There is nothing quite so exasperating as carrying a story around in your soul for 37 years and not being able to get it all down on paper. Such is the case with a story I have finally written called THE SMALL HOURS. In its various partial iterations, it was called FIRST PRESS and GALVEZ GOLD, but the current and final title seemed best, given the subject matter.
And the subject matter is this: During and after the Spanish Civil War, various Leftists, wanted by the Right, hid out from their potential captors in attics, false walls, "spider holes" in the ground, and any number of ingenious locales. Now, this made good sense during the war (1936-1939), but what about after peace was declared and Francisco Franco had emerged the victor? The Left did not trust Franco and the Right, still doesn't to this day, even though the dictator died in 1975. The reason for this lack of trust being that more than once Franco declared an amnesty for enemies of the state, ostensibly allowing those folks to return to their home towns and resume their lives. The first time many took advantage of the offer only to be rounded up and summarily executed. To be fair, Franco did offer one final period of amnesty a few years before his death and this time people were not jailed or killed. But who could trust the man?
When Mary and I, along with our children, moved to Spain in 1981, one of the first things we learned in the village of Macharaviaya was that a man had come out of hiding in the next village. Not only had the war been over since 1939, but Franco had been dead for six years. Such is the power of institutional fear. I was immediately captivated by this news and have held onto it ever since. I learned about these men, called topos, or moles who had been springing up since Franco's death. I thought about their families, having to worry about children innocently spilling the secret on some soccer field or schoolyard. I thought about those very families missing out on their loved one's company, of mothers never getting to sit in the town square with their sons. I thought of siblings without their brothers. But most of all, I cooked up the idea of what it must have been like for the protectors of these men, the ones who kept them alive while they whiled away their lives in hiding. Was there love coupled with grief? Was their irony coupled with courage? And what would life underground be like if the man didn't really want to be involved in the war in the first place?
In the novel, you'll meet Maria del Carmen Escobar, and learn how she dealt with the issue of the war in her small village of La Jolla. She show us what sacrifice looks like and what it does to one's life.
THE SMALL HOURS will be my next published novel and you'll see it by the end of 2023. I look forward to sharing it with you.
In 1985, in Macharaviaya, Spain, while I was working in the fields with my good friend, Jose Antonio Robles Roldan, he told me that he had decided to ask his girlfriend, Victoria, to marry him. I congratulated him heartily because I assumed this would put an end to his endless stories of how he didn't think he could hold on much longer as an unmarried man. He was near to bursting with anticipation, blah, blah, blah; every young man's sexual lament. And, while these kind of stories didn't end, a new story developed. Jose Antonio asked me if I would be his best man and if my wife, Mary, would be willing to serve as maid of honor for Victoria. We said yes without giving it much thought. But in a village of 85 people hidden in the hills of Malaga province, it was to be an unprecedented event to have foreigners stand up in a traditional Spanish wedding.
Mary and I were not and still are not Catholics, although Mary's family started out subscribing to this particular religious philosophy. Hence her middle name, Margaret. But, as we were soon to find out, the Spanish have a peculiar relationship with the church and the fact we were not members turned out to make no difference whatsoever in our serving as padrinos. There were a few hitches along the way; the most significant one being we found out it was our responsibility to serve approximately 150 people at the dinner after the ceremony. (Later, we realized the number was actually probably closer to 250, as people started materializing like hungry ghosts from over the hills and out of the valleys, presumably when they smelled the tripe stew cooking in the giant pots outside the church.) As a side note, when you are responsible for feeding so many people and also for learning what to say and do at a traditional Spanish wedding, it is best not to guzzle cheap gin out of the bottle any time close to the beginning of the ceremony. After all, you too may end up passed out under the immense back wheels of the only truck in town, only to wake up to a trail of shiny black ants crawling up your pant leg and making short work of the crumbs of wedding cake still clinging to your suit coat. But it all worked out and we got an absolutely charming and handsome godson, Jesus, in the bargain. Later, when we were visiting in 2001, he took me aside and said, "Please tell me, padrino, how my father and you were nearly killed when my father took the wrong turn and the motorcycle you were on drove down all those concrete stairs to the edge of the riverbed." A quick finger-across-the-throat sign from Victoria kept me from spilling the beans on that one.
Which brings us to 2015 and Ecuador. Nothing much has changed with the church, apparently. The people seem to maintain a rather schizophrenic attitude about religion here; it's an interesting meld between indigenous and European beliefs, e.g., in all of the locally produced paintings of The Last Supper, you will find a serving of roast guinea pig, an indigenous delicacy, resting on the table next to all those European traditional dishes. Now, that is true art; culture blending. The church, however, still clings to some of its more punishing dicta, one of which is that children will not ever be allowed into the kingdom of heaven if their parents are not married. In this case, little Shanik cannot be baptized because her parents cannot yet afford to marry. There is one escape route to this proclamation, and that is if the parents can rustle up a married couple (legal proof needed) to serve as godparents, and to symbolize that marriage is the one true course for couples to take, then Shanik can be baptized and all will be well with the world and, apparently her afterlife.
Shanik's parents, Kristhiann Jesus and Mirian came to us with a plea to please help Shanik have her baptism and we, having spent at least part of our lives as rebels, have now agreed. Upon our acceptance of the task, the family, which includes our wonderful friend and helper, Luisa, showed up at our house last night bearing gifts; tubs of fresh fruits and roast chicken, guinea pig and what looked to be a type of hominy. All this food, served round the table with joy and appreciation, solidified our place in this family of Ecuadorians. Mary and I, as usual, although it is getting much better and easier, stumbled through the language, not really the formal language, but the vernacular, but after several servings each of cheap boxed white wine, we all shared stories of triumph and sadness and hunger and poverty and the richness of culture and how is it possible for a married couple (I guess us) to remain married AND friends for almost 42 years. And to show that the entire night was not overly maudlin and sugary, we also exchanged accesses to apps for our respective phones and learned why the word "adios" is not used in Ecuador when you are leaving someone. Adios (goodbye), apparently here means something like "goodbye and I hope never to see you again until maybe your funeral." Which now explains why Mary and I got so many evil looks when we used the word so liberally at our arrival in this country. From now it will be only hasta luego or simply the universal ciao.
So we are about to embark yet another time on the godparenthood boat. Different hemisphere and culture, but actually it seems the same. Love, kindness, sharing, mutual respect, and of course, wine seem to save the day wherever you go in the world. We are happy to serve as ambassadors in this regard, but we might have to be careful. The mother, Rosa Elena, after her third glass of wine, had a brilliant idea. She said, "Why don't Mary and you just make it all easier by serving as padrinos for every single one of my 13 children when the time comes that they each need them." At that pronouncement, I filled my glass to the brim, tipped it toward Mary, shrugged my shoulders and said, "Salud."
Here's to our health. And to our new herd of godchildren.
Here it is August and I notice I haven't been on here since January. I'd like to blame something like more surgeries or lottery winnings, but it's just life cruising along, allowing me to be lazy and forgetful, although during this time I've finished the first draft of three novels and am busily working on another (adult this time around). I've visited the States and now am back in Ecuador, which feels more and more like home, especially after those wretched one hundred degree days in North Idaho. And the fire. It missed our cabin...damn. It could use a remodel. I do grieve for the folks who lost theirs. Nature can be wicked. We saw the grandgirls, which was lovely, if not tiring. I mean, the energy in those three could power a second world country.
But the focus of this particular post happens to be the dire circumstance that we returned to no Bump. Nowhere to be found. Wheedle was here, fat and sassy; a full grown hen now. But no Bump. You may recall that as he matured, Bump was becoming something of a legend in the chicken run. He grew taller and thicker than any rooster I've seen in a long time, and his temperament left a lot to be desired. I fed that chick from my hand, rescued him from a terrible choking disease, and how does he repay me? By chasing me around the pen every time I dared step foot inside. He'd wait until my back was turned and then: Attack!. Plus, to be blunt, he would hump most everything in sight, including the wild turtle doves, if they would stay still long enough to allow him purchase. It was becoming a problem.
Apparently the problem was solved in our absence. Luisa tells us that his romantic aspirations turned deadly soon after we left. So potent was his ardor that while doing the deed, he would rip part of the very combs off a couple of the hens. He ended up actually killing one of them, which on the farm, does not a dutiful rooster make. The situation called for drastic measures.
Upon our return, I noticed we now have four roosters ( two of which were adolescents when we left, but two of which I had never seen before). The latter two are fighting cocks, small and sleek and a bit savage. They spend a lot of time eyeing each other up and down, getting in vigorous pretend fights, and running from me as I represent the great big world who came in one day and removed Bump the Terrible. Maybe they think they could be next. We were also missing two hens (the one, as I mentioned, was murdered, the other was apparently, a failed rescue attempt). And Bump? Well, as Luisa so eloquently put it, "My mother says he was a little tough for such a young rooster." Even after having been boiled for most of the day.
I have to say I feel some measure of relief not having Bump here. I still have Wheedle, who I like to think of as the last survivor of the famous Peguche Nine. One chick living into adulthood isn't bad in such a harsh world, is it? She lays every day, jumps up on my shoulder and pecks at my earlobes if I haven't fed her enough, and generally represents the coop quite well. Things have calmed down considerably. There is order in the run once more.
A couple of weeks ago, Luisa brought over a hen and her newly hatched seven chicks for us to watch and care for. It is a tradition here; if you look after a hen and her brood, then, when it is time for them to be weaned, you get half of them and the others go back home. Gretl is a good mom, albeit highly anxious, and she has flown at me a time or two when I get to close to her kids. I'd rather see that; violence with a purpose, than experience it unprovoked and downright abusive as in the case of the late Bump. May he RIP.
Now, what to do with Gregor, Felix, Ferdinand and Groucho?
The holidays are long here, especially when they are punctuated by the sound of fireworks about every ten seconds, a condition that begins right around the first of December and has yet to end. I am told that some time next week is the official end of the holiday season but I'm not keeping my fingers crossed. Our dear friends, Jan and Sheila, left yesterday afternoon to go back to the States after spending a month with us. We will miss them; Bump and Wheedle will miss them.
Bump, as you my recall, or maybe I haven't blogged about him, is the female chick who miraculously turned out to be a male after all but one of his chick-mates succumbed to a strange Ecuadorian malady called gape worm. The other survivor, Wheedle, is a Transylvanian naked neck chicken, a breed not known for its good looks, but are excellent layers I am told. Gape worm disease occurs when free-range chickens pick up the eggs of the gape worm in their daily rounds, and these eggs eventually hatch and turn into worms that crawl up the esophagus and attach themselves right near the windpipe, where they tend to block respiration and make the chicken sound like it has pneumonia. The chickens walk around gasping for breath and thus the name; they open their beaks wide and look to be belching or something very near to that. Anyway, five of the seven chicks met their feathery maker during the siege and only Bump and Wheedle survived.
As a result of their survival and my sentimental nature, Bump and Wheedle have had the run of the place during their development, the run of the place meaning, free access to the lettuce patch, their own special Narnia of a field of very tall cosmos, and the right, apparently, to poop wherever they please, which usually turns out to be somewhere very close to each of the doors of our house. This can cause quite a commotion with the humans who live on the property, namely Mary the woman who claims that we've been married for 40+ years, but still has been unable to locate the actual certificate to prove this allegation. Mary does not appreciate chicken poop on her sidewalks and in her doorways and for some time has brought up the issue of whether Bump and Wheedle are now old enough to make the leap from free-range to the Big House, where the three other chickens live, or might I say, lie in wait for the inevitable arrival of what they like to call "fresh meat".
My stance has been that B and W are still mourning the loss of their cage-mates and need time to work through the process of growing up, while Mary subscribes to the notion that if you're old enough to poop, you're old enough to integrate. I suggested that the trauma B suffered from being thought to be the opposite gender for the early critical weeks of his life absolutely demanded his freedom from incarceration for an additional one to two month period. Mary compromised and said we could leave it up to Jan and Sheila, which was a boon for my team because Jan and Sheila are easily bribed and so Bump and Wheedle maintained their freedom during the entire month of J and S's month long stay.
But, as I mentioned, they are now winging their way back to America, and Bump and Wheedle are facing the Mary Tribunal, meaning they are doomed because one Mary makes up an entire tribunal, and she gets the only vote.
"They must want to be with their own species," she says. "I think it's natural. Even I dream of one day being placed back with a husband who is actually a homo sapiens." Funny.
"The older chickens will attack them because they're not fully grown yet," I counter.
"And just where do you think the phrase, Pecking Order, comes from?"
I don't dare tell her where I really think it comes from and I relent. When it comes down to the soles of my shoes, I'm not the greatest fan of poop either. Bump is easy to capture. I just throw down a few grains of cracked corn and he is mine. Wheedle, on the other hand, who apparently has been taking lessons from Mary, is suspicious of my generosity in the middle of the day, and decides to engage in free ranging for an additional period of time.
I could show you pictures, but I try to keep depictions of violence at a minimum in this blog, so suffice it to say, the addition of Bump to the seasoned "lifers" in the Big House, did not produce positive results. Bump, forgetting he was a cock, ran from them like a little baby girl chick, making all sorts of non-cock noises as he found a safe hiding place on top of the woodpile, where he shook so hard, his feathers started floating to the ground.
"See?" I said to Mary. "See what you've done to that innocent little cock?"
She nodded and said, "It wouldn't be the first time." Funny again. A humorist in my own midst.
Meanwhile, Wheedle found a spot where she could talk to Bump through the electrified razor chicken wire (not really, but the image is kind of funny), and he was able to unload his emotional baggage and ask her to ask the powers that be to re-think the decision and perhaps allow her to bring a corn cake into the pen, and would she be so kind and clever to hide some kind of wire cutters in it and spring him from the vicious trap he'd been placed in.
But, unbeknownst to the trusting Wheedle, I was able to sneak up from behind and grab her and introduce her to the new digs, which served to take the immediate heat off Bump, and allow his escape to the far end of the pen.
So much squawking and cursing ensued; the chickens cursed, I squawked, that I finally had to leave these animals and let them sort out the so-called pecking order. Which they have done nicely. The latest news from the Big House is that Bump and Wheedle have established themselves as the new chicks on the block and they have kindly agreed to let the old hens eat their fill before they try to edge in and nourish themselves. Things have calmed down considerably.
Meanwhile, back inside the human house, having seen the orderly way in which the chickens solved their problem, Mary has now instituted some rules and established a new pecking order. I no longer am a free-range husband. I must preen myself in a fashion that pleases my wife. I have to present myself for inspection on a regular basis. But I drew the line on one requirement that Mary eventually caved on.
I am not required to lay any eggs. Except, it seems, for this blog post.
Not to be confused with the infamous Japanese World War II battle cry, Tora! Tora! Tora!, which is an acronym for lightning strike, although both can be seen as occurring within the context of some kind of war. Suba is the formal command form of the Spanish verb subir, which basically means to climb, or as in the case of the Ecuadoran transportation system means, "Get your slow ass up in that bus or we'll leave you behind!" May lightning strike the driver's assistant who decided I was not climbing up fast enough and who used his considerable strength to hoist my rear end into the bus to Quito amid a cacophony of applause and relief and, dare I say, ridicule.
From the outset, I have not been a fan of the bus system, although it is quite efficient and with buses aplenty. These buses most resemble a cross between an American city bus, a Greyhound and what looks to be the tuck and roll back seat of a '57 Chevy. It's the efficiency that I think is my biggest gripe, moreso than the occasional inability of the sliding windows to slide on a hot day. But the infernal efficiency. Not a grand, exacting, near-to-perfect German kind of efficiency, but its more high-spirited and boisterous younger brother, bat-out-of-hell efficiency. It seems important for every driver and his assistant to keep to a schedule that no one really knows the meaning of nor understands the finer points of, except that when it is put to use, one best hang on with all his might or he may realize the fate of the 80 year-old indigenous woman who nearly met a wicked end on the side of the road the last time Mary and I ventured to the big city.
Suba! Suba! Suba!, the assistant yelled to her as she tried to mount the stairs carrying on her back a rather large bundle of something or other that seemed to be squealing, wrapped in one of her blankets. Now, I am not a stranger to the rules of carriage in this Ecuadoran bus system, and I do know, through personal experience, that it is considered reasonable to transport animals along with you and your belongings ( I learned this on one of my first bus rides when a man got on with two bags, handed me one and said, "Would you mind holding my cock?").
Anyway, this woman was halfway up the stairs when the driver decided she was on enough for government work and peeled out - as much as a bus is capable of peeling out - doors open and flapping, the SRO crowd clinging to the weakly soldered pullstraps, and the able assistant imploring the stragglers to, "Glue yourself to the person next to you, there's not enough room up front!" While this may sound humorous in the telling, when you're the actual person being glued to, it's less compelling an experience, and as it turns out is a frotteur's playground. And all this is happening as the aforementioned 80 year-old with the suspicious bundle is still teetering on that fine line of being on or off the rampaging bus.
I wondered at that moment if this was some kind of South American Darwinian experiment- the Galapagos do belong to Ecuador, after all - like teaching toddlers to mind the traffic by placing them precariously on the side of the road and in swiping distance of one of these buses on a schedule. And it was, apparently, as we all found out.
There is a second part to an Ecuadoran bus trip of any length, and that is that in order to ensure the orderliness of the schedule there is placed, about half way through it, a measure of the efficiency of the bus and it driver, and while the 80 year-old was still trying to get her bus legs under her, the vehicle suddenly stopped, if not on a dime then surely on a quarter, throwing the woman with the squealing package back off the bus, where she instantly dives into a tuck position and rolls down the incline into a ditch conveniently filled with last night's rain.
"I was right!" I shout, as a piglet wiggles out of this woman's pack and, even though you might not have believed it possible before, takes to swimming the ditch in a desperate attempt to escape the humans and rejoin his much saner porcine comrades. Meanwhile, the assistant has leapt off the bus, jumped the ditch, and is speeding toward a meter on the outside of a nearby house where, once he arrives, he slides a piece of paper under a stamp and punches the lever strategically placed above it. A time clock, I am quick to surmise. And as he returns, somewhat slower than his advance, he seems to be shaking his head. Bad news. They must be seconds slow or something because when he gets to the ditch, a new look of determination festoons his drooping features.
Forget the struggling octogenarian below him, forget the pig, no don't forget the pig. In a masterful pas de deux, the young assistant, I am sure in an attempt to rescue the drowning woman, inadvertently scoops up the pig instead, understandable since both the woman and the pig are squealing at this point, and shouts to the driver before he can get a good look at what he has in his arms. "Get going! We have time to make up!"
And we're off. The SRO crowd leans left as a unit before stabilizing as the driver shifts into second, and then a second lean as he shifts into third. I do get a final glimpse of the poor old lady who is now on her knees in the ditch, shaking her fist and most likely saying, "Pare! Pare! Pare!", which is the formal command for, "Stop, you imbecile."
Sadly, this seems an unlikely possibility. Ever.
I live at the foot of a 15,000 foot and then some extinct volcano called Imbabura, more colloquially named Papa Imbabura by the locals. Papa is supposedly married to Mama Cotacachi, which stands at 16,000 feet and then some miles across the primarily eucalyptus valley. Papa is said to be responsible for the weather in Peguche, the indigenous village in which I reside, while Mama seems simply to bear the brunt of some rather ribald humor regarding the occasional crust of snow that can be seen at her tippy-top. She seems not to influence the weather in the town of Cotacachi, rather she observes Papa's occasional boiling rage and is, according to legend, the recipient of some of his most ardent offerings.
Which is all to say that Papa must be really angry because the weather in Peguche of late has been less than ideal. Someone in Peguche, as another legend goes, and I am beginning to believe this particular legend, has angered the god and he has responded by pissing all over our fair village. Daily. Sometimes hourly. We have had thunderstorms, some of them of the violent variety, every day for the past week. And the rain. I grew up on the west side of Washington State so I am no stranger to the wet stuff, but this, well, the term deluge comes to mind. And whenever there comes a deluge, our house suffers the consequences. There is a lot of bubbling and fountaining of pipes; we are treated to the drip-drip-dripping from the ceilings, and sometimes, because of the wind, the rain slants sideways and comes in through the windows and, yes, through the gutter that lies exposed in my studio because my studio is an add-on to the original house and they couldn't figure out how to meld the two rooflines together, so they left it open where they meet and installed a gutter, which I can literally reach up and touch. So, at either end of the gutter is a rather large space, open to the elements and the wildlife (I have encountered a bird or two desperately trying to escape), which also allows the rain to insinuate into my studio like a ganglionic cancer. This is all to say that the god at whose rocky feet we worship, is not happy with someone in the village and I have taken it upon myself to find the culprit and mete out whatever is the appropriate punishment for this sort of crime.
"But what do you expect?" says the ever-positive Luis. "You live at the base of a huge mountain, and when it rains, water runs downhill."
So it's now he chooses to be scientific about it as I stand on top of a wooden cutting board, which stands on top of a wadded up plastic bag, which is fitted haphazardly over the drain in the kitchen floor to stem the tide of the reverse plumbing issue, while outside it is nearly impossible to see through the sheets of rain Papa is sending our way.
By the way, Luis was my first guess as the offending citizen and I was quite prepared to climb Imbabura and dump him without much ceremony into Papa's throat and end the madness, until he reminded me as he struggled in my fireman's carry on the way up the hill that he is actually a citizen of La Calera, closer to Mama, and thus not responsible.
"Drat," I say. A word that I would like to bring back to more prominent usage, because it's the kind of word that fits when you see water escaping from under the cutting board and plastic and running across the floor of your kitchen bringing with it that elusive fragrance of grey water, or is that sewage? "Drat." Remember that word the next time you find yourself under similar circumstances like, say, when the wrong people get elected to public office.
Luis, as he watches me prancing about in the rain, my thinning white hair plastered to my head, has very little to say. Just two things, actually. "Watch out for that bus." and "You know, you and Marita are the first and only gringos who have ever lived in this village. Maybe there is a connection there."
All right. Granted, our appearance in Peguche has not been without its trials. Some folks are not happy with outside interference, and I get that, while others seem pleased to have us traipsing around trying to understand how to fit into a culture far older and perhaps wiser than our own. So I feel I must consider what Luis has said. Maybe it is me (no one ever hinted that I might not be a narcissist), and I am the cause of such umbrage taken by the local volcanic god. If this is true, should I then sacrifice myself? While ignoring the Greek Chorus screaming out a resounding "yes!", I am determined to uncover a better plan. To appease this god, it will take more than mere human sacrifice, and just try to find a goat to put over hot coals and fan its burning fragrance up a mountainside that is determined to wash you out. No, it must be a technique only a Papa would understand. And I think I've finally found it.
Mama Cotacachi, who, as I re-read this post, has taken on a role not unlike a cypher, actually figures prominently in the solution to my problem. At least, that is how legend goes here in the indigenous wilds of northern Ecuador. I have noticed for quite some time that there has been a lack of the white stuff on top of Mama. Maybe it's been too mild ( we are on the equator, for Imbabura's sake), or it's simply the fact that Papa and Mama have had a little tiff and they are now on opposite sides of the valley, turned in the other direction, hands folded at their chests, each refusing to give ground to the other. This is a state of union that a great many Papas and Mamas have found themselves in. Someone needs to intervene.
"You must treat Imbabura with the respect he deserves," Luis says. "If he is the phallus of the valley, then your property as well as all the property in the village, stands on his scrotum and you must be very careful. You must not drive your picks and shovels too deep into his flesh. You must provide him with only the best natural fertilizers. You must caress the soil as if it were your own skin." Boy, these pagans turned Catholic sure know how to form a titillating analogy. But maybe there is some truth to what he says. Is the solution to my problem of Imbabura's madness simply some kind of agronomic reacharound? After all, gods are only human, as they say.
So, here I am, lying on my back on the scrotal skin of my local god, staring at the sky while the piss of the ancients falls all over me. I have taken Luis at his word, though, and have only been good and decent to Papa. I have provided his flesh with only the best chicken poop; I have planted only the most nurturing of flora and yes, I have petted his soil in only the most loving of fashions.
And so, as it turns out, Papa Imbabura is not unlike most men. In clearer language, men are pigs...Maybe I shouldn't say it that way, but if the oink fits. The solution is simple and has been in front of me all along. Sometimes it's geology, but sometimes it's simple biology. Imagine what must be building up inside a volcano that has been extinct for millennia. I hope that one day soon I will wake up and look outside my bedroom window to see Mama Cotacachi covered with a topping of white. Then, I believe, the rains will stop here in Peguche and we will return to eternal spring. So, I will take this moment to say to Mama Cotacachi, "Sorry, but the only problem facing us is that the prick on the other side of the valley just needs a little love."
I think it started with, "You lie!", those famous words from Congressman Addison Graves "Joe" Wilson, Sr. (R-SC), when he disagreed with something President Obama was saying in his State of the Union Address in 2009. Of course, he was a republican, and of course he was from the south, and of course he was yelling this to our first African American president. Say what you will about whether Mr. Wilson would have shouted this out, or even shouted at all if the president had been white, there are still some very hurt feelings that prevail in certain parts of the country, that have to do with a particular side losing in the most pernicious war of our history. Etiquette, gentlemen, etiquette, unless of course the application would apply to certain American subgroups previously denied access to the White House as a permanent resident. In Mr. Wilson's district, I guess, of which he is the role model, one applies the rules unequally when it comes to respect. Why Mr. Wilson chose such an august occasion to change the tenor of the traditional rules of congressional conduct such an event as a State of the Union speech can most likely be traced back to the decision by one, Jerry Springer, former mayor of Cincinnati, to mount a television show showing us just how dysfunctional regular Americans can be given the opportunity to act out in front of a camera.
Mr. Springer launched his show in 1991, and advertised it as an alternative to Phil Donohue and his ilk, but the ratings were not satisfactory and in 1994, he and his producer revamped the show to include "regular" families in scripted fights and public disclosures of heretofore private circumstances. Springer came by this naturally, we are to, assume, as he was once arrested for soliciting a prostitute while on the Cincinnati city council. He was found out through the fact that he had written the hooker a check and the check had bounced. This reaffirms my own personal notion that there are certain categories of people in the world that you do not piss off, and one of them would seem to be prostitutes. In any event, ratings exploded, which left the more sedate programming scrambling to catch up.
As many of you may know, I have a certain affinity for chickens, having thought I was one for a few years as a child until the medication kicked in. It didn't help much that my family members called me Foghorn Leghorn during the toughest times, but that was/is my family and thus is unchangeable, according to them.
Which I guess explains why it is so bothersome when my chickens turn up missing. Not just one or two due to the wily ways of some predator, but in dozens, such as approximately two dozen during the period of my absence from the Ecuadorian coop. Even Bolivar, my famous cock, was whisked away under cover of darkness while my head was turned toward the Northern Hemisphere. I have begun a round of questioning regarding this fiasco and so far have come up with nothing. Except for this: Apparently, during a heavy rain storm sometime in the spring, the back wall of our property, which does not belong to us, the wall doesn't, I mean, the property does; said wall crumbled leaving the wide open spaces beyond it open to Bolivar and his clan to do a little exploring. Luis is insistent that they vacated the premises and met their fate in that manner. Later, Luis suggested that the neighbor who is building the wool factory next door and behind us, may have taken the opportunity to either stock her freezer with Bolivar bits or to create her own new platoon of fowl. In any event, I have seen neither hide nor feather of the chickens since our arrival.
Otherwise, all seems relatively well. Mary found two scorpions hiding behind the ceramic borders of the temporary dining room, their appearance and ultimate demise then prompted a story from Luisa, who says her grandmother once told her that the best remedy for varicose veins is to catch two scorpions and one millipede, place them in a glass full of cane alcohol, leave them for one week and then use the liquid as a treatment for that particular disorder. When I reminded her that scorpions do sting and that it hurts, she looked at me as if I had missed the whole point of the story, that being that some things abut the world are dangerous but that doesn't mean they can't make good medicine. I am duly humbled. And she also said, "You know, you really can't find a decent scorpion when you're actually looking for one." I must admit, that is the first time I've heard that phrase in all my 63 years.
I will endeavor to join you all on a more regular basis now that I'm here again. The word for this season is beauty. I have vowed to appreciate all things beautiful in the world, and to that end, as some of you may understand, I have installed a mirror in my study so that I may gaze upon all of those little glimpses of beauty around me. Oh yes, and all the beauty beyond the mirror as well. See you all soon.
No, I'm not talking about erectile dysfunction so I'm sure that will weed out a few readers from the get-go. I want to talk about depression, (which should also weed out a few as well).
When I was a graduate student in the Clinical Psych department, I spent more of my time in the Applied Psych headquarters because, among other things, my wife was a student in that department and I enjoyed spending as much time as possible with her. I used to suffer from SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it generally struck in the fall of the year, most specifically between mid-September and Thanksgiving. I can recall it not being a simple depression or "feeling blue", but a real question about my actual existence and the meaning of my life. It was profoundly debilitating. While my graduate program whirred on around me, I can remember finding any way possible to avoid the reality of it and pretend that I could get by just fine without giving it the attention it deserved. Apparently, the students in the Applied Psych department picked up on my distress, the reason they're called Applied Psych students, I guess. They tend to pick up on things in the real world. And, sweethearts that they all were, they coined the phrase: "Looks like Ed is having another one of his E.D.'s (existential dilemmas). Even I thought the play on words was funny at the time, but it did very little to alleviate the symptoms.
The recent death of Robin Williams brought up again the issue of depression for me and how it isn't simply a one word explanation for what it can be. Like the Arctic peoples have 50 or so different words for snow, (and that is not a language hoax as some detractors have claimed) there are innumerable ways to describe depression, and as many different types of it as well. If you say that you have never felt one of these types in your life, then you are lying because it's part of being human to at one time or another experience the range of emotion that life has to offer. Most depressions were and are highly recoverable even before the advent of modern anti-depressant medication. You must slog through them, clinging to the knowledge that these ideas that are running through your mind are just "the depression talking" and are not permanent.
Lest you think me naïve about the horrors of significant depression, let me assure you that I am not. I have witnessed the zombie-like shuffle of folks severely debilitated by it. I have listened to their stories about the worthlessness of their lives and the absurdity of living from day to day given the ultimate outcome. And I have felt it myself. Existential depression is a real form of the disease and perhaps its most destructive. Because, what do we have if not our very existence? And where does our very existence come from? From our minds and how we think and feel about ourselves.
It may be a wholly American invention to believe that those who have money, fame and are loved by all, have everything. That the trappings of one's life are what make up his or her life. Silly thought, really. Whether you are wealthy or famous or loved by many, life can be a miserable thing to experience. People betray you. Boulders roll down mountains next to interstate highways and crush your car with you inside. People will kill you to protect their own rights. And it's finite, this life thing. Finite. That's the existential part. What other species grows up knowing of its own impending demise? How do you fight your way out of that realization? By taking control of it, I suppose.
I realize as I am writing about this that I might be suffering from just a touch of the old E.D. For some reason, I have empathized with Robin Williams and his decision. I am convinced that he wasn't just depressed - from all accounts, he suffered from depression for a good long time - but that this time his depression was existential. His very existence was in question and not by other people or professional circumstances, but by himself. That may be the part that is hard for people to understand about taking your own life. The battle is with yourself, not with your ex-spouse or the popularity of your latest movie or stand-up performance. Yourself. The loneliest and most difficult battle of all. For that's what the E.D. has to offer you. You can be surrounded by hundreds of people who love and adore you, and still feel like the loneliest person in the world.
In the end I don't know why Mr. Williams chose to take his own life. Nobody can know. But I do know that existential depression probably had a lot to do with it. From all accounts, he died alone and that in itself is the most existential of all conditions.
Now, don't you wish I had talked about erectile dysfunction?
Day after tomorrow we leave for the U.S. It's not the first time I've left a delightful place and come back to my home country and the feelings associated with it are pretty much the same. I don't really want to go. I would like to stay a little longer, you know, to see the chicks I raised grow up, to see the flowers Mary planted bloom, to nurture our new relationships with folks both ex-patriate and indigenous. And to continue to reap the benefits of living in a culture that challenges me and my thinking process.
Ecuador has granted me the freedom to explore my own ideas and put them on paper. Could I do this in the U.S.? Of course, but I don't seem to do it as well or as prodigiously as I do in other places. I need the stimulation provided by another language, by another way of doing things. I need to be reminded of my own humility, which happens every day when I butcher the language or the customs. As in: "Why are there no bombs in the kitchen?" or "The sharks on the terrace are trying to get me!" I am pleased to announce that Ecuadorians have a sense of humor about these things.
And the parties. It seems that every week there are fireworks going off and parades up and down the street with brass bands and face painting and the traditional spraying of strangers with silly string. That is not done on my block in the U.S., and if it is, it's called Halloween and happens only once a year in bad weather.
You see what happened there? Just thinking about coming back to the States dried up the well. Yes, we're back. I said goodbye to the chickens, told them that the people who are renting our pig sty were in charge of feeding them in our absence (there was some discussion about whether we actually have a pig sty, but those clucks were quickly extinguished), planted the last of our trees and flowers, and left in the late afternoon under cover of ignominy.
Before we left, we talked about a name for our place so we could discuss it with friends and give it some substance. I think we may have settled on La Huerta del Angel, the Garden of the Angel, which was coincidentally also the name of the place we rented in Spain all those years ago.
"Which one of you is the angel?" Luis asked when I told him the good news. "Because I'm not exactly picking up an angel vibe from you." Luis, who has spent the last six months trying to make me a Catholic, added, "Besides, I'm not sure you can call your place by that name if you don't go to Mass every week."
I told him that the intent of the name was to make more angelic all those who entered the property, with a special focus on his devilish nature. He laughed and laughed and then, of course, sprayed me with silly string.
I hope to re-kindle the blogging spirit now that we are settled in. We are here for six months and then it's back to South America for Round 2. The little lake town I live in has an annual 4th of July celebration that includes a parade filled with fire trucks and horses, and yes, once in a while a camel. People line up all along the parade route, trying to gather in as much of the penny candy thrown from the participants as is humanly possible. I plan to be there along the route, hanging onto my grandchildren and waiting for just the right moment, the precise moment, to spray the silly string into the unsuspecting faces of the paraders. Oh what fun we'll have. I wonder if using "It's traditional Ecuadorian party behavior" will work as a defense for the assault charge?