Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chop Wood, Carry Water

PINE RIDGE Indian Reservation - Someday when I'm famous, you'll say to people, "Awwww, that guy used to send me his stuff allllll da time."

You can tell how importantly people regard your email messages by how quickly they respond, or if they blow you off completely. Sent directly to 'trash'. The electronic compost pile. Turn it back to worms. Maybe later it can sustain an intelligent life form.

On a diminishing scale from 'urgent', to 'delete', where do you suppose your communiques fall?

I joined up to 'MySpace', and after a month, checked it out. Brovic has ZERO messages, ZERO voice mails, and ZERO friends. Great. Made my day. I'm envious of Kim.

Kim has 13,186 friends.

No respect. Didn't just happen recently. I came off the bench in a home basketball game in which the score was tied. My job was to pass the ball inbounds. Somebody else would take the shot. If I couldn't get the ball into the back court, I was to hit Bruce on the sideline, in the corner. He'd be there.

Okay, so the defender was all over the inbounds pass, right?...jumping up and down and waving his arms around, so I faked the ball to the back court and heaved it with all my might, down the sideline to Bruce, except that other guy stuck his head in the way and took it flush in the face from about five feet away.


The crowd gasped, then laughed, then went, "Ooooooooh."

They had to call an official's time-out to check the kid out, all hunched over and holding his face, from which arose a hot circular reddening mass of welts from the raised pimples of basketball's surface, with the unforgettable NOSLIW etched into his face, his coach and the whole team, their fans, and even the officials glaring at me.

I was glad we were playing at home. I forget the score or who won.

Then once at the collegiate level, when we played St. Joseph's, who kicked our asses, the team bus left without me, and the janitor put me out of the building, where I sat on the stone steps until Coach came back in his car and got me, some four hours later.

And in baseball I set the school pitching record for Most-Runs-Scored-Against-In-A-Single-Inning, when the opposition, a team from Huntington, scored 17 runs in the first inning, and the coach just left me in there. After about nine runs I went over to the duguout and asked the coach to take me out. He said, "Hang in there. We'll get the other two outs."

It wasn't all my fault. There were a few fielding errors as well. We sucked.

By my senior year, they HAD to give me something, some kind of award, so they did, but it wasn't performance-based. I forget what it was. Somewhere in the bottom of a cardboard box that ended up among yard sale leftovers. Something like, 'Coaches Award'.

Why am I telling you this?


A history of comedy, I suppose. Even in the classroom, first as a clown, and later as a professor. Even the journalism was comedic, there toward the end, although it wasn't me who took off the micro-wave transmitter antenna from the mobile unit when it passed under the St. Mary's St. bridge. That was Charles.

And so, there was this comedy/tragedy thing going, a consistent modulating thread of trauma and carefree gaeity, horror to hilarity, a house of mirrors reflecting scars and laughter, and Bo sat here, oblivious to all the conversation going on around him, looked up blankly from the crossword puzzle at a spot on the wall, saying to no one, "I don't know shit about Shakespeare," then turned back down to the puzzle.

Every class needs a clown, and every ward needs a medic. Sometimes it's the same person. It could be in a helicopter, or maybe among amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical hospital. Maybe they'll laugh, if only for a little while.


"Outlaws!" Manuel shouted out into space as he stood inside the door, as if they were riding up on horses.

He got my attention up from the keyboard. "What's that?" I asked.

"Prisoners of war. Concentration camp 344," he said without looking over, still talking to that space in the distance upon which he always seems to be focused.

"Concentration camp 344? Where's that?" I asked.

"You're sittin' on it." he replied.

Manuel, who had ancestors die at Wounded Knee, and says he received his education in downtown Denver, skid row, is a fixture in the neighborhood and does some mechanical work. He'll typically enter and stand just inside the door like a Sergeant-At-Arms until someone says, "Sit down, Manuel. You're making me nervous."

Like a man who spends time alone and thirsts for listening company, in the span of fifteen minutes, Manuel covered history, philosophy, tribal government, the truck he's got to fix, a description of its transmission, the water lines to his house, and his ailments.

He was excited about rural water finally connecting him to the water line after five years of paperwork and waiting.

"I'm the first one in my family to get running water," he said. "Out of all the generations."

Manuel has an appreciation for water. He had a reason to be happy.

When living without running water or electricity, burning candles and carrying water jugs, one can gain an enormous gratitude for water. Chopping wood and carrying water. Hot water pot on the wood stove and simplistic living.

After sweat lodge purification ceremony a couple of weeks ago when there was but four of us who went in, there was still water left in the bottom of the bucket, and later I bottled it in a thermos and shared it around the next day, remembering what Kurt Fool Bull, from over on Rosebud (Cicangu Reservation, next door), had said one morning after a peyote ceremony when he noticed there was water remaining in the Morning Water pail as the people were about to leave.

"Let's not waste this water, relatives," he said. "It's been prayed over."

It was still cool. Cool and good.


Like the imperceptible impressions carried by water, some things are simply elusive and beyond our grasp, like the infinite, or Wakan Tanka, our faults, or that last house fly. Or that mouse, the husband/partner/companion of the she-mouse, her teats evidencing a nursing litter, her neck snapped in the trap, her eyes bulging with surprise.

Elusive like the writhing body of the rattler slithering back toward its decapitated head. There must have been a flash of recognition, or insight, when it realized its death was upon it, that the supreme moment had arrived, but if it could only reconnect, if only it could undo the trajectory of the flat shovel that pinned it against the elm.

It knew, and I knew then what it was thinking. Magnified by the moment of death like a bullhorn, the snake thought, "I don't think I'm going to make it through this one."


Manny, my trainer and mentor, used to say, "You think you know more than me, don't you?"

And I did, at times, think I knew more than Manny. I thought I was smart enough to make the perceptive cocktail party comment that spoke more of the author than the poem penned, in which nobody in the assembly, absorbed in self-importance, was the least bit interested.


Have you heard enough of the word, 'transparency', yet? How about 'traction', as in, a story 'getting traction'? I have. And what about 'went missing'? Pleeease. We're Americans, here. We don't talk like that. So why do American journalists have to talk like they're addressing a British audience? Next time you hear 'went missing' used, please shoot them, for me.

It was Manny who always used to say, "You gotta know your audience."

Captain Idiotic on the local air waves. Coming to you from the Nebraska panhandle, the capital of idiotic commercial radio advertising. Don't take my word for it. Come within the broadcasting radius and listen for yourself.

Up here, we get the Indian station, KILI, which is off the air, and two stations of redneck country music, singing about their cheatin' ol' lady, their no-good ol' man, their momma or their daddy.

At night, on the AM band, they've got guys on there who've got ALL the answers. You need answers? Tune in to AM talk radio.

So, for my work, material is harvested from the radio, since there's no tv or I'd actually have a tv if I had electricity. Not since '91. And my work, officially the 'Policy Analyst for the Office of Applied Methodolgy', requires input.

Some have asked what a policy analyst does. Well, we analyze policy. They don't ask me what I think when they're formulating policy. Only afterward. What it comes down to in real, everyday, 3-D world terms is, I'm the fourth or fifth guy in the pipe line. Like I said, no respect.

And that sort of flows over into Veteran's Day and my conversation in the van headed east with Tom, Milo, and Monique, who asked what the wings on my cap were for. I live for people to ask me that.

"Helicopters," I said sharply. "Eight-hundred and fifty combat hours."

"Vietnam?" she asked.

Tom interjected, laughing, "Yeah, we were winning when he got there."

Speaking for me hypothetically, Monique laughed, "'I'm just here to help,' huh?"


Do writers need to keep doing shit, or can they just sit around and make stuff up?

At the reunion, Bev, who is now practicing medicine in Maine, asked me what I'd been doing. I told her I was practicing medicine, too. Some landscaping consulting, some English teaching, some TOEFL tutoring, some out-patient roadside medical assistance, some beach restoration, some program consulting, and full-time stand up comedy. And, of course, there's the shower caddies. And...yeah, the Lord's work.

Maybe she thought that was all in the past decade, but actually, within the last six months. May sound busy, but when spread out, part-time, there's a lot of days I ain't doing JACK.

That's largely because on this reservation, there's many days that pass when nobody's doing jack. That's because there ain't jack to do.

Tom B's girlfriend from Rome said, "It looks like all those guys do is sit around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes."

So maybe that's why we're so big on ceremony. Something to do. Something to do for our spirits. Ain't nobody I know who's holy. Return to beginner's mind. Let the leader take out the garbage. Haul the stones, chop the wood, carry the water.