Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Apples of Blood

In this life, danger lurks at every turn. You think you are safe, swinging that nine-iron, trying to get a few rounds in before the thunderstorm, and wham, catastrophe strikes. You can't let up, because that's when life will beat you down.

Sadly, I had forgotten that little truism. It was a lazy day last Thursday, a day when I decided to celebrate the end of my semester by spending the day on the couch, relaxing and getting ready for the weekend's climbing plans. I walked into the kitchen to cut an apple up for a snack. I love apples and peanut butter. I love scooping huge mounds of peanut butter onto my pre-cut apple pieces. Anyway, I went in to cut up an apple, and wham, lightning struck.

There, sitting next to my my tidy apple slices, was the end of my thumb. It took a while to register what had happened, that that lifeless piece of flesh had actually come from me and had not in some way been attached to the apple. The mind does funny things in that moment before the pain starts. It's like the mind knows that a cascade of searing pain is on the way, but it wants to amuse itself with a funny, irrational thought before all thought ceases. My thought, at that moment, was that I could have protein with my carb-heavy meal, which would thereby make the snack more "Zone." Then the wave hit.

The blood was astounding. You know how the doctor will prick your finger to get a little drop of blood for a test? Well, this was like my finger was pricked with a 12 gauge straw. The blood gushed. I held my hand over the sink as the blood poured out of the end of my thumb. It began to look as if the Manson Family had previously rented our apartment and had set up shop in the kitchen. Kayte came out of the office and began to tend the finger.

Her first concern, understandably, was to stanch the flow. She put a band-aid on the end and that just made the blood shoot out the sides of the fabric. She determined that despite my histrionics, I had not, in fact, "cut off my thumb." Yes, I did have a sizable flesh wound, but people have survived far worse. She made clear that you cannot, in fact, "bleed out from the tip of your thumb." She then wrapped a bit of gauze around it and went back to work.

It began to become clear to me that my weekend climbing plans were slowly dripping away, like blood from a...okay, I'll spare you the pun. Basically, my chances of climbing were shot. I still went out, though, with my thumb wrapped in a bee-hive of bandaging. I learned that doing a few easy routes was a bad idea, as blood began to seep through the bee hive making it look like the bees were experiencing some sort of horrendous genocide. I spent a lot of time belaying and telling the above story over and over and over.

So, you can never be too safe. Remember that when you think you are making yourself a nice, semi-healthy snack. Those apples could really be blood apples. Really.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I woke up sweating. Tornado. The covers were disheveled, wrapped around my right leg. My mouth was dry. Had I been gasping? I’m not quite sure, but I did hear that word, clear as day: Tornado.

It was Suzanne’s voice, just her voice. Do they have tornadoes down in Atlanta? I got out of bed and turned on the Weather Channel. No, it was going to be a clear, warm day down there. Maybe it was metaphorical. Maybe it meant something bad, perhaps a “windstorm of danger” or something like that.

I never really thought about Suzanne’s voice. It’s pretty. But then again, could it possibly be otherwise? I have a beautiful younger sister. I grew accustomed to my high school friends’ seemingly innocuous questions: “Yeah, we could drive around town for a while . . . hey, do you think Suzanne wants to come with?”

I noticed that. I noticed the lingering stares from my friends. I noticed the slight lowering of decibel level in the cafeteria when Suzanne walked from the lunch line, tray in hand, (she and I always joked that the trays looked like barf, with the colored splotches mixed in with the grayish plastic), and took her place at the table. While in college she dated a Green Bay Packer football player. He had a million dollar signing bonus, but she ended up moving on because “he just wasn’t very smart.”

To this I would respond in that most brotherly of terms, that term that says so much with so few syllables: Duh.

We would fight. Not as older, ostensibly mature high school kids, but as awkward, gangly, uncomfortable in our own skin, middle schoolers. I would chase her around the house. Once she ran for the basement, and suddenly my foot kicked out and she was falling, down the stairs, knocking bottles of cleaning supplies off the shelf along the edge of the stairs. She landed on the concrete with a bloody nose. I remember a faint twinge of remorse, of sadness. I also remember looking at a stool she had turned into a kind of mock-stove, to be used in her mock-kitchen, with stuffed animals filling in for her mock-family. On this bench cum stove she labeled the shut off switch “oof.” That was during the divorce.

She was not beautiful then. At eight years old, she had red glasses, and these glasses were her trademark. She did not make her own decisions, as her glasses were bought for her, her trademark given to her by parents who wanted to insert a specific identity into that existential blank. Looking back now, her hair was a disaster. I enjoy reminding her of her hair back then, the short front and the long back. She had a boyish, hamster-like face. Her hair seemed to accentuate the confusion and represent a sort of mullet-by-default.

Tornado. But it was just her voice. Not her image. I haven’t seen her since Christmas. We talk though, on the phone. We talk about our parents, both divorced now, a second time for each. That’s three divorces between us, we say.

I would drive her to school. She wrecked her car on the first weekend of having her license. “I was only going fifteen.”

“But, you flipped the car.”

“Still, I was only going fifteen.”

So, every morning, we would take my rusty white Escort to school. On this day, the country road we lived on was covered with a dubious layer of either snow or ice, depending on subtle atmospheric conditions that I do not really understand. I took a corner too fast. Or, more accurately, I intended to take the corner too fast. I intended to let the rear end swing out just a little, to release my pent up seventeen year old’s energy or aggression or whatever in the momentary feeling of freedom, of gliding, of careening. I meant also to scare my sister.

I heard a thump.

Suzanne had slammed her right hand against the door, probably in an effort to hold on to something. She sat rigid, her legs held an inch off the seat. She looked at me, crying. There was no happiness at all in her face, just tears. Her face was all sad. I realized at that moment that there would be no more sliding. I would drive to school slowly, deliberately. I put my old Bob Marley tape in the tape deck. We would be safe on the way to school.

There are no tornadoes in Atlanta. There are other things, though. And there is just a voice, disembodied, identified by caller ID with a strange area code, and with a voice that is absolutely not strange. Not strange at all. We talk about our dog Margalo, about the time when we put pants on her, and about the time when Margalo ran into the screen door. She was embarrassed. You could tell.

In the winter, we would go outside and Margalo would sneak up and snatch the mittens right off our hands. We would run after her, laughing, tripping, sliding in the snow, Margalo’s stumpy tail wagging. Sometimes, Margalo would even take the hat off my head.

One time, Margalo clamped onto Suzanne’s scarf. The scarf cinched and Margalo dragged Suzanne across the field. I remember looking out our big picture window, seeing Suzanne on the ground, hands waving, Margalo making jerking, backward pulling motions. The scarf cinched so hard that it broke the blood vessels in Suzanne’s neck. It was black and blue for days.

I sat next to Suzanne on the couch. “You can have the remote Suzanne. You can watch whatever you want.” She smiled an awkward, six year old’s smile. It looked strange because she had been crying. Mom clanked pots and pans in the kitchen. Dad was not home. When I thought about it, interspersed with thoughts of school and of burning things and climbing trees, I thought that something didn’t seem right. Mom and Dad didn’t talk to each other much. Neither Suzanne nor I had ever heard the word divorce, but it was looming, tracking our direction. It can send a toothpick through a telephone pole. I looked at Suzanne’s swollen, bruised neck. She almost died.

These days, Suzanne and I talk on the phone about once a week. We talk about her job at Bloomingdales, though I call it Bloomingtons. We talk about memories, some remembered, some half forgotten, some patently made-up. They swirl around in our conversation, pick up others, gain speed, and soon I am not in New Hampshire and Suzanne is not in Atlanta, but we are somewhere else entirely. Somewhere that doesn’t now, and never did, exist.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Snow banks

I have been taking stock of my life lately. I don't know if it this New Hampshire winter, the six-foot-tall snow banks in front of the cottage, and the my general state of inactivity, but things just seem a bit daunting. Whereas my existential funk had a certain cache when I was in college, today it seem less interesting and more sad.

In the movie The Weatherman, Nicholas Cage's character says, "All of the people I could be, they got fewer and fewer until finally they got reduced to only one -- and that's who I am. The weather man." I wish I would have said those words, aside from the weatherman part. I could say that the idea of being an astronaut slowly faded away, as did the ideas of being a lawyer, a race car driver, a marathon runner, and a member of a think tank. All that's left is me, right now, at this moment, here at my computer, looking out at the snow banks and hoping for the spring.

This is not to say that my life is in a bad position. It certainly isn't. I have a whole lot to be thankful for. Yet, I feel that there is a whole lot behind me now, a whole lot that has faded in the rearview mirror. And I feel like some of those images that slowly fade away are very important images: the tree on top of El Cap, dimly lit from my headlamp, the knobs on Lotus Flower Tower, the way my mom and my sister look when they are laughing in the kitchen of our house in Wisconsin, my walk from Siurana, through the Spanish countryside, to pick up groceries four miles away. These are the big moments.

I often think that I am defined by the big moments--those moments of exaltation and success. It is more likely, however, that I'm defined my those innumerable times that offer no big moment for remembering. Like yesterday. What did I do yesterday? Nothing really; I just went through my normal routine. Who is to say that the thousands of yesterdays don't equal a significant sum that is applied to my current existential bank account? Who is to say that the day I topped out El Cap represents more capitol than those thousands of forgettable days? The yesterdays of my life. Maybe the yesterdays define me more, make me who I am now. Maybe I have no choice but to be me, at this moment, sitting at my computer and looking at, though not really seeing, the snow banks in front of the cottage.