What are You?

I have asked my students to define their own culture.  It’s tricky, isn’t it?  Culture and race are different, at least to my mind.  Your race you inherit.  You have nothing to say about it.  Your culture you can bend.  You can embrace parts and leave others behind.  Your grandpa was a racist?  You don’t have to be.  Your grandma had eleven children?  You are not required to have any.

Here are the things I embrace about my culture.  I am a third generation New Mexican.  That means I like green chile on everything except the stuff I prefer with red chile.  I do NOT believe in rain (it’s just a myth) unless I am drenched by it.  I think Texas has an overblown sense of importance, but I like Texans, sweet and simple as they are.  I do not believe in following people closely on the highway.  Give all the other drivers room.  I think of the speed limit as a suggestion.  When the weather is nice, I like to drive slowly and enjoy the ride.  When the weather is nasty, I’m tempted to drive like hell in order to get home quickly.  I don’t think most of the people on the coasts even know my state is a state, and I think I like it that way.  The less other people know about me and mine the better (blog entries aside).

I am a McCollaum.  I don’t like to be interrupted, and I don’t like to interrupt others.  I will wait my turn.  I am not in a good mood.  I don’t know why this is, but McCollaums are rarely in a truly good mood.  We’re putting up with things.  I have a darkness always simmering in me.  I am a bad sport.  It is for this reason I do not mind being alone.  I’m less likely to do something that I regret if I am left to my own devices.  I value toughness over beauty, but I admire beauty in the same way that I always admire starlight.   I like to read and think, and I will go out of my way to hear something funny.  I am very thankful for what I have.

I am a Jones.  I like music and talk and sweets.  I can bake, and have since I was about three years old.  I want people to feel comfortable when they come to my house.  I like hosting parties.  The Jones clan are volatile, but their anger fades quickly.  They do NOT hold a grudge.  I think each year I become more Jones and less McCollaum because I forget a little bit more of what I once resented.

I am a citizen of the United States of America.  My father was a Marine as was my oldest brother.  My Grandpa Jones was in the Army.  My cousins have served.  My cousins still serve.  My brother teaches history, and he’s really good at it, and he understands more than most people about how this country was formed and the ideas that make it still worth defending.  I will defend my rights and the rights of others even when I do not agree with them.  I like this country.  That’s what makes me nervous about our current climate.

I am a Christian.  This is the most important part of me, the part I will not discuss too much because it is sacred, and because I am a McCollaum I will not handle it too roughly.    I want to be kind to others, to express love to them, to reflect the LOVE that has saved me from the worst of fates and from hate.

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Best of Huck (I)

This year I am teaching Juniors.  As part of their first assignments, I am writing parallel work.  This will only serve them in the slenderest of ways.  I hope it serves me a great deal.  I also hope it serves a reader or two.

We begin with a loosely organized journal in which I must pick five sentences from the first nine chapters of Huck Finn that I admire.  For each of the sentences I choose I must provide a rationale for why I admire it.  I will begin with the bibliography of my copy of the book.

Twain, Mark.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Penguin, 1985.

The first sentence I chose from Huck Finn is in chapter one.  “Then she told me about the bad place and I said I wished I was there”(10).  I find this sentence amusing, and that I always admire.  Since I have already read the book (several times), I also appreciate how it comes back much later and in a much more serious way.

My second choice appears early in the pages of chapter two.  “If you are with the quality, or at a funeral, or trying to go to sleep when you ain’t [sic] sleepy—if you are anywhere where it won’t [sic] do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upwards of a thousand places” (13).  Once again, I appreciate the humor of this statement.  Further, I appreciate Huck’s insight about how we respond to restriction.  If we are supposed to (or must) stay still, we are bound to want to itch or sneeze or yawn or laugh or something else that is forbidden.

The next sentence comes from chapter two as well.  “I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her”(16). Humor carries the day.  This sentence is funny, but it also shows that Huck has come to care for Miss Watson as if she were family.  He only has Pap, and so the gang is thinking of not including him because they will not have anyone to kill if he turns on the gang, but then he realizes that Miss Watson is someone he would be willing to protect, and she is steady and trustworthy and easy to find if the gang needs to kill her.

Another great sentence comes at the end of chapter five.  “He said he reckoned a body could reform the ole man with a shot-gun, maybe, but he didn’t know either way”(32).  This shows that the well-meaning new judge finally gives up on reforming Pap.  That does not surprise the reader after getting a chance to see how Pap treats Huck.

The last for this week has to be from chapter six.  “(Pap) said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek—but I couldn’t see no [sic] snakes”(38).  In this scene Twain creates a recognizable attack of the delirium tremens, the most severe symptom of alcoholism, the type of attack that can eventually lead to the death of the addict.  I chose this sentence because I do NOT like snakes.  They frighten me terribly, so being bitten on the cheek would be torture.  On the other hand, many of the sentences in the scene are as effective as this one, and some inspire even more terror.  It is remarkable writing, and a testimony about how dangerous it is for a child to be in the care of an irretrievable alcoholic.

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For the Reader

This month the JOY Writers are having one of their two yearly public readings at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.  It will be held in the Bassett Auditorium on January 21 at 2:00 pm.  The reading is free and refreshments will be served.  As part of this yearly tradition, we are bring out The JOY Reader, a collection of work from the group that will be available at the reading in January and at a reading in February (the 18th).  The collection will also be available online at LULU.com.  I’ll include a link in this blog post.

Anyway, I have a contribution to the reader that I am including here.  The group read it, gave me some feedback, I’ve revised it, and I offer it here.  It was fun to write.  It’s titled “Numinous.”

Some years ago, I’m not sure how many, but over thirty, my oldest cousin Sammy went to the family ranch with his 35mm camera and took pictures of the place. He also took a rather becoming portrait of my paternal grandmother. Later he found them, rich images in that unmistakable palate of Kodachrome, a subtle and poetic light washed over all old places and faces of childhood. He had the images made into large format prints and arranged in an oversized album. The first time I saw his picture of the ranch house I felt a shutter of love and recognition. There stood the old place in sharp bright lines.

A well-made photograph stops time, a moment is turned to stone or is trapped in amber, a moment that might otherwise be lost. There is something (other than historic data) powerful about an artistically delivered photograph. It allows me to study what I did not understand at the first or even the hundredth glance. It allows me to look at an expression of eyes, an expanse of sky and land, a home that can never be again. Oh, it is a dark mirror, a dark window, and I see through it but dimly, but I do see through it, and I remember.

It was in the Guadalupe Mountains, a place called Dark Canyon. When the family would go there, we would turn off the main highway right after Seven Rivers and head up to Klondike Gap, where the road evolved from blacktop to macadam, to sparse gravel, to a dirt and rock cow path that wandered into the wilderness.

The wilderness would rise up around us in scrub Juniper, Afgan Pine, and the smooth pink trunks of Medrone trees. The canyon would drop stepwise into a cool grotto of gray and white rock with an eternal pool of green water under a cliff overhang, and then there were a set of little rises in the bottom of the draw which eventually opened into a meadow where the cattle guard stood as a gate to the ranch.

The McCollaum Ranch was the well-head of my father’s family. The cabin looked as if it grew out of the mountain as naturally as the Live Oak that stood in front of it. The wire fence around the cabin stood tall, it seemed nine feet to me, but I was young in those days. Everything was tall. The fence was decorated with the antlers of deer and elk bleached white and spongy in the high mountain sun and thin air. The place had a growth of ranching structures that sprung out of the mountainside in the practical and random style of mushrooms at the foot of a great tree. The cabin itself grew along the flat of a narrow saddle in the topography, the oldest room being built of cut pine logs and caulked with a peculiarly formulated plaster, short on pretty but long on stout. It had two windows, one facing west and one facing south to catch the winter sun and provide a bit of warmth to a room I remember as cold even in summer, and downright brutal when the desert snows blew. From it grew another bedroom, a store room, a living room, a kids’ room, a root cellar, a kitchen, a wash room and finally what my family called an “indoor privy.” In its time the privy was state of the art, a room with a toilet and a shower stall and a drain in the center of the floor. By the time I visited, it was a child’s terror, a room with a dank cement floor and a colony of Daddy Long-legs of astonishing complexity and vast numbers.

The sink stood outside the privy door in the wash room, and it had two separate faucets, one for hot water and one for cold. Though the privy had a shower, when we visited we were discouraged from using it. As “town kids” we had no sense of water economy, and the family would fret and stew every minute that the water ran. Going to the ranch was a study in rural frugality and toughness, not things typically valued by little pink girls.

I never saw my Grandma McCollaum do laundry. I later learned that she only did laundry about once a month, waiting for the opportune day when the water tank was full, the breeze was light and the sun was shining to wash all the linens and clothes the family owned and hang them on the clothesline, the tall fence, and even on some shrubs and short trees so that between washes all the family had clean clothes to wear.

Grandma McCollaum was a study in all the grand proportions the ranch required. The largest and most hospitable rooms in the cabin were the kitchen and the living room, her special provinces. The kitchen had walls of storage cabinets and two stoves, one wood and one gas. She had cast iron pots and pans and Fiesta Ware dishes, and the table from which she served meals was long, wide, and sturdy. The family sat packed together on three benches, two long and one short because the fourth side of the table sat against the window sill of the big south facing window that had no curtain. The light dappled and glittered through the leaves of the Live Oak, and the steam rose from platters of fried chicken, bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy, sheet pans of scratch biscuits and hot water chocolate cake.

There was a severe English purity to the way things worked at the ranch. The men went out to the shop or the barn and tinkered with equipment or fed and doctored animals, and the women stayed in the house cooking. They cooked and cooked and the food smelled like heaven, and we were NOT allowed to snack, not one nibble, until mealtime. We kids were often sent out to play because after a couple of hours of smelling the feast in process, we were fully gaga with hunger and ready to engage in tragic theater or theft if we had to.

My Uncle Ben’s kids went to the ranch every weekend, and they evinced a superior attitude it would be impossible to describe. It had both obvious and subtle elements, a knowledge of the secret and special ways of the place along with responsibilities which set them apart from the rest of us. We were the pretenders. They were the genuine. However, if we were wise enough to swallow our own pride, a genetic trait handed down with two fists by the angels, we could follow our cousins’ leads in play that was often fun and occasionally thrilling with danger. Cousin Mary Ola was particularly gifted in fantasy, and she showed us ways to picture a mountain meadow as a village green with little houses mapped out in our minds by logs pulled into floor plans, flat stones as tables and chairs, pebbles from the creek bed shaped like lipstick tubes and round like compacts.

Eventually we would tire of even this delight and sometimes play on a rusted out roadster stranded along the path to the shop, pretending to drive and slamming the doors. We would finally give up and wander to the swing made of an old ox harness that depended from the limb of the Live Oak and listen at the window to hear if the women were ready to serve. When they called us, they did not have to wait on us.

The great manner of service at the ranch gave children a break, for anyone under twelve was served first. The men were then seated with their wives. Cousin Susy (Uncle Ben’s oldest) would return grace. She always said a very formal prayer with the same words. I was a teenager when I learned it was a Catholic prayer. Until that revelation I had no idea I had Catholic cousins. At the ranch the land was the religion, Grandma McCollaum was the high priestess, and even the dogs were members of the congregation.

 

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Big Fat Lies

Lately our landline is being inundated by a particularly loathsome scamming group.  It turns out there are these terrible companies that try to steal information from people through the computer, and they can also get one’s phone number and try to con a person into buying “security” for her computer.  The people will try and breach the firewall on the computer and then use all sorts of trickery and big fat lies to rob others.

I’ve always been fascinated with lies.  I don’t remember the first lie I ever told.  I’m sure it was one of self-preservation, the kind of lie a kid can be half-way into before realizing it is a lie.  Picture it.  A parent hears a crash in the other room, jumps up and runs in and finds a kid standing over some broken bit of kitch.

“Did you break that?” the parent asks.

Quicker than lightening the kid says, “NO!”

We all know why the kid denies responsibility.  The negative response is not even the answer to the question.  It is a yelp of misery.  “NO!”  I don’t want to be punished.  “NO!” I did not mean to do that.  “NO!” This is not happening.  Let’s go back in time and try again.

That’s bad.  That kind of lie opens the can of parenting worms no one likes to confront.  Still, that lie is easy to forgive.

Another lie that can be easy to forgive is the one that wants to come from kindness.  “Do you like this outfit?”

“Sure.  It looks great.”  Meaning, it doesn’t really look great, but I can tell you like the outfit so I’m going to spare your feelings and tell what we in this cliched world call “a little white one.”

Lies of that order are ill informed and guaranteed to backfire.  So be it.  They are also fully forgivable.  They mean well, and intention matters.  In all things intention matters, whether we admit that or not.

Some people will even argue there is a caliber of lie that is good.  If you are protecting the life of someone that is in jeopardy, you might feel justified in misleading someone.  After all, Moses had a sister who told a lie that made it possible for his own mother to be with him and protect him and love him.  I see the argument, but I’m not sure the truth wouldn’t have done just as much good.

Aside from the philosophical arguments about justifiable falsehood, there are some lies that stink like cat feces.  They are the lies that are intended to hurt others, dupe others, rob others.  These are the lies that erode the world and the soul.  These are the lies that lead to fraud.  These are the lies that blunt the conscience and yield some of the worst evils perpetrated on this earth.  These are the lies that people tell on the phone who say they got a “red flag” on their end, whatever that means, about my computer, or my mother’s computer.  These are the lies that say one person is more valuable than another person because one person is more educated or wealthy than another, or because of the color of her skin, or the location of his birth, or the day or year that life began.  These are the lies we need to resist forgiving and attempt to suffocate.  These are the lies we should fight.

(I’m ranting.  I really hate those pestering calls…and big fat lies.)

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Formative

I think everyone has the right to be in the minority.  It is an amazingly freeing experience.  Why do I say this?  The year I turned fourteen, my family moved to Canyon, New Mexico, and I started attending Jemez Valley High School.  In those long ago days, Jemez and Zia pueblo sent the majority of their teenagers to Jemez Valley High.  Eighty-five percent of the student body were members of one of those two pueblos.  Ten percent of the student body were of Hispanic origin.  The rest were of Northern European descent.  The vast majority of students assumed people of Northern European descent were weird dummies.  We were.  I was particularly weird.  I was particularly dumb as well.  I only spoke one language, a sure sign of lack of education in that multilingual world.  Almost everyone in that high school spoke more than two languages.

A further proof of my weirdness was I had meaty thighs and an ample behind, both uncommon in that world and unsolvable in my own.  I tended to read (a lot).  I liked to listen to music that was older than the usual demographic.  I had these weird older brothers, both of them grown men who owned elaborate stereo systems and extensive record collections.  (If anyone doesn’t know what those two things are, look them up.  Also, this blog is too old for you!)  I knew about Jethro Tull.  I had even listened to a band called Steely Dan (which I did NOT know much about).

I was first chair clarinet in band.  I did NOT drink or smoke or use profanity. I was as square as a cardboard box.  I would have been a weirdo in any school, but I would not have been tolerated half so well if I weren’t in the minority.  I was allowed to be weird because essentially I didn’t matter.

I was outside the world that really mattered.  The world that really mattered was as old as earth and mysterious as creation.  That beautiful world could not open its gates to my hirsute self.  It occasionally invited members of my family and me to spectacles and feasts.  We went and gently partook.  We could not join, except in the Baptist Mission Church that stood outside the Pueblo.  The church inside the pueblo was Catholic, but not like any other Catholic church.  I can’t explain how.

The mission church was not like any other Baptist Church.  We only met once a week (Sunday), and we started sometime near 10:00 a.m., though only in the general sense.  We would have Bible study and then services, with preaching and singing, and then we would have a pot luck with passole and orno bread.  It would take hours.  I read so many Bible verses those three years.  I like to read the Bible when the sermon doesn’t catch my attention so much.  A thing that happens still.

Anyway, being in the minority in one’s formative years teaches courage.  A person must be brave to enter a world in which she has almost no power.  Jemez taught me to enjoy and trust my weird, lonely soul.  I have plenty of scars and problems and shortcomings and toxic thoughts, but I am not afraid of being different.  It is not a tragedy.

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Define Hypocrite

I came to Roswell, America in 1992.  It was a good year to come.  There was still a bread bakery along Main Street that perfumed the air of this town, and though it has always been a desert island in an ocean of brutal light, it was, that year, a promising place to be. I found a little two bedroom apartment a two blocks from the First Baptist Church, and I moved in my few sticks of furniture and my mismatched washer and dryer.  Among the first visitors to that little home was Dr. Bobby Renfro, the best preacher I ever heard.  I always called him Brother Bobby because he asked me to do so.  Brother Bobby would occasionally discuss his witness to this citizen or that, and he would always respond to their criticism that our church was full of hypocrites that he knew it was.  “We always have room for one more.”  He was that kind of winking brainiac.

I have studied the Bible since childhood.  I’ve worn Bibles out in my life, thumbed them until the covers came off.  My beliefs spring from scripture and have grown up (in a weedy way) from my life experiences.  Though preferring to keep my spiritual cards close to my chest, lest I become an embarrassment to my family or my faith, I nonetheless confess my faith here.  But, it has been shaken.

This morning I accuse myself of being a hypocrite because this morning I spent several hours in the dentist’s chair.  He gave me a massive shot of numbing agent that lasted six hours.  During the procedure I realized that it had been days since I last prayed in the earnest way I ought.  I was tilted back with the lights suspended over my head, a rubber wedge between my teeth, the whine of a drill in my ears, and the smell of cinders in the air when I found myself praying that God send his angels to guide my dentist’s hands.  Pretty selfish, right?  I could almost hear my guardian angel saying, “Oh, so, you have a few minutes to talk to the Big Guy right now?  Not too busy right now?  Wouldn’t you rather call Him back when you have less to distract you from contemplating His will?”  It made me start to cry…and sweat…and choke.  I tried to say, “Okay.  Fine.  I’ll get to it later.”  But, no soap.  It was only a few minutes later when I was back with the “Please guide the dentist’s hands.  Please let him do his best work.  Please allow it to go well.”  Hypocrite.

I’m not done.  When I got home, my mother was concerned about why it took so long.  I was in no condition to explain.  She went out to water the garden, and the cat got out.  So once again, I’m praying, “Dear Lord, please do not let her wander into the road or another cat.  She’s completely inexperienced.  Please let her come back.”

Now, these all are earnest prayers, meant honestly, but they are quintessentially selfish, and someone who has studied scripture all her life, should not have to indulge in such prayers.  A non-hypocrite would have found a way to say, “Thank you, Lord, for teaching me that I can endure pain, and that I will feel much better when it is over.”

Maybe next week.

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The Cruel World

I’ve been out of the blogging world (I can’t stand “blogosphere”) for a few days for reasons I will not explore at this time.  I will say only, I went to a rather unusual memorial and ended up sitting on a cactus.  My life is a rich and varied pageant.

I will, however, write about the trip back from the memorial.  My friend Kyle Chaney and I carpooled to get to the event.  Kyle is a good driver and much more familiar with Albuquerque than I.  That’s why what happened on the way out of town was so great.  Kyle wanted to stop for a bathroom break before we hit the highway.  I’m always for such practical plans.  He just jumped off I-40 and headed in a random direction and ended up at a Circle-K neither of us knew.

It looked pretty well-maintained and nondescript when we parked, but things changed once we stepped inside.  In the middle of the store was an open cooler display of various cheap beers and fortified wines in 44 ounce containers. There was a line at the counter of folks wearing rump sprung polyester shorts and one of them had that little top-knot so in vogue these days.  Hideous.  There was a broom and upright dust pan full grayish oddments standing just beside the counter.  The place had an unusual perfume, a musty melange with top notes of old cigarette smoke and dust, a midrange of Colt 45 and coolant, finished off with the base of perspiration, urine, and ammonia.  But what really made the place special was the bathroom.

It was a unisex bathroom with a push hasp on the inside of the door.  The tile work was top notch but you wouldn’t notice that until you first noticed that the mirror had been scratched with great energy with words it’s best not to record here.  The toilet had the seat up and a glistening sprinkle of what I would call “boyish inaccuracy” on the floor in front of it.  On the wall was a condom dispenser that had descriptions of what types of condoms could be bought from it–ranging from something referred to as “like nothing at all” to basically a bullet proof “vest” for the more health and safety minded.  At least they had soap in the soap dispenser.

When we left and were back on the road, Kyle made an apology and said that he didn’t know why but he could always find some place terrible like that for a pit-stop.  I said not to worry about it.  It was not the worst place I ever saw.  I had used worse.  Obviously I had been to Europe and had been to campgrounds, so I have seen some stuff.  Then I thought, well, if you’re strictly talking about roadside public bathrooms in buildings, that one might be in the top five.  I’m not talking about latrines or port-a-potties.  Those are guaranteed to be terrible.  I’m not talking about home bathrooms or semi-private bathrooms.  Those are torture for other reasons.  Nope.  In the great world of quick-trip rest-stops with the public in mind, that one was probably my fourth worst.

Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t think of anything good or beautiful in the world, and I couldn’t forgive myself for all the ways I have failed to give my students concepts that would save them, I decided to make a list of my top five worst public bathrooms.

Number 5 is an outlier.  It is the girls’ restroom that was at Gadsten High the semester I taught there while their regular English teacher was in the hospital.  The stalls were made with the doors too close to the toilets and the walls too close to the toilets.  I remember thinking, “I may not be able to get out of this.”  They also had the old-fashioned super low toilets so that when you sat down you fell the last three inches and your knees were near your ears.  You learned sympathy for Gollum in that bathroom.  Sitting like that is bound to make you villainous.

Number 4 I’ve already given you.  Number 3 was the old bathroom at Clines Corners decades ago.  They had metal walls with thick brown paint.  Only fifty percent of the stalls had toilets that would flush at all.  The smell seemed perverse.  That was probably heightened by the incredibly filthy graffiti scratched on the walls, all over the walls, like some obsessive-compulsive maniac spent every hour finding new and horrible ways to insult every female within the community.  I hated those stalls, but I had to use them a lot.  They scarred my psyche.

Number 2 (ha ha) was on the same highway.  In Vaughn, there used to be a unisex bathroom with the air of a square prison cell.  It was painted an industrial white, but there were inexplicable stains everywhere.  It had just the one toilet in the corner, and often they were completely out of toilet paper.  This is part of what made it horrible.  The other part was the rusty drain in the middle of the steeply raked concrete floor.  This probably contributed to the  horrifying experience of having the toilet tilt and wobble when you sat.  It was terrifying.  Complicating that was the distinct possibility the toilet would not flush at all, and the long line outside the door would have the opportunity to examine your deposit along with their own.  And the smell.  The smell was an assault, like being slapped in the face with a dirty diaper.  Yet, it wasn’t the worst.

Number 1 was a gas station in Tularosa.  I don’t think it’s there anymore.  I hope it isn’t.  I only stopped in this one once.  This one had a toilet but no sink.  Understand, this scenario might as well be a woman describing hell.  The bathroom was perhaps three feet wide with a toilet but no sink.  No woman would use a room like that unless she was desperate, and if she is desperate, she is going to NEED A SINK.  Understand, this was a room inside a building.  It was supposed to be for public convenience, but only a man would think it adequate.  Heck, if I were a man, I would have turned around and gone behind the building.  Men can do that.  Women…only some can, and only at gunpoint.

All right.  All right.  I think this may be my single grossest entry.  If you made it to this, drop me a comment.  I promise I’ll respond.

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