The Wasp and the Hound

We were about 45 minutes into our long walk for the day. My mind was stuck on my persistent lack of money (mostly my fault for spending it all as soon as I get it). I was sick and resentful for being outside. My knee has developed a constant, dull aching that I feel comfortable chalking up to a combination of old age and constant straining against an easily excited 75 pound dog. His legs are notably more muscular than when I first took him home – who needs weights or resistance bands when you can drag your owner around for hours on end each day?

We came to a corner, and he’s learning (slowly) to stop before crossing the street, but this time his attention was on something – anything at all – down the road. I got frustrated and jerked him around to my side, but his gaze never left whatever he was staring at. I got down to his level and I held his face to mine, trying desperately to be entertaining enough to pull his attention from whatever he was transfixed on, but no luck.

When I finally stopped drilling my eyes into his skull and looked around, I saw a tall, well-dressed, waspy white woman with short, blonde hair look at me with clear disdain behind her designer sunglasses. She averted her gaze and sipped her latte, and I didn’t hear it, but I felt the, “Hmph!” as though she had slapped me in the face with it.

We started across the street, “What even is it that you’re looking at?” I asked my dog with as much sincerity as I could pack into a single question. “There’s nothing even there! Silly creature.”

Clearly nobody with a smooth tone and sincere interest in their dog’s likes and dislikes was capable of the consistent beatings my momentary lapse in poise suggested I was doling out at home. Or at least that’s what I hoped went through the lady’s head after I said it. Given my mood, I was already prone to guilt and sure enough Guilt took full advantage of the opportunity, and I felt my shoulders hunch forward on their own.

“You know what, fuck that lady!” I thought as I pushed my shoulders back again with some effort. “Let’s see you try to handle this dog for longer than five minutes without getting frustrated!”

Furthermore, let’s see you re-navigate the struggles of your youth with that haughty aplomb. Based on your clothes, and her “better than you” attitude, I’d say she was sitting pretty comfortably in her middle age. Get off your high sybian for a second, and try dealing with the litany of concerns milling about in my head without getting a little physical, why don’t you?

I laughed to myself at the thought of her trying to wrangle my beast – at the picture of her being dragged down the street after a rogue squirrel – knees scraped, clothes tattered, sunglasses humorously askew, yelling, “Peace, puppy!” or some other ineffectual hippie nonsense.

If she turned around then, I’m not sure cackling to myself would have added to her opinion of me, but we were beyond that now, weren’t we? Slowly, reason and guilt crept back in, and my shoulders found neutral ground, between shame and defensive hubris.

Of course, my anger wasn’t really at her, or my dog, but at myself. It’s always at myself, in all likelihood. All we can control are our actions and our reactions, after all, and I had failed myself, my dog, and the wasp in a moment of weakness when I whipped my dog around the sidewalk. Still though… Fuck that lady.

Whiteout Wandering

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We started onto the trail enthusiastically, some of us just having met, and all of us entering into the cold wilderness right out of the warmth of our vehicles. It was sunny, and so were our dispositions. We were all brought together by a love of the outdoors and shared connections in Berkeley, so we all shared similar world views, making for easy conversation.

“I actually used to be a search and rescue skier in this area,” one of our group said. And my friend had a Garmin tracking our route for portions of the trek, so we were pretty sure of ourselves as we powered forward, away from the Boreal ski resort where we left our cars. It still wasn’t particularly easy-going – all of us were degrees of youthful and fairly athletic, so we kept a decent pace and occasionally had to push through new packs of snow.

If you’ve never had to push through new snow on foot before, I can tell you that even with snow shoes, your feet sink down about two feet with each step. The snow shoes then collect snow on the way back up, making for a weighted-stairmaster experience even on flat ground, which is compounded by going up or downhill.

We reached our predetermined campsite as the sun started to set.  We all tamped down a portion of snow that would act as a wind and snowfall barrier for our tents over the course of the evening. Also, it created a hard enough surface to actually put the tents onto. Overly confident in our work, my partner at the time removed her snow shoes, and promptly sank waste-deep into the snow, filling her boots with ice shavings. She put back on her shoe shoes, and fought the feeling of frostbite by the fire for the remainder of the evening.

We also created a dining area by sinking a circle into the snow, with the center acting as a table, and the sides as a bench. We put the fire in the middle, and ate dinner and drank a little, and patted ourselves on the back for making good time on the way there, then retired to our respective tents for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

We woke up with the sun the next morning, and found a fresh powder over our tents. We started heating breakfasts and coffees and teas, consistent with our left-leaning palates. Just then, a man emerged from the trail leading farther into the forest. He was rugged-looking, by himself, and seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, but was happy to stop for some hot coffee. In exchange, he offered up his eggnog, which was still surprisingly a liquid, on account of its incredibly high alcohol content.

“You guys should really start packing up,” he said.

“Why’s that? We’re not that far off from where we started. Should be a quick hike out of here,” our “guide” said.

He responded by pulling out his radio, and clicking it on.

STORM WARNING… WHITEOUT CONDITIONS… IMMINENT DEATH… GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE…

The woman’s monotone voice came in loud and clear, so we thanked the wild man for the info, bid him adieu, and began our tipsy packing as quickly as we could. We started the hike, and quickly realized that the altitude, morning alcohol, fresh powder, and steep uphill portions of this hike were not going to make things easy on us. Shortly after, the whiteout conditions the woman mentioned kicked into gear.

We were in a single file line, trading off the lead position (it’s harder at the front, as you’re the first to pack down the snow), and very slowly making our way back to our cars. My glasses fogged over every few seconds, and icicles formed on my beard and in my ringlets of hair. We were never more than a few feet from each other, but it was still difficult to make out the people in front of you.

We continued like this for a few hours, then the gentleman immediately in front of me turned to me, “I feel like we’re not going the right way.”

“Yeah, I’ve been checking my compass every now and again, and I’m going to go ahead and agree,” I responded. He and I were the only ones who brought compasses. I don’t recall why the Garmin wasn’t doing this job for us, but it wasn’t. We were following the rescue guy. Well, it turns out he hadn’t been up in that area for over a decade.

“Let’s go to the top of this mountain, then we’ll be able to see if we’re on the right track!” he yelled back at us through the flurries of snow. We were tired, and not particularly interested in a steep climb, but it was our best idea for the time being – we were quickly losing daylight.

We neared the top, and lo and behold, the lights of the ski lift could be seen through a five second hole in the cloud cover. And wouldn’t ya know it, it was in the exact direction that the two people with compasses had been quietly pointing toward for some time.

Reinvigorated by knowing where the hell we were going, we started in the direction of the lights. We realized we weren’t going to make it by nightfall, so we made camp for the second (and unplanned) night in a clearing between some trees, balancing the benefits of having wind cover against the concerns of snow-laden branches falling on us as we slept. There was still laughter and joviality in the face of generally shitty conditions.

The next day, we started off early. We were no more than half a mile from the cars, but there was no way of knowing that the day before. We got hot cocoa from the resort, and my partner sat in the car enjoying it while I lie on the frozen pavement fumbling with the chains for the tires – my cold fingers only responding to fractions of the instructions they were given.

Finally off the mountain, we stopped at a cafe for one of the most satisfying burgers I’ve ever eaten, and warm apple pie (not a euphemism). As the color returned to our cheeks, we laughed at our stupidity, and talked optimistically about when we might do it again. So far we haven’t, but we’re still degrees of youthful.

First Time (that I know of) Dad

I’d like to introduce the newest member of my family – Maximus (I did not choose the name, but he responds to it already, so he’s keeping it).

He was found wandering the streets of Chicago by a friend of my coworker. He had tags on, so my coworker called the owners to see how he ended up here. They moved to Indiana a short time ago, and left the dog in the care of their friend. They had been trying to sell him on Craigslist for some time, but nobody took them up on the offer. Their friend, apparently, was not able to keep him contained.

After some convincing, the original owners let my coworker hang on to him so he didn’t end up in the shelter. He arrived at the animal hospital where I work around the same time I did. He was dog reactive and endlessly barked and howled every time he was put into a kennel. He got used to the hospital after a while, but never quite adjusted to being put into a small run. He’d bark at me when I came through doors, presumably because he just didn’t know what was up with me. I looked right at him, I wasn’t scared of him, and I was male (with the exception of one doctor, the entirety of the staff is female).

After weeks of him being at the hospital, he was put onto an adoption site. Around the same time, he became interested in me. He’d check in on whatever I was doing any time he was wondering the hospital. At some point, he started to run up to me and nuzzle his face into my side until I pet him. I bent down, and he pushed his head into my shoulder. I heard about potential homes for him, and I felt saddened by the thought of him leaving.

“Alright,” I thought, “Let’s take you home and see how you do.”

I took him home three nights ago, and he seemed immediately relieved to be home. I don’t have any other animals living with me besides my cousin, so he has run of the place when we’re not home. He’s neutered, vaccinated, and house trained. He’s a little over one, 72.6 pounds of muscle, has tons of energy, and is easily frightened as a result of his shitty upbringing. He loves to snuggle, but he assumes you (and that safety cone and that water spigot and that dog over there) are out to get him. He goes fucking nuts for squirrels.

He is a lot. He is too much. He just enough. He is mine, and I love him.

I Think We’re Both to Blame

In my senior year of high school I was an after-school counselor at a private school in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. I was paid to play games, draw, tutor, and hang out with a group of kids that I saw grow up over two summers as their camp counselor. As with any group that you know for a year or two, eventually you find out which of them you love to be around, which you can’t stand, and which you have a soft spot for even in spite of themselves. This kid was deep in group three.

He had thick, Coke bottle glasses that made his already-gigantic eyes look cartoonish. His head was probably no bigger proportionally than anyone else at the age of five or six, but the glasses made it seem a skosh larger than his body might allow. His running style was very serious – arms locked and swinging vigorously, and head down, using his bobble-headedness and gravity to power him forward.

“What happened to your head little buddy?” I asked one day when I saw a bandaid in the center of his forehead.

“I ran into a pole,” he said sheepishly.

One afternoon I was playing tag with a group of the older kids. As they’re more agile, I had to put in some effort to keep myself and them entertained. Also, I’m a winner, and the fact that other people are better at things is a good life lesson. I tagged one kid, then jumped backwards off the jungle gym.

*CRACK**CRACK*

Two sharp cracks in immediate succession followed swiftly by wails from below me. I had come down squarely in the center of this kid’s leg, snapping his tibia and fibula right in half. I scooped the crying kid up in my arms and ran with him to the office. The supervisor, who had some medical training, looked the kid over and pretty quickly figured out that his leg was broken in two, which I guess you didn’t need a lot of medical training for – those cracking noises were pretty clear.

Weeks later he returned to school in a tiny wheelchair with his whole leg in a cast to restrict movement. His parents wheeled him into the office and said, “What do you have to say to Dingo?” (we all had animal names as counselors – mine was Dingo)

He looked up at me through his comically large glasses and with every ounce of sincerity the human heart has to muster, he said, “It’s okay, Dingo, I know you didn’t mean to.”

I sobbed then, and hugged him as hard as his fragile body would allow. What an amazing kid, and what a testament to the parenting to endure that level of physical trauma, and come out as a stronger human being. The malleability of the young mind, and its capacity to forgive are truly astonishing.

I on the other hand, stand firm in my belief that that kid should really look up when he’s running, and that we are equally to blame for the incident. Hopefully some of the children under my tutelage learned to watch where they were going – Dingoes might not eat babies in America, but they do occasionally fall from the sky and break your leg if you’re not careful.

In the Name of Art – Part III

I called my friend (the one I briefly fell in love with) to lament the nonsensical position I was in. After venting, I approached a number of vehicles coated in dust, and while everyone was very kind and said they’d drive me if they could, most had no room for a full-grown man without any luggage. I was on the phone with a friend from LA who was begrudgingly willing to drive the 6 hours to pick me up, when the artist called.

“I hope you’re happy!” she screamed at me.

“It’s pretty safe to say that I’m not.”

“I just got off the phone with [camp leader], who you know I view as a father figure! He yelled at me and told me I had to go back and get you!”

Unbeknownst to me, my fleeting love interest got off the phone and immediately contacted [camp leader], and explained the situation.

“You and your friend think you can come into MY camp – MY burner family,” she continued, “and get everybody to like you just because you build everything or whatever! And now I’m getting yelled at!”

“Well, at some point you’re going to have to acknowledge that their opinion of you is influenced by your actions.” Reasoning was maybe not the right choice in this situation, but how long could I keep that sentence in?

I got back on the phone with the friend who made the call and she told me, “Just keep your fucking mouth shut! I know how you feel right now, but you still need to get home!”

It was by-and-large, a quiet six hour ride back to her place, sprinkled with outbursts here and there, but not too many that I couldn’t weather them until we landed. Also, with frequent stops it was more like eight hours. We got there around 1am, and she implored me to stay the night. That didn’t sound ideal to me, so I got one of my bags out of the truck, and assured her I’d be back the next day to help her unload the rest into a storage space.

As it happened, my first day back at work was “Front Desk Appreciation Day” at the animal hospital. This meant we were all getting off early, and getting spa treatments at the Four Seasons. If I ever return to Burning Man (a likelihood), spa treatment will forever be a part of my decompression process immediately after.

I got a wonderful one hour massage, spent 30 minutes in the hot tub, another 30 in a hot shower, then went to the common area in only my robe to enjoy a glass of champagne with strawberries in it. I sat looking at the pool, and contemplating just how much I gave a shit about the $400 worth of camping gear that sat in the back of that truck.

I left my phone in my pants in the locker, as was the rule there (no electronic distractions allowed), and it was dead when I got back to it. I got to my car charger and once it was on, I was greeted by seven missed calls from the artist, and a text that read, “You’re a waste of a human being. All of your shit is in the trash!” There was more to the text, but I couldn’t tell you what it said. I was flooded with a feeling of relief when I saw it. “Oh good,” I thought, “now I definitely don’t have to help her unpack that truck.”

Was I in the wrong for not going back to help? Yes, absolutely. Do I wish I had left the most relaxing experience I had had in years earlier to be berated while getting dusty doing manual labor? No. No, I do not. We haven’t spoken since – and all I can think is, “Sometimes being wrong can feel so right.”

In the Name of Art – Part II

MVIMG_20180912_074105.jpgFrom the time I landed to the time I left, I took my partying at Burning Man very seriously. I went all out until I passed out every day, then got up and did it again. One of the selling points for me has always been that I get to build and create while I’m out there, so I pushed myself hard physically to build and rebuild pieces of camp as the winds blew them down.

I had the added pleasure of a close friend joining me for the trip, got to fall in love for a few days, then do it again with another friend of a friend right before the event was over. The night of the Man Burn, I watched someone run into the giant structure fire. As he entered, a large piece of the frame collapsed around him and rescuers had to back off until it calmed down enough to drag him from the flames. His foot was still smoldering as he lay on the desert floor surrounded by emergency personnel. After being cas-e-vaced, he died from his wounds at the UC Davis Medical Center. Point being, it was an emotional week.

The artist that brought me out had been cordial in our brief passings throughout the event. Honestly, the idea of spending much time with her or on her project didn’t thrill me given that I was in the Land of Distraction, so I didn’t. Finally it was time to pack up, comb the campground for trash and stray tent spikes, and get ourselves and our art piece off the desert.

“I don’t want to go home!” she choked out between cigarette puffs and sobs. She was crying on and off all day as we packed. My patience had worn thin by this point, and we were all tired and out of energy, but dammit, we needed to go. My saving grace of a human that accompanied us out there couldn’t handle the emotional roller-coaster that would inevitably be our ride back, so she left early with a friend, and left me to deal with the artist on my own.

After enlisting the help of basically everyone but her, I was able to get the truck ready to go. She drove us off the desert, but the crying came along with us. The sun left the sky, and the amount of shit she gave about staying in her lane left with it.

“Would you mind staying in the lane?” I asked as she rolled a joint and swerved into the oncoming traffic side of the road, steering with her knees.

“There’s nobody coming! I can clearly see that! And you’re the LAST fucking person that should say anything about my driving!”

“My legal ability to drive and my actual ability to drive (or stay in a lane) are two different things.”

At this, she slammed on the brakes in the middle of a long line of traffic on a two-lane highway. “GET OUT! You can fucking walk the rest of the way!” she screamed at me, nearly jabbing me in the eye with her now-lit spliff.

“I’m not getting out! Drive the car, please!” I stayed buckled in, and she eventually started driving again. I was able to eek out an apology for the license thing (I apologized for this about four times over the course of the week, and thought we were past it, but I was wrong).

The rest of the drive to our “midway” (it was more like a quarter of the way) point was uneventful. We made it to a hotel, got a room together, showered 13 days of dust off ourselves, and got a decent night sleep in an actual bed, with actual air conditioning. The crying the next day was at least less frequent because she was well-rested.

We had a nice lunch at a bar and grill near Mono Lake. I had a nice conversation with my mom while the truck was being refueled, reassuring her that I was not dead. The artist was concerned that she had lost some drugs she had sympathetically purchased on my behalf, so we spent ten minutes looking through the truck before finding out a friend had taken them. We were ready to get on our way, and she said, “Okay, let me just roll this joint, get some coffee, and some cigarettes, then we’re out of here.”

I sighed. “Can we please just go?” I had work the next day, and my already-thin patience was becoming emaciated. She snapped. She called her dad on speaker phone, and complained loudly about how I was a drug addict and how I ruined her project. I felt like I really didn’t need to be there for the conversation, so I stepped out of the truck.

I tried to see if I could get my stuff out of the truck, but it was buried too far underneath the other shit in the back. I realized my wallet was in the truck, which she had locked at that point. I pointed to it and yelled through the window, “Just give me back my wallet!”

She opened the driver-side window, and threw my wallet into the street. Hundreds of dollars in loose bills fluttered in the wind and spread themselves across the street. As I collected them, she peeled out and sped off. I was reveling in a combination of astonishment and relief when the truck screeched to a halt in front of me again.

“You’re a drug addict piece of shit!” she yelled.

“I’m already out of the car! This is over!” I got out before she drove off again.

I collected myself, bought a sharpie from the gas station, and wrote, “Los Angeles” on a piece of cardboard, adding the Burning Man symbol for good measure. And I waited.

In the Name of Art – Part I

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I got a response from a young, attractive artist lady in need of a volunteer to assist with her large-scale art piece. The piece was impressively intricate and beautiful in both concept and design – each of the many moving parts was colorful, shiny, and functional. I was excited to contribute to the actuation of her idea, and at the prospect of working with someone who I really got along with right from the beginning.

Over the coming months, I spent much of my free time at her house. The goal was always to put checks in boxes on a long list of to-do’s (very few of which actually got done as the smoking breaks were so frequent), and I quickly agreed to help her take the piece out to the desert for Burning Man that year. The money she raised would be paying for my ticket, so in my mind, I was an employee, and I was still having a fair amount of fun helping out.

As time wore on, it became more obvious why the previous assistant wasn’t on the project this year. She was largely very fun to be around, but if you decided to have your own ideas about the project or life in general, it was easier to just keep them to yourself. It was around the time this started dawning on me that we learned her friend – my predecessor – was shot and killed by the police in Northern California. He had been uncharacteristically violent, and it was alleged that he stabbed the two officers arriving on the scene of a break in, and they shot him in self defense.

Understandably, she was torn apart by the news. The already-glacial pace of our work together slowed to a near standstill as the smoking breaks doubled in length and frequency, and long talks peppered with crying and hugs became the norm. Given how long I had been acquainted with her and her friends, I had a hard time committing to caring about everything on an emotional level. I was able to reason that it was terrible, and I could see the obvious impact it had on the community, but as a brand new member of that community, it just didn’t hit me the same.

I found myself withdrawing both emotionally and physically from the project as the looming deadline of the actual event approached, which didn’t help with her anxiety, which didn’t help me reengage. I thought about quitting every day, but I had promised I would help, and for whatever reason I decided that meant something.

My friend and aunt came to help me assemble to piece for a trial run and final fundraiser before the trip to the desert. Everything came together, she only snapped at me once, and my aunt, friend, and I excused ourselves for dinner.

“Good Lord… she’s a lot, huh?” my aunt said as we sat down. My friend and I laughed. I explained all that she was going through and why it made sense, but we all ultimately agreed that volunteers should be thanked more than scolded. We let the beer and barbecue sauce wash away the bad taste she left in each of our mouths that day.

I was able to put off quitting long enough to make it to August. Luckily, I had another person to sidelong glance at when she said nonsensical shit, and to help me actually get the piece and our sundry camping gear packed. Per usual, we were rushing her and doing everything wrong, but we got the shit in the truck, so “whatever” was very much how we both felt about it. At this point, I was also in trouble for not having an unrestricted license. I figured that the stipulations of my driving were clear, but if you weren’t familiar with the way restricted licenses work, that could be a sticking point (especially because she chose to rent the truck through her company – a contractor for the military, which was probably illegal enough already without adding my license/insurance situation to the whole thing).

She was pissed, but it all swirled together into the general haze of her second-hand smoke, anger and frustration that I had been surrounded by for the better part of two months, so it was hard to make out my hand in front of my face, no less discern what it was I had done wrong this time. We got on the road much later than we planned to, and argued about everything from how we don’t understand her vision, to what music to play, hoping silently that the dust would wash away the animosity.