the dress was never dry-cleaned.

“Well,” I thought, “obviously she wanted to save it.”

”Presidential memorabilia,” I supposed.

Then, I visualized the dress framed as a conversation piece in her living room.

“This is where the President sprayed his semen as he withdrew. Bill is so thoughtful. He didn’t want me to get pregnant.”

My flight of fancy continued, and I wondered if she had a rogue’s gallery of similar articles of apparel, with sexual stains in kind. I tossed my head to shake away the disgusting images of eruptions that dried and defiled a kaleidoscope of silks, cottons, and other fabrics.

“Revolting,” I thought.

“Think pure thoughts, keep to the straight and narrow, and walk tall with your head erect, like a pillar of goodness,” I chastised myself.

My cynical side intervened.

“Perhaps she intentionally kept the un-laundered dress as evidence?”

This Machiavellian thought appealed.

We live in an age where the forensic use of DNA to “fingerprint” blood, skin, and semen samples is common knowledge. Surely the “genetic revolution” will be a term applied to the 21st century, just as the adjective “industrial” was linked to the 19th and “computer” to the 20th. That Ms. Lewinsky should save semen tells as much about the technological direction of our society as about her personality.

Ideas continued to percolate with my second coffee. Perhaps the extra pulse of caffeine did the trick. Suddenly I saw the potential for a ninety’s-style product and service.

I decided to establish Save the Semen, Inc, and market a “Save the Semen Kit,” with after-sale service.

The market for this product and service go far beyond the use envisioned by Ms. Lewinsky.

Some might save the sample for genetic analysis to screen potential suitors. In this scenario, my company would offer testing for desired traits or inherited problems, all, of course, at an extra cost.

Other individuals might save the specimens like some collect trophies. Save the Semen, Inc would offer specially designed display cases, with crystal containers for the effluent of the affluent, and test tubes for the flow of the rank and file. A logbook would be available – a supple, leather-covered model for the rich, and a hard cloth-covered option for the organized poor.

Perhaps men might collect samples to prove virility? I envisioned a marketing partnership with Pfizer, the makers of Viagra, the medication for erectile dysfunction. The headline on the kit would read, Show them you have the right stuff! Perhaps some men would collect specimens to mark chapters in their sexual lives. I envisioned possible inscriptions under the vials; first wet dream, successful masturbation, first woman (or man, I guess), nuptial result, silver anniversary, and so on.

If the dates added up, the “Save the Semen Kit” could be used to provide postnatal evidence for paternity. This led me to consider a male consumer backlash and I wondered if there were legal restrictions on the un-authorized testing of a bodily fluid.

The liability issue concerned me but the legal implications were obviously complicated and in evolution. Confidentiality in the bedroom seemed a fertile ground for loose interpretations and I eventually decided legality was a limp excuse not to pursue the project.

Of course some would use the semen for seedier purposes. I imagined the information as evidence to blackmail a former lover, boss, or married colleague. I didn’t like to think any product would be used for such a base purpose, but after further reflection, I recognized a potential countervailing benefit.

“Widespread use might change behavior. A man might think twice about an extra-marital liaison if he new evidence might leak out; that he’d leave a “pecker print,” so to speak.”

As the possibilities swam though my thoughts, I considered the technical hurdles. Most women would prefer to dry-clean or launder the garment in question. Therefore, the kit should be designed to soak out the semen. The solution must preserve the integrity of the DNA and prevent the sample from spoilage with storage.

Condoms might interfere with collection since some have spermicidal chemicals mixed with a lubricant. I decided Save the Semen, Inc should supply a line of condoms lubricated with DNA-friendly chemicals.

By late morning, and after a stiff gulp of the last dredges of the morning coffee, the idea evolved from production onto marketing.

Initially the promotional campaign would focus on advertisements in the major woman’s magazines. As momentum grew, newspaper stories would appear, followed by talk-show appearances. I heard my introduction by Leno, “Tonight, to articulate about ejaculate, I’m pleased to introduce . . .”

Once the thrust of the campaign was evident, I envisioned a coast-to-coast “Save the Semen” bumper sticker campaign. By the end of the first year I saw Save the Semen, Inc, thriving on the New York Stock Exchange.

Lunchtime found me pumped up on all the coffee and crazy ideas, but with enough common sense to realize the idea was too far out for mainstream America.

“The Christian Coalition will never go for this,” I realized.

“Oh well,” I thought, “the idea still has the makings for a good short story, and I have just the right title,” All the President’s Semen.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Large Rocky Mountain Mammals

Brussels Sprouts Guilt

Perhaps his statement was peculiar to Southern fundamentalist beliefs and teaching. Maybe he was pulling one over on me. I’ll never know for sure because John passed in and out of my life at a luncheon. What he said started me thinking about how pervasive guilt is in our lives.

We filled up the lunch hour with the ho-hum of daily life. John spoke weather, a topic that drizzles into discussions, and I talked sports, a ritual that runs through male conversations. We graduated to family and business, the primary distractions in day-to-day life. We talked about much and said little until just towards the end of the main course. John had just finished the last of his Brussels sprouts. With a satisfied expression and a perfectly straight face, John told me that he always cleaned his plate because of the starving children around the world.

Now, I’d heard variations on this theme all my life, often with a twinkle in the eye, a wink, a nod, or a cheeky laugh, but never with such a serious face. John believed what he said.

Taking his sincerity at face value, I presumed John's parents’ had convinced him that whether he finished his vegetables somehow made a difference to starving children in distant places. My parents tried the same line with me, but I never considered the statement true for a minute. How could it possibly make any difference to a starving child in Africa if I finished my vegetables in America?

Since John took the comment seriously, I reasoned that his parents likely held a similar belief. I imagined several generations at their Thanksgiving table, each with a clean plate, and all secure in the knowledge of the poor children they had somehow helped. And those relatives likely had close friends who shared the same clean-the-plate theme. My vision grew until I saw churches, communities, and even small towns filled with people who all believed in a clean plate. Dizzy with the implications, I blinked and shook my head.

Several days later, while I scraped leftover piecrust into the garbage, I suddenly understood; John ate his guilt. When John was a boy, his parents had played with his guilt, just as John’s grandparents had innocently played with their children’s, and so on and so forth back through the generations.

Some Southern families carry a genetic form of guilt, inherited from forefathers who trafficked in the slave trade. I wondered how this racial guilt might play a role. Perhaps when Southern families feel guilty about starving children in Africa, by association they feel guilty about mistreated slaves in America.

Starvation has always been a sensational issue. In the early fifties, when John was in elementary school, television brought the developing world to the dinner table. I pictured a suppertime scene; John and his family were eating on those rickety fold-up tables while they watched a black-and-white TV program. A news clip from Africa came on. During the program John turned his nose up at the Brussels sprouts. The combination of poor black children in Africa, genetic memories of the slave trade, and John’s failure to finish his vegetables focused their collective guilt; John was instructed in no uncertain terms to finish the sprouts, and he gobbled up those little green balls with the faked fervour that only parental intimidation can engender.

I wish I’d asked John whether he still eats Brussels sprouts. Perhaps he found a way to enjoy them; he might eat them hot and smothered with salt and butter. Maybe his wife knows how to make a sauce to transform the taste. There are many ways to make guilt palatable.

The next morning, I started to look for other examples of guilt. The paper seemed a likely source. Hot topics are usually sensational events like accidents and crimes. Whenever someone is hurt, guilt runs rampant. The law courts and prisons are bureaucratic triumphs of institutionalised guilt.

The front page was plastered with guilt. One story caught my eye about a local judge who shot a fleeing burglar in the back. I couldn’t decide who was more guilty, the burglar or the judge. Clearly guilt is in the eye of the beholder.

World news provided another example. A group of Japanese held a news conference in front of the American Embassy in Tokyo. They demanded an apology from both the United States and Japanese governments for the devastation wrought during World War II. The average age of the individuals in the photo looked to be about 30 years. Since the war ended half a century ago, I wondered why these young people had championed the cause. After all, it wasn’t their generation that started the war. Of course they all lost relatives in the war, but the victims were individuals they’d never known. Perhaps their cause was on behalf of the survivors. A closer look at the article revealed the names of some prominent Japanese families and I cynically considered whether self interest might have played a role in the demonstration. Perhaps these young people felt guilty because their parents and grandparents had played leadership roles in the war. Many of their families were even more affluent in the wake of the war; might their inherited guilt be compounded by that of success, I wondered. Whether the demonstration was actually an admission of their personal guilt, or a selfless act on behalf of the traumatized survivors of the war; their strategy made sense. A bureaucratic admission of guilt would legitimise collective guilt; sharing the blame was a good strategy.

These thoughts led me half a world away to Germany and the collective guilt of the ancestors of Hitler’s generation, the perpetrators of the systemic genocide of millions of innocent people. For several millennia the Jewish people have stood out as successful. Over the years they attracted a lot of envy and jealousy, which in the twentieth century culminated in the calculated evil of the Third Reich. Hitler understood how to manipulate guilt. To consolidate the collective conscious, Hitler preached that anyone who was not Aryan was guilty because somehow their existence blemished the shine on the star of German nationalism. His sermons twisted the success of the Jewish people into a threat. With evangelical zeal he suggested that any German who did not seize what was theirs by genetic right was guilty of a form of racial treason. The appeal to sacrifice their lives in a racist quest for material gain might not have been enough for some young men and women. For these reluctant warriors, an appeal to patriotism, duty, and honour might have been necessary to placate their sense of guilt. Whatever the motivation, the war, like all wars, left a legacy of guilt that lingers.

The following day I had a doctor's appointment for a longstanding problem with back pain. My doctor gave me a prescription for a pain medication, which is all I came for, but he took license with my time to point out my various shortcomings. I listened to his regular sermon that I should lose weight and do sit-ups to strengthen my abdominal muscles. He advised that drugs were a poor substitute for exercise and fitness. As if that were not enough, he asked if I had reduced my cholesterol intake, and then went on to comment that since he could smell cigar smoke on my clothes, I obviously had not stopped smoking. After I escaped, I realised what I had experienced was the ability of the medical profession to traffic in my guilt. I saw the easy hypocrisy of health care professionals who entice us to their clinics and hospitals where they feed on our guilt. I remembered the Christian concept that our body is the Lord's temple. “Good grief,” I thought. “My body is trapped in a paradox of guilt that balances the pleasures of life with the health of my body. Is guilt everywhere,” I wondered?

That afternoon I had a meeting with a group of attorneys and accountants who were consultants to my firm. I was lost in my thoughts on guilt and unable to concentrate on the questions at hand. One of the attorneys was an African-American whose great-great-something grandfather had been a slave. I met Latikia courtesy of her senior partner who was a golfing buddy. He advised that she had graduated in the top ten-percent at Duke University where she earned a reputation as a black activist. When we met, I commented on her university successes and she responded, “Yeah, those white-ass professors had no choice but to treat me with respect.” I coughed a hollow laugh. This theme became her battle cry with negotiations for my firm, and she was very successful. Latikia was a great attorney without the racial advantage she manipulated, but she loved to flex her muscles and push the guilt buttons in her white colleagues.

Latikia was married to a schoolteacher and they had two preschool children. She took barely one-month of maternity leave, and a live-in nanny cared for her son and daughter. Many evenings Latikia worked late. On one occasion, after a meeting lasted well past dinner, we exchanged tired pleasantries as Latikia gathered up her papers to leave. I asked after Eugene, her youngest. Latikia started to cry, and after a flood of tears, I learned her seemingly have-it-all-under-control world was more apparent than real; she hardly ever saw her children. The demands of a high profile law practice required she leave before the children got up, and return after they were tucked in for the night. Her husband was an alcoholic who fooled around. The nanny had recently quit when the drunken husband made a pass. Latikia blamed herself. She kept repeating, "If I’d only spent more time at home." I reassured her that somehow everything would work out because she was so talented, but I didn’t believe what I said and I hoped she couldn’t tell. I carried on with the lame suggestion that she take some time off. Sadly, I recognised that the precarious balance between profession and family is a wellspring of guilt.

After Latikia left, I settled into a chair and considered the individuals who had attended the meeting. I knew enough about each to recognise guilt in some fashion or another. The tax accountant was a good example. No one likes to pay taxes, and if you are caught cheating you are guilty in the eyes of the law. If not, some feel guilty that somehow they paid too much. Accountants help us find loopholes to avoid taxes. To me, the loopholes looked like sauce on the Brussels sprouts, and the accountants sounded like gourmet chefs who help the business community swallow their guilt. I realized that the accounting profession had evolved, at least in part, to manage the guilt of wealth.

As president of a large corporation, some of my Saturdays include social obligations that mix business with pleasure. On the following Saturday, I was scheduled to speak at a fundraising luncheon for “Children without Borders.” I had given variations of this speech many times, always to warm applause. Mostly, I preached to the converted.

This talk turned out different. I was about half way through when suddenly I saw myself on the stage, as if I were watching from the audience. Then I heard myself. “When we give to those less fortunate, we enhance our lives.” I recognised this as a ploy to divert the guilt of success.

“Don't forget the tax benefits of your donation.” My accountant came to mind and his reassurance that all my tax deductions were legal.

“Our emotional health relies on these acts of kindness.” The tedious visit to my doctor surfaced in my thoughts.

“As Americans, we are blessed with lower taxes than any other country in the industrialized world. This makes our commitment to charity all the more important.” I realised that socialised governments purchase public guilt with higher taxes.

“Giving is a family virtue.” I thought of Latikia and her failure to give time to her family.

“Through your donations these poor children will be freed from the scourge of hunger.”

As this comment sank into the crowd, I watched several men quickly scoop up the last of their desert, and I thought of John.

Fortunately, my talk was so familiar I was not sufficiently distracted by my out-of-body experience, and before I knew it, the applause ushered me off the platform and into the glad hands of the audience. But I do not remember much of the rest of the day; conversations seemed difficult, I got lost driving home, and I forgot an afternoon appointment at my barber. Whenever I thought of my wakeful vision, I felt naked. I was exhausted and for the first time in months, I took an afternoon nap.

The following day I decided to escape from my preoccupation with guilt and went to church. I was tired of thinking about guilt and considered church a good place to divert my thoughts. I could not have been more mistaken. I had a revelation that day, but not the kind most Christians aspire to. I found myself in a sea of organised guilt. All around were friends and neighbours I had known for years, people who were the salt of the red clay earth of this Southern community. That day I walked into a theological landmine of insight; the explosion unfettered my vision, and courtesy of this new perspective, I realized the religious significance of guilt.

I must have listened to the same sermon a dozen times, but this time I heard a different message. The minister focused on Christ’s sacrifice. “Christ died for our sins; in so doing He absolved us of our collective guilt.” The word guilt startled me. I turned to my wife, “The minister meant sin, didn’t he?” She just smiled. I looked up to the figure of Christ behind the altar. The light from the stained glass played with Christ’s expression; He seemed to wink at me.

The next moment I recollect was shaking the minister’s hand outside the church. My wife was chatting with friends and I wandered into the cemetery and sought out an arbour where I knew I could sit and reflect on this experience. The azaleas were in full bloom and almost covered a tiny statue of St. John that I had never really noticed. I considered all the various religious denominations. I thought of confessionals, people reciting Hail Mary's, and of the concepts of born again, repentance, and original sin. I realised that all religions traffic in the guilt theme, with only subtle variations. For two thousand years, every Christian church has been a focus for our guilt.

“Strange,” I thought. “I always considered church a place of peace and happiness, and now I discover an ugly concept like guilt pervades the whole religious ethic.” My thoughts cried out, “Satan, get thee behind me.”

Before I rejoined my wife, I had rationalized that the use of guilt by organized religion had merit. Anything that united people in such a wonderful cause must somehow be good. This was not the first time I accepted that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

That thought led me to the significance of Christ's crucifixion. Since Christ is the model for all Christianity, in a sense, He epitomises what success in Christianity is all about. Christ holds the record as the largest reservoir of Christian guilt. No mortal will ever collect as much. Since Christ collects guilt, so should we all, and, taken a step further, the more guilt a person collects, the more Christian that individual might be. Somehow I felt better.

“What a relief,” I thought. “I’ve finally put guilt behind me.”

While in this state of grace my mind wandered to more practical matters. My wife was attending with the Altar Guild and had asked that I pick up a few grocery items for dinner. I reflected how lucky I was. I had wonderful family, a successful business, and leisure time to enjoy my good fortune. Today I looked forward to Easter dinner, a traditional family feast; our daughters and their families attend, and we usually share our prosperity with good friends. The menu is always sumptuous and I often share the cooking with my wife.

She’d asked me that morning to prepare her favorite vegetable, and as I drove home, I wondered what kind of sauce would go well with the Brussels sprouts.”

Friday, March 30, 2007

Small Rocky Mountain Mammals


“Come in,” the voice suggested, and the tone was inviting, so I opened the door.

I pushed the door into the room and took a step but the first view halted my progress almost as abruptly as if I had walked into a wall.

A huge black man, naked apart from boxer shorts that looked brilliantly white against his skin, sat hunched over on a wooden chair beside a bed. The double bed was askew in the middle of the room, with only a white sheet tussled in the middle. No head or foot board for this bedroom suite.

“Sparse, plain, but functional,” I thought.

A young girl, too young, but with the caution of experience in her manner, was pulling a sheet around her body as she moved slowly and silently towards the opposite corner of the room, her guarded eyes glued to mine like a wary cat.

“Come in,” the black man beckoned again with an outstretched hand that he moved towards his chest in a welcoming gesture. The hand held a large brown bottle of Tusker beer. The floor was strewn with empty bottles. The room smelled like beer and sex. He was modestly drunk.

“Oh . . ., no, I won’t disturb you,” I replied, and I took a step back through the door. “I’m sorry, wrong room.”
“No, no, please come in, please,” he implored, with an air of melancholy that drew me in.

This was a dangerous setting. I was in a run-down hotel in one of the most violent cities in East Africa. I had not been in the country more than a few hours. Nothing had seemed safe since the moment I'd stepped into the Iqbal, a dilapidated hotel renowned as a cheap haven for travelers. Now I was offered an invitation to enter a room with a man I didn't know, who was drunk and still drinking, twice my size, and almost naked.

I took a step in, glanced behind the door, and then paused to look around the room.

The girl had found a spot in the furthest corner, where she crouched on the floor and struggled to light a cigarette. The lighter would not work and after shaking it a few times she gave up and leaned into the wall. Her hair was long and black, with some tight braids that fell intermittently around her head. Her delicate features and beautiful skin didn’t fit the roughness of the hotel. She did not look older than sixteen and I shuddered with the thought that she was much younger.

My quick survey of the room was reasurring, so I focused a friendly smile on my host. I picked my way between the beer bottles on the floor and offered my hand in a manly greeting.

He didn’t get up but he did extend his right hand. His grip was gentle not firm, and certainly not aggressive, rather like that of a fellow who had relaxed into a state of alcoholic inertia. The prostitute, by comparison, looked very nimble. I kept her in the periphery of my vision.

I counted a half dozen large bottles of beer on the floor and presumed he had drunk the lion’s share. His speech was remarkably precise for the amount of alcohol and for his physical state.

There were beads of sweat on his forehead and several longer drips that streamed from each armpit. His boxers were wet with sweat around the waist band in in the groin. I wondered whether the perspiration was due to the heat or whether he was out of shape. I knew he wasn’t anxious; when I shook his hand, his palm had been bone dry.

“In his early- or mid-thirties,” I thought.

He was a big man, just over six feet, and close to 220 pounds. Likely he had been a muscular young man; his chest and shoulders were broad and looked strong, and although he now sported a paunch, he was not otherwise flabby; his arms and legs had still displayed the muscle memory of former fitness.

He motioned with the Tusker hand for me to sit down. There was no other chair, only the bed, and the floor. I choose the bed, which looked clean enough, and I sat about 5 feet away from him, out of quick reach, and at an angle such that I could still see the girl.

“How did you find this place,” he asked?

His accent suggested a British education, which meant that his parents were wealthy and likely influential. He would have been in his late teens in 1963 when Kenya won independence. Jomo Kenyatta was still alive and I wondered if this man’s family was Kikuyu and therefore of the privileged class that emerged when Kenyatta became the first Prime Minister.

“I read about the hotel in a student travel guide.”

“Remarkable,” he responded! “You found the Iqbal. I come here to get away.”

I presumed he meant away from his wife, and since the hotel catered to the poor travelers of the world, and not to the wealthy or educated Kenyans, this made sense to me, but I could not understand what was remarkable about me finding the place. The hotel was filled with international travelers. Did I appear somehow more like him than the usual hotel patrons? Did he consider himself a traveler like me?

“Why did you knock on my door?”

“I’m looking for some Dutch travelers who have a Land Rover and are going to the Serengeti tomorrow. I want to find out if they have room for two more people.”

Now reminded of my original mission, I stood up to leave. “I should keep looking for them. I was told they had a room on this floor.”

“Please don’t go. Speak to me for awhile. I’m lonely for conversation,” and with this last statement he glanced briefly at the prostitute. His look suggested that she was chosen for skills that did not involve speech.
I sat back down.

“I live in New York with my family. I’m a Kenyan diplomat at the United Nations.”

He paused long enough for me to realize that it was my turn to introduce myself. He had not mentioned his name and his discretion impressed me. He was not drunk enough to compromise his personal identity.

I saw no reason to conceal mine. “I’m Billy Mckenzie. I’m Canadian and live in Toronto. I’m a doctor.”

“I knew it,” he smiled happily. “You’re smart.”

His sunny smile suddenly turned sad as if a curtain had come down on his thoughts. Tears welled up in his eyes.

I grew worried about this abrupt change in emotion.

“Would rage be next,” I wondered? I thought again about leaving, but his next words transfixed me.

“Black people are not as smart as white people.”

“Ouch,” I thought. “Where did that come from?”

“I don’t think my sons are as smart as white boys. They will start school in the fall. I don’t think they’ll do well in an American school.” A tear fell down the left side of his cheek. He moved his left hand up as if to catch the descent of the drop but the beer bottle made this move difficult, so he brought up his right hand and brushed the moisture aside with his fist.

“I don’t believe this,” I interjected, believing that the moment and this horrible racial confession demanded a quick and positive alternative view, a denunciation.

“You’re an intelligent man and your sons will be too.”

He smiled graciously but sadly, as if to thank me for kind words that he did not believe.

“You should look for your ride to the Serengeti,” he replied, and I knew he wanted to spare himself any further embarrassment.

I left quickly. As the door closed, I glanced back to see him tipping the last of the Tusker into his mouth. I heard the bottle fall on the floor as I walked down the hall.

That was 1978, three years before the world discovered HIV. Several years later, I read a report in the New England Journal of Medicine on the high prevalence of AIDS in Nairobi prostitutes. The diplomat is probably dead, likely within a few years of our meeting, and his wife too. The prostitute is surely dead. His melancholic tears were prophetic.

Friday, March 23, 2007


When Summer Played with Winter

The warm puff of wind came out of nowhere.

I was hiking through a stand of poplars along the brow of a hill and the change in temperature overwhelmed me. Compared to the ambient autumn air of the canopied trail, the change was startling. With the warmth came a verdant lushness as if the wind were wet and alive.

After a few seconds the warm zephyr was replaced with a cool breeze that chilled the perspiration on my back. The cold air dissipated as quickly as the hot.

I stopped and looked, thinking I might see some cause, but I didn’t.

The forest wasn’t dense and sunlight filtered into small alcoves of grass-covered ground, but there was no sun where I stood, and there wasn’t a cloud in the Alberta blue sky.

Thereafter the warm puff continued to visit, always accompanied by her chill counterpart, as if summer were playing with winter in autumn’s forest. The blithe winds disappeared when the trail emerged into a wide expansive meadow.

I kept looking back into the forest, somehow expecting to see something.

“Little pockets of dense hot air, hovering over the sun-exposed alcoves, and pushed into my path,” I thought.

“Yes. That must be it,” I decided.

“And the chill counterpart was the ambient autumn air that only felt cold by comparison and then dissolved into itself.”

The explanation made sense but didn’t satisfy.

What I’d really felt was the presence of a playful forest spirit.
She met me on the path and watched as I walked lost in my thoughts. Forest spirits like to tease. She kept some distance ahead while she planned her mischief, and then slowed down and allowed me to catch up. She let me come so close that we almost touched. Then she stopped, turned abruptly, and exhaled. Her warm lushness enveloped me like a womb. When I stopped, perplexed, she skipped ahead and left a chill giggle in her wake.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Grizzlies, Most at a Safe Distance

Where the Primal Pebble Fell

This tenderness, this mental caress,
Is for your mothers;
But also for mine, for you, and for all your children.

This shudder in my soul,
This tiny touch point;
Is the reason why.

What joy! This growing sense
With who and why, and especially
With They, who breathe; that so may I.

Visualize my grandmothers and your grandchildren
In such a space and time;
And you will know yourself and why.

We miss our image in the crowded mirror,
Till distracting dreams and fears disolve,
To leave the truth for us to show.

We stumble by the reason why,
Till humble vision shows us guides;
The salmon and the geese who know.

How marvellous! This homeward flow,
This autumn-life-experience;
To spring of fresh found innocence.

But neither back nor in a circle go;
But rather through the timeless ripples,
To the pebble's primal glow.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Snow and Ice

Shasta and Her Cubs

Beginnings are Important

She could feel one of the cubs snuggling towards her. They were ready to suckle and made their way based on smell rather than sight. They were only a few days old and their eyes were still closed.

“Which one,” she wondered?

A moment later her question was answered when she felt the latch.

“Kodiak, my boy cub,” she realized with a satisfied thought.

She shifted her body to allow him to suckle more directly and then a moment later adjusted her body once again when she felt the softer pull of his sister Koda at the other breast.

Shasta could hardly believe how small they were now, compared to how big they would become. They were so tiny, half the size of a chipmunk, without much if any hair, and no teeth.

The den was cozy, but pitch black because it was still night. During the long winter days sometimes the only light was from an air hole, which at the surface was as small as the entrance to a mouse den. The air hole had developed naturally along the path of her exhaled breaths as she slept during the long winter.

Now that spring had arrived, some of the snow that covered the entrance had melted and a diffuse light now filtered though the thinner layers of snow crystals, especially when the sun was setting and shining more directly on the den.

Shasta smiled as she considered the choice of such a good den to give birth to her first cubs. She had watched her mother and had learned to choose a location with an entrance that faced towards the cold winter winds and away from the midday sun. This choice insured that her den remained snow covered and invisible for longer into the spring. She chose a hillside covered by a stand of evergreen trees that partially sheltered the entrance from the wind. The steepness of the slope under the forest canopy allowed melting water to run off without accumulating, but was not so steep as to restrict a heavy accumulation of winter snow over the entrance. She had spent a trouble free winter.

“A good beginning,” she thought.

First Kodiak and then Koda disengaged from her breasts and rolled over and into an immediate deep sleep. Shasta repositioned herself so she could attend to their daily bath.

Koda had her back nestled against her mother’s soft warm tummy but Kodiak had rolled away and was already a bit chilled. She gathered him towards her head and nuzzled him gently before she used her tongue to gently wash his tiny naked body. Afterwards she washed Koda in a similar fashion and then nestled them both inside the downy fur of her chest. Just before she drifted off to sleep, she remembered back to the day of their birth.

At first light, she had awakened to the sensation of wetness between her thighs.

“Good,” she thought, “dawn, the start of new day; just the right time for the start of a new life.”

This was her first pregnancy and although happy and excited, she also felt a sense of unease.

“Would everything be ok?”

She had also wondered how many cubs she would deliver. She knew most bears had only two but she had hoped for three.

“Why not,” she thought? “I’ve always been strong and healthy, and I was especially fit and fat when I entered the den, and the father was the strongest grizzly in the region. Why shouldn’t I be blessed with three cubs?” Three would almost guarantee that at least two would survive. Mountain life was harsh at the extremes of age.

Only two cubs had emerged from her womb, but her disappointment was fleeting. The cubs were both healthy. She recollected her happiness during those first few minutes as she licked away the fluid from their bodies so they wouldn’t get a chill, and then nestled them against her breasts. They had both suckled immediately.

“Another good sign,” she remembered contentedly, as she fell into a deep sleep, just as she had on that first day.

As deep as she slept, she awakened immediately when she felt Kodiak roll away from her chest. It was now daylight and she could see the faint outline of Koda still nestled in the fur of her chest and that of Kodiak a little distance away, lying on his back with his tiny paws in the air. His legs were moving as if he was running and she wondered if he might be dreaming.

“What would he dream of,” she wondered? “He has never seen anything to know what to run towards or away from. Is he chasing something we dreamed together when he was still within me?”

Gently she rolled him back into her fur before his body temperature could fall. She shuddered to think what might have happened if she hadn’t awakened and had later found Kodiak against a snow covered wall. The area immediately around the earthen walls was chilly enough to freeze a newborn cub. She didn’t know how she knew this, but she did. Otherwise the den was very warm, even hot at times.

She had chosen and fashioned the den to be big enough for up to three newborn cubs. At the time she had hoped the den might even be suitable for a second winter. That would depend, she knew, on how many cubs she delivered and how big they grew. She had known from the outset that the den would not be suitable for more than one more year at the best. She had also known that it was better to build as small a den as possible so that her maternal body heat would be enough to keep the space cozy.

When she next awoke, she could hear the wind in the trees above. The winds were coming from over the mountain and behind the den and she knew these winds would be warm and dry. They would melt the snow and pick up and carry the moisture out of her valley.

“Where do the winds go,” she wondered?

”The winds must visit with other bears in other valleys,” she decided.

She wondered which bears the winds above might already have visited.

“Perhaps the winds had already visited with Ursus, the father of my cubs. His valley is that way.”

Warm winds and hot days meant the snow would melt and eventually they would need to leave the den.

“But when,” she wondered.

She didn’t have any way of knowing a specific day, but she had a strong sense that she would know when the time was right.

“We will leave before the snow has completely melted away the entrance. Perhaps we will leave as soon as the cubs open their eyes.

“When will that be? Will they be strong enough by then?”

“We will wait until their eyes are open and they are strong and steady when they walk,” she reconsidered.

Both cubs started to suckle again and even as they fed, she fell back into happy sleep.

As the days lengthened and the sun set progressively further up the valley, the thickness of the snow that covered the entrance thinned until Shasta could see the green outlines of the trees that were around and above the den.

Koda’s eyes had opened several hours earlier, and this event was followed shortly after, as if in sympathy with the birth order, by the opening of her brother’s eyes.

Her daughter’s eyes were cinnamon brown and immediately full of curiosity. For several days prior to their opening, Shasta had gently licked the eyes of both cubs every hour, as if to encourage the lids to separate. Her tongue was huge, almost as long as the cubs, and heavier, but she was very gentle; she used only the tip to delicately massage the tiny eyes. Courtesy of this almost constant attention, she was fortunate to witness the precise moment when Koda first saw her mother. Shasta had just finished a tongue caress and was looking to see if the lids had separated at all, when both eyes opened with a suddenness that was as special as it was startling. Koda’s eyes fixed on her mother’s for several glorious moments before they wandered and took in the fuzzy details of her first home. Although Koda’s eyes remained open for only a minute, to Shasta, the time seemed like forever. With her daughter’s eyes open, she redoubled her licking efforts with Kodiak and was rewarded when his lids flickered open a few hours later. There was a sticky substance between his lids that had not been present in his sister’s eyes. She didn’t like that there was a difference, but she was reassured as soon as she looked into his handsome eyes. They were a much darker brown, like those of his father. They positively danced around the den before he too slipped back into infant slumber.

With their eyes open, Shasta felt impatient to leave the den.

“I have a forest world to share with my cubs.”

But she restrained her new mother enthusiasm. “Best to wait until they can keep their eyes open and stay awake for longer periods of time; best to wait until they are strong enough to walk with me down to the valley bottom.”

Both cubs had grown impressively over the three weeks before their eyes opened. They were now as large as a mature red squirrel. Their weight gain however, had come at the expense of their mother’s, and this was a concern for Shasta. She had lost a lot of weight since she had entered the den; her eyes were hollow and her skin hung over her sides in loose folds that spread over the floor of the den like a furry blanket. She was hungry and felt the need to eat soon, very soon if she were to continue to nurture her cubs properly.

Shasta knew that beginnings were important. Growth lost at the beginning was unlikely to be caught up.

Although the cubs were active while they suckled, for the first month they had mostly slept whenever they weren’t feeding. Recently though, they had started to stay awake for a little while before each feed. Both cubs had learned to support themselves on their legs and had taken their first few tentative steps. Now they walked for short times, back and forth in front of their mother’s tummy and chest, but the relatively confined space of the den didn’t really allow much more than stretching. Still, Shasta noted with satisfaction that their legs were steadier with each passing day.