Friday, December 30, 2011

Ups and Downs

To use the word road was to be charitable. It is amazing to think that it was actually better back in the 1930s, when it was one of the more difficult stretches of Route 66. Comrade Jay was at the wheel, demonstrating remarkable skill in keeping the tires at the crest of the ruts, like a surfer trying to stay atop a large and difficult wave. We eventually left the truck at a place just before the road dropped down the steep black face of La Bajada. Far below to our left was a wide stream winding between banks lined with tall cottonwoods threadbare this late in autumn. Before us, the land fell away, with tall utility towers marching across the desert floor toward the Sandias and Mt Taylor further out in Navajoland. We made our way downward before those black walls speckled yellow with lichen, and other fossilized sea life living on now only as colors. Wide enough for walkers, it was hard to imagine people actually driving this steep narrow road, especially in the early automobiles of the day. Local natives used to wait here for drivers too timid to take on the hill themselves. They'd offer their skills for a small fee, then negotiate the hill in reverse, typically the strongest gear often that time. It didn't take us that long to walk the switchbacks down to the stream. We sat beside an old bridge, attempting to solve all the problems facing American society over the course of lunch. That accomplished, we made our way back the way up to the truck, ascending close to 1000 feet in about 30 minutes.

Not far away stands Tetilla Peak, whose name alludes to the obvious small breast of a shape that stands out at the southern end of the Santa Fe landscape. I'd long admired her curves from my bedroom window, my eyes often draw away while writing in this very blog. We left the truck beside a water tank pockmarked by the blasts of a shotgun, shells scattered amongst our feet. New Mexico's landscape is littered with similar scenes, these inanimate objects being only slightly less intelligent than the person blasting away at them. But with a sense of similar purpose we trudged up the hill just before Tetilla, dropping again somewhat before making our way up the breast itself. There was no trail to speak of, just a placement of feet atop rocks that resembled a hodgepodge arrangement of cobblestones. Walking in time to my rapidly increasing breath, I was thankful both for choice of sturdy boots, and for the fact that the rattlers were now passing the season deep underground in slumber. Just below the peak, the walls of Tetilla become sheer, a solid rock nipple rising erect toward the sun. We sat awhile with the ranges: the Sangres, the Jemez, the Ortiz, the Sandias, purple limbs stretching away in four directions. Filled up, we began moving downward, rushing along a sheer and perilous route, gravity with a hand ever upon our backs. It was quick going over rolling and rocky footholds.

The real adventure was to come. Our usually reliable Sierra Club guidebook mentioned that a longer 20 mile ride out along the mesa took us over a road in far better condition than what we'd come in on. This was somewhat true, until we hit a Y-junction, then another. Before long we weren't sure of our bearings, only that Santa Fe lay out there in front of us. The next challenge was the road, which worsened by the mile. Often, we'd forgo road altogether and cut across the desert awhile. It was beautiful country up there, moving along the low juniper trees growing redder as the sun began to fall. Occasionally Taylor and I got out of the truck to move large stones off the road, though it could hardly be called that by now. Jay made an astute observation that with New Mexico roads, the devil you know is better than the one you don't. At some point I tried the GPS on my phone and was surprised that I had reception. This helped a great deal, and we followed what looked to be the most direct route. Just as the sun dropped from sight, our tires hit tarmac. Out here, we laughed at a small landing strip, laughing that this is the place where Santa Fe gets all her drugs. Relaxed now, we turned on the radio, talked about football. Then we reached the locked gate. There was nothing to do but backtrack. The GPS revealed a road to the left, which we bumped along until...another locked gate. I jumped out of the truck to find another way through. It looked like we might have to sleep out here, and walk back to town to find someone to let us out. Two pickups raced past just the other side of the gate. Frustrated, I jiggled the padlock, and found it open.

We got back to town two hours later than expected, missing entirely the holiday party we'd hope to attend. Jay dropped Taylor and I back at my place, where we talked over tea about the joy of the hikes, and the fun had in unexpected adventure. Then the conversation began to be peppered with words like "If" and "Had We," spinning off completely then into the realm of the hypothetical and its usual permutations.

On the turntable: The Who, "Who's Missing"
On the nighttable: Oliver LaFarge, "The Enemy Gods"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


My Nana would've turned 100 today.

Tugaim póg duit agus beirim barróg ort...

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reader's Picks

While I don't have any opinion on what I consider the year's best read, I'm absolutely certain about what I consider the worst. "The Belen Hitch," typed in 2005, is a mystery set in my hometown of Belen, NM. I thought it would be good ironic fun to read it while home over Xmas, but it left a foul taste that detracted some from all the good food of the day. The Belen of the book in no way resembles my hometown but for a couple of street names. The few settings that actually do exist (Harvey House, Hub Motel, Pete's Cafe) are in fact nothing like they are represented. It's as if the author did her research based on a single drive through town. This makes a greater sin out of her essentially bashing the town in print. Even this would be forgivable provided it were penned in decent prose. But it fails here too, being written in the usual cliche'd, tell-don't-show method of pop pap. Allow me to find certain inspiration in the bad prose to say that a golden turd is still a turd. Then I'll go further, mixing metaphors in order to call "The Belen Hitch" a shit sandwich, quoting one unnamed critic writing on Spinal Tap's misunderstood 1980 LP....

On the turntable: The Jam, "The Gift"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Pink, yellow, blue.
Morning sky
Tries on new clothes.

On the turntable: Bob Marley, "Live"

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Papers: Stephen Colbert

"Folks, you know I’ve never been a fan of yoga. If I wanted to spend all day on the ground sweating in a contorted position, I would eat another gas station hot dog.

On the turntable: Richard Thompson, "Rumor and Sigh"

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Simple Twist of...

John Steinbeck's most famous line has the ring of Shakespeare, but was in fact penned by that Great Scot, Robert Burns. And it rings too in my world, in particular when I spend time with my friend Taylor. Most of our hiking plans tend to change while afoot, but it is in a car where things really "gang aft agley."

I'd long awaited the Matachines dances at Jemez Pueblo, but the weather forecast predicted snow. The day was in fact somewhat warm, so what did precipitate was a rain that aspired to a softer beauty. We drove south, through the more scenic La Cienega backroads, meeting the freeway briefly before leaving it again at Algodones. Not far off was the ruins of Kuaua, whose crumbling bricks lined the western banks of the Rio Grande, paralleling the high, winter-bare cottonwoods on the other side. We walked the ruins in the light drizzle, sadly denied the pleasure of entering the kiva whose walls were decorated with the colorful restorations of murals centuries old. I remembered them well from a visit 20 years before, on a day of similar weather. But we otherwise occupied ourselves with a few thrown snowballs and a stroll down to the river bank, dreaming of future picnics.

A short drive north brought us to the shadow of White Mesa, the name resonating by the minute due to the falling snow. We had our aforeplanned picnic in the car, the wiper blades occasionally returning the view to us. On the way to Jemez, we made a brief errand stop at the post office at San Ysidro, whose postmistress surprised us in being East Indian. She was a friendly and chatty woman, oft so caught up in the talk that she made three mistakes processing our post, quadrupling the time it would normally take. Ironically this delay conspired to cause us to miss the Jemez dances altogether, which were brought to an early conclusion due to the weather. Miki and I were astonished, as the identical thing had happened a month before at
Tesuque Pueblo. We had heard the drums on our approach, but by the time we entered the plaza itself, the dancers were moving away. Bizarrely, these were the two times that we had actually planned to attend a dance. The dances that we'd seen at Zuni and Hopi, had merely been random visits to the villages, but we'd been treated to a wonderful surprise.

Back in the car, Taylor and I talked of fate and those sequences of events that oft go awry. It occurred too in Jemez Springs, where a hot drink was nowhere to be found in a town closed early. A coffee may have brought some subconscious comfort on a day now gone to snow. We were traveling along Route 4, to examine the damage of the previous summer's fires. But snow blanketed all, clouds kept the adjacent hilltops just out of view. (I am pleased to see that LasConchas, one of my favorite places in New Mexico, seems to have survived, with the real damage on the other side of the road.)

Fate then decided to show a kinder face. A group of wild turkeys scurried through the drifts. And just above Los Alamos, we spied a herd of elk at least a hundred in number. Had we followed our planned itinerary, I doubt we'd have come across them. We stopped to watch a long while, the elk moving slowly and calmly through the snow, grazing, grazing. I stepped out of the car to pee, moving quietly into the trees. A bull with a massive rack of horns turned his great head, a few dozen meters away. Then a trumpet called from deeper in the forest, and the whole herd moved as one, a mass of gray shapes making for the hilltops. And I stood there paralyzed, as these animals, the smallest of which is at least twice my weight, hadn't made a sound. The whole scene had a magically quality to it, a serenity that I'm likely to revisit in future meditations.

Then as if in punishment for altering the fate of the elk, ours too took yet another turn. We hit Los Alamos proper at a hair past five o'clock, to join a long line of cars moving steadily toward a steep hill made perilous in the freezing rain. What would normally be a 45 minute drive was tripled. And as we inched along at 4 mph, we had ample time to weigh in on the fickleness of fate.

On the turntable: John Lennon, "Double Fantasy"
On the nighttable: Frank Waters, "The Man who Killed the Deer"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Shrikes flit amongst
snow-covered lavender branches.
Delicacy for bees
in warmer times.

On the turntable: Yes, "Drama"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nine months after...

I wrote this not long after the quake and tsunami of March 11. It appears in a less vehement form in the Quakebook collection. Buy yours here. Every cent of the proceeds go to charity.

That Friday, I awoke before dawn, in order to get to my early morning yoga class. As always, I swallowed a splash of coffee to fully rouse myself, then quickly checked my email before setting off. I noticed a message from my sister wondering if my wife's family was okay. I didn't have time then to check the news, and it was difficult to concentrate on my teaching that morning. It was only later that I saw the videos of the water rushing in. I watched one video after another, as if not quite convinced that this was real. NHK was streaming in another browser window, and in a third, I followed Facebook updates from friends. This last was the most surreal. From the nature of the messages, it was obvious that cell phone reception in Kanto was down, Facebook being the only reliable means of communication. But it was unsettling to this vicarious experience of the post-quake confusion in real-time. One post: "Where are you? Did you get the kids?" Another: "Trains stopped. Walking home. Google Maps says I should be home in seven hours." For the rest of the day I imagined my friends walking through the cold night. That night I couldn't sleep, my head filled with images of all that moving water.

The next morning, I checked in to see that a great many people I cared about were having a pretty rough time. It was also apparent that we had better access to news, when the media was still giving facts and hadn't begun squealing like nervous nellies. I went off to work, but couldn't keep my concentration. Even though my wife and I were safe in Santa Fe, loads of people checked in on us. My co-workers could see that I was disturbed. I'd already begun to hear about the sense of calm amongst the Japanese, about the absence of looting or advantage-taking. Yet minutes into my work shift, I watched a woman try on sweaters, then toss them in a heap on the shelf, all before the eyes of her two young children. In the big picture, retail came across as pathetic. My manager let me go home early . Once there, my wife told me how she'd seen a car rear-end another, then quickly U-turn in order to flee. What the hell is wrong with my countrymen? After a year back in the States, we are quite depressed about the state of things here, at the behavior we witness daily. A day before the quake we began to reassess things, and I began to look at grad schools back in Kyoto. The moral strength and cooperation we witness in Japan becomes almost the justification for a return, the sort of society in which we want to raise the child now deep in my wife's belly. I'm not such a pollyanna that I don't recognize the problems there, the things that once rankled. Over 15 years in country they'd slowly worn me down, in what one wit called "death by 1000 cuts." But America's flaws glare by comparison. (Though that's a rant for another day.)

By Sunday, we needed to turn off the laptops and go for a walk. The news was no longer fact-based and entered the realm of speculation. As the week went on, I relied more on Facebook and Twitter than any media source. The foreign press sickened me. On the first day, as I desperately tried to find out if people I loved were still alive, these websites forced me to wait for 30 seconds as they tried to sell me stuff. Their later sensationalized coverage will always be remembered as they created a panic of fleeing foreign Tokyoites and drew attention away from the true suffering going on further north. Again, the priorities and morals of my birth country astounds me.

As the week went on, our lives began to revolve around what was happening with the reactors. Online, silly humor interspersed with drop-dead seriousness gave me the impression that Tokyoites were slowly losing their minds under the worry about the radioactivity, as they were jolted yet again by another aftershock. By the following weekend, they began to write of other, more normal things, and in the international media, Japan dropped out of the top headlines.

And as we continue to live here safely in America, my sleep is still disturbed, I still finds myself occasionally shedding tears. It's incredible how emotionally attached I am to Japan. It appears the quake caused some profound seismic shift within me, as I begin to seriously consider where to live the rest of my life.

On the turntable: Asleep at the Wheel, "Live at Billy Bob's Texas"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Papers: Quanah Parker

"The white man goes into his church and talks
about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus."

On the turntable: Visage, "Fade to Gray"