Saturday, January 26, 2019

Morning in America

Last Saturday I awoke early, turned on CNN, and groped my way toward the shower. The room was dark, and the news even darker: The New York Times was alleging the president had made a deal with Russia, Robert Muller was continuing his investigation moving ever closer to the administration, and a 28-year-old woman in Arizona who had been in a persistent vegetative state for years had just given birth to a baby boy. Hoping to cleanse my system of some of this bad energy, I stepped under the hot water and scrubbed vigorously. The gloom didn’t want to release me. After listening to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or any of the other major news outlets, one might rightly conclude the watchwords in America have become chaos, disaster, and decline and---hope, prosperity, and goodwill have been banished from the land.

It was the weekend and I was in Salina, Utah, with my wrestling team. We had completed a full session the day before and would soon be heading back to finish the Battle of the Pound, hosted by the Gunnison Valley Bulldogs. My young charges were still asleep as I stepped out of my room and into the cold January morning. It would be another hour before the boys were stirring, and I needed to start the day with a hot mug and warm bread. Pulling up the hood on my San Juan High School Wrestling sweatshirt and sidestepping the semi-tractor-trailer rigs inching across the large parking lot, I headed across the street to Denny’s.

Outside the diner, a few Dodge pickup trucks with lift kits and large wheels were parked. Wondering what I might find inside, I stepped boldly in. A Twiggy-thin, late-sixtyish waitress wearing a metal name tag, which proudly proclaimed “Margie,” noticed me and said, “Come on in San Juan.” Margie wore a standard issue uniform and had her hair pulled back into a ponytail. Showing signs of a hard life under her bubbly exterior, she was still attractive and had somehow maintained a great deal of her youthful energy and faith in humanity. It was obvious she was not weighed down by the news of the day.

Other than two older gentlemen sitting at the bar, the restaurant was empty. “Mind if I sit at the bar?” “No, not at all. Scotty, move over,” Margie commanded. She was firmly in control of the situation. Scotty, dutifully moved to the left, making room for me. Bobby, the other man, who had apparently just returned from a trip to the toilet, asked, “Where’s my breakfast?” Bobby and Scotty were likely Bob and Scott in their more mundane lives, but to this director of the dining room, in her space, she made the rules. “I thought you were done,” she replied. “Well, damn it, I wasn’t,” Bobby gently castigated. “You want to take this outside?” she asked, stiffening her back. “No, no. I think I really was done,” he retreated, “where’s my bill?” The manager walked through nodding his head, approving the situation. It would not be a stretch to say that everyone in the room had a deep fondness, even love, for the others. That was the America I knew.

Having satisfactorily concluded her issue with Bobby, Margie looked directly at me and smiling slyly said, “What’ll it be . . . Honey?” "May I have a cup of coffee and some wheat toast?” In this place, it was coffee straight up; no mochas, lattes, or expressos. And the toast was thinly sliced Wonder Bread, butter on the bottom; no nine-grain, cracked wheat or other designer loaves served here. Nothing fancy about this cafe, just solid Middle America values and value, something we all could use more of in our daily lives.

Lingering over my breakfast, I soaked in the tenderness these individuals had for each other. Each had clearly worked hard over the course of their lives and it showed in the lines on their faces and the gray in their hair. Nobody, however, had become hard or calloused. Nobody had become bitter or mean. Here was respect and emotional nutrition we all crave at this time in our history, at no extra cost. Finishing my meal, I left a large tip on the counter and walked out, wishing I had the resources to leave something that would be life changing for Margie, something she deserved for all her years of fearless struggle. There was, however, the mortgage, bills, and tuition to pay, so that had to wait for another day.

As I walked back towards the motel, a Dodge Ram crossed in front of me. A large rack of elk antlers protruded above the truck bed. The window was rolled down, and Arlo Guthrie could be heard singing, “Good morning America, how are you. Don’t you know me, I’m your native son.” With the images of Bobby, Scotty, and Margie stuck in my head, and Arlo ringing in my ears, I knocked on the doors of my wrestlers and told them it was time to rise up. America was waiting for us to do our part.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Everyone Belongs Somewhere, Somehow

The well-dressed man facing me across the trading post counter leaned in closer, put his diamond ring- adorned hand alongside his mouth and, in a hushed and confidential tone, said, "Do you really belong here?" I leaned back to assess him from a different angle. He was a handsome gentleman with an intelligent air about him, carefully groomed, too carefully groomed from a "Bluffoon's" perspective.

When the man pushed open the Kokopelli doors and strode into the store, I recognized confidence and intellect. I thought I also sensed a slight uneasiness, maybe he was feeling a little out of place. He looked to be a well maintained, fifty-something. His dark brown hair, slightly streaked with gray, was lightly oiled and combed into perfect form above his aristocratic brow. He was freshly shaved, and I could smell a woodsy, cinnamon aroma about him. He viewed his world from bright blue eyes under two distinct, carefully plucked and proper eyebrows, no Cro-Magnon unibrow on this fellow. I rubbed my own furrowed and fuzzy forehead, feeling a little self-conscious.

The man was dressed in a freshly pressed, white long-sleeved cotton shirt with thin blue pinstripes, the first two buttons unfastened at the neck and sleeves rolled up one turn. A gold Rolex adorned his left wrist. The tails of that stiff shirt were tucked neatly into a belted pair of what looked to be expensive wool slacks. On his feet were a beautiful pair of brown leather loafers, no socks. The outfit spoke volumes, saying, "Big city, on vacation." I looked down at my Eddie Bauer pull-over, Levis, hiking shoes, and rag wool socks. Smiling to myself, I thought, "Bluff casual."

The guy was actually very pleasant. After he browsed the store, we spoke of turquoise, the gold and silver markets, Indians, outlaws, and local history. I was surprised when he served up his curious question. "Do you really belong here?" "Umm, whaddayamean?" I queried, disgusting myself for abusing the King's English in such a manner. "I mean," said the man, "This is a nice gallery, high-quality inventory, educated staff, and a progressive attitude. You sound ambitious and thoughtful: this place does not seem to fit the area. With a little fixing up you might go somewhere more . . . financially productive. I ask again, do you really belong here?"

I felt complimented and rebuffed in the same moment. Looking intently at the man, I said with passion, "This is where it's at! This is the source of the artists and the inspiration for their creativity." I attempted to explain the beauty of this place. How the light moves across enchanted mesa tops on cloudy days, playing games of illusion on your mind, and how the contrast between snow-covered mountain peaks, ruggedly appealing red rock country, and high plains spotted with sage and cedar cause you to stop and stare in wide-eyed wonder. I told him how the silence and loneliness of this vast, exposed landscape calms your mind and eases the pain, fear, and frustration of the spirit. I went on to explain how the canyons hold the mystery and magic of a still-vibrant American Indian culture in their rough and tumble depths. How on incredibly bright, star-lit nights, myths, and legends spring forth from yellow-hot Juniper fires surrounded by indigenous people looking to the past for answers. I related the power and security of deeply rooted friendships based on time, space, and patience. I told my new acquaintance of the strength and satisfaction derived from working closely with family towards common interests and goals.

At some point, I had heard a story broadcast on what I think was NPR's This American Life. The program spoke of interviews with American pilots flying bombing missions over Afghanistan. The host was surprised by the wide variety of opinions these young men held on the beauty, or lack thereof, of the foreign landscape they flew over and often pulverized. A few of the "fly boys" recognized a rugged and unique beauty beneath their wings and regretted its destruction, others were apathetic, giving no opinion at all. The final group saw only wasteland below, and were more than willing to pound the countryside and its enemy inhabitants into oblivion. It is all a matter of perspective, and vision, I suppose.

The polished and proper, seemingly wealthy, gentleman nodded his head in understanding as I ended my recitation. The reasoning behind my "belonging" was evident to him now. This was home, comfort, and a life lived slowly and easily, near to the earth herself. Surrounded by family, friends, and spectacular scenic beauty, there is no better place for me. Everyone truly belongs somewhere, and I understood this man had discovered his proper place in the city. He found his comfort zone and source of milk and honey amidst the bright lights, noise, and confusion I find totally alien. I guess every source of refuge has its price, and rewards.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Another One Down

Okay, call me a traditionalist when it comes to the holidays. There it was, late December, and I was still in a holiday funk, something was missing, and I knew what it was. I had done the Internet shopping thing and found it workable, but I needed the crush of large crowds to get me into the right frame of mind. I informed Jana I was going to Farmington for the day to wind up a few things. Actually, Jana's Internet proficiency had already carried the day, so there was little left to do. I just needed to get out into the last-minute shopping frenzy to secure my Christmas mood. As I prepared to leave, I kept thinking a little nip at the spiced eggnog might get me started properly. Since I was driving, I elected to forgo the treat, at least for the moment.

As I drove to New Mexico, Christmas carols were playing on the radio and I could feel my spirits beginning to lift. "Santa Baby" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" came over the airwaves and I knew it was going to be a good day. When I arrived at my intended destination, the town was busy and people were in a jolly mood. I was hoping for some honking, shouting, and finger wagging, but everyone seemed happy and there was no ill will to be found. As I parked the car, I heard footsteps close by, and then, "Merry Christmas." I looked around to see a stranger with a happy smile on her face. I replied "Merry Christmas," climbed out of the car, and proceeded into the mall. I was beginning to think something was wrong with all these last-minute shoppers. I wondered, "Where are all the Grumps, Scrooges, and Grinches?"

At the first store, the clerks were joyfully restocking shelves and quick with answers to all my questions. Once I was pointed in the right direction, they moved off humming hymns. I found what I needed and proceeded to the checkout counter. There were plenty of registers open, so the wait was not long. As I stood in line with my purchases, a woman stepped in front of me. "Ahh, here’s my big opportunity," I thought and prepared to grab her by the scruff of the neck and shout, "I was here first." I decided it might be more prudent to just shoulder her out of the way. As I positioned myself, she sweetly looked up at me and said, "Oh, I'm sorry, are you in line?" efficiently ducking in behind me. With a frown on my face, I explained I was, "Just fixin' to shove you out of the way." She, assuming I was joking, roared with laughter. I found myself wanting to spontaneously hug her, but decided that might lead to arrest and incarceration. We exchanged, "Merry Christmases," and the clerk scanned my packages, sending me on my way with yet another "Merry Christmas." 

By this time, I was starting to worry, but felt confident I would find what I required in the music store, which was extremely busy. People were beboping to a holiday album. I fished in my pocket, pulled out the handwritten list, hailed a young woman, and demanded attention. She smiled, located everything I requested, suggested a few additional items, and went on her merry way. The clerk at the register happily processed me and sent me off with a smile and a "Happy Holidays." I smiled back and started to wish her happiness in return but managed to catch myself just in time, however, and I simply waived goodbye.

Next it was off to the lotions and potions store, where I poked around for a while until I was approached by a joyous woman about my age. I explained my dilemma, saying, "What should a man who doesn't understand females get for the woman in his life." I expected her to chuckle, saying something like, "You? You really have a woman in your life? Well now, that is truly extraordinary!" Instead, she responded by saying, "Don't worry, Honey, you are just like all the rest; none of you understand us. This is what you need." I flinched, she smirked, and we both laughed out loud. I realized she was right---about men and the gift selection.

Walking out of the store, I stopped in the middle of the mall. Santa was taking photographs with happy, polite, beautiful children. Everybody was laughing and Merry Christmas-ing. I suddenly realized I had found exactly what I had been looking for and started humming "Jingle Bell Rock," which was playing over the P.A. system. Finally, I was in the spirit.