Monday, January 2, 2017

Friday, December 9, 2016

Of Greatness

Advil and Christmas wrapping paper are on my list. It is a cold day. At about 9:30 in the morning driving to the Target store, the outdoor thermometer in my car reads 22 degrees. The engineering which goes into cars, that for the most part they function without complaint over such a wide temperature range, is remarkable. Looking at the tangle of cars moving around me on the streets I think about the decrease in fuel economy when the temperature drops - all those cold, thick, lubricants and all the extra work it takes to squish them, to make them flow. These are the things occupying my mind as I drive defensively through the madness called Cerrillos Road.

The winds’ cold teeth bite right through my fleece sweater as I walk from the car to the store. Once in the door, immediately to my left, lurks a Starbucks kiosk. How clever. The kiosk twinkles in high key lighting. Muffins and slices of sweet quick breads glisten in individual wrappings. What could be more inviting, coming in from the cold, than a hot cup of coffee and a sweet treat? And what could be better for the bottom line than shoppers with nervous systems brimming with caffeine and spirits thus uplifted? Nonetheless, I forgo the Starbucks. As enticing as it is, I’m also inclined to forgo the post-coffee-and-sugar crash which would most certainly come at about 2 o’clock.

One of the reasons I like Target is the quiet. Quiet as in no music. Here it is, seventeen days before Christmas and not one Christmas carol to be heard. This comes as a great relief. I don’t dislike Christmas carols, but really, one day of them, say on December 25th, would be plenty.

I grab a small shopping basket from the stack and make my way into the world of the store. The décor is a little heavy on the red, but oh, it is quiet. A goodly number of shoppers wander about. A young plump woman whose red jersey top identifies her as a staff member is marching down the aisle, pushing a heavy duty wheeled cart with an unadorned artificial Christmas tree standing on it. The scene tickles me. A woman wheeling a plastic “tree” through the store on a cart with a load rating expressed in tons. I look at her and smile. She does not look at me and she does not smile.

In the aisle devoted to pain relievers, and gosh there are a lot of them, I find the Advil. Like orange juice, milk, butter and eggs, of course there are now some eight varieties to choose from. I find the standard (at least they used to be standard) tablets, and go for the 200 count bottle. It seems as I’m aging I eat these things like popcorn. To put this in perspective, in the entirety of my life previous to this period called “getting older” I’ve probably taken twenty, maybe thirty, pills total. So now, taking a couple Advil in a day seems like a lot. I count my lucky stars to have this perspective. By getting one 200 count bottle rather than two 100 count bottles, I spend $2.00 less. I take a package off the shelf and check the use by date: 03/18. I then reach to the back of the shelf and take another package - hey, they’re all for sale - and check the date: 04/19. I put this package in my basket and head to the far back corner of the store where all the Christmas junk can be found.

Negotiating eight varieties of Advil will be a piece of cake compared to what lays before me: a beckoning, multi-color extravaganza of lights and glitter and shiny trinkets, and lot’s of red. Up front and center stands a display of what has to be two hundred kinds of wrapping paper. I loiter around it and slip into the early muttered-under-my-breath “Oh Gawd” stages of being overwhelmed. Snap out of it Gordon, focus on green. What I came in here looking for is green wrapping paper, and just like magic a roll pops into view. But it’s plain, albeit metallic, green. Then I see a brilliant multi-color metallic plaid which has green in it, but if I look at it a moment longer I might go into convulsions. That’s about it for the green. It must not be in this year. But, but.

Suddenly a girl’s voice breaks into song, at full volume. I recognize the song, but can’t now recall what it was. It’s a darling voice, and she has no problem carrying a tune. I look up. The girl, of probably ten or twelve years, sits on the floor. In her singing she appears oblivious to her surroundings. Presumably, the woman standing next to her is her mother. The woman calmly goes about studying a display of tree ornaments. The scene strikes me as a little odd, but sweet. That the child is so free of self-consciousness to sing her heart out right here right now is wonderful, and I hand it to the mother for allowing it. Why not? We all might be better off by just singing.

The only other green on offer is a thin stripe along with broad stripes of red and white. Nope, not what I’m looking for. Ready to give up on the wrapping paper I spot a roll with red and gold reindeer leaping across a silver background. Hey, reindeer are cool. Yeah, it’s not green, but it will do just fine. I put the roll in my basket. Now I look for ribbon and discover there is no ribbon. Bows out the ying yang, but not a roll of ribbon in sight. What kind of place is this? Do we now live in a ribbon-less world? Really and truly I do not want bows, nor do I want a package of a hundred of the things. (I have three presents to wrap.) There’s a small pleasure in winding ribbon around a package and tying a nice neat knot, and the ribbon depends on the paper. So if I can’t buy ribbon, then I’m not going to buy paper. The roll of reindeer goes back in the display. Peeved, I remove my package of Advil from the basket and set the basket on the floor. Let somebody else carry the thing back to the front of the store, damn it. Now about to make my exit I think, well, let’s look around to the next aisle. Maybe, just maybe there’s some ribbon in the next aisle.

Sweet Baby Jesus! It turns out the display I’d been at was just the appetizer. In the next aisle? At least another three hundred dazzling rolls of paper. And ribbon. And bows. And baubles and glitter and, and—mid-stride, before I can dive in, I again encounter the woman and girl. They pause in the middle of the aisle and the woman very kindly offers the girl a few words of discipline. From their interaction and from the girls’ response it becomes clear she is mentally ill.

I leave with only the Advil. Then on to the grocery store, and the morning slips away. How many thousands of times have I been to the grocery store? I come home annoyed and bored. But the mixture of detachment and kindness the woman had for the girl stays in my mind. Oh, the mountains of patience and humility and love it must take.

There was something special about that woman. It was greatness.

Gordon Bunker

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

a sharpie

The sharpie with retractable point my sister gave me finally dies.

I kinda liked that sharpie.
I go to Office Max to get a new sharpie.
I study the entirety of the "writing instruments" display. Twice. No sharpies.
Then I notice they're in their own kiosk in the middle of the isle.
A sales woman cruises by and asks if I have any questions.
Yeah, I think, I got questions, like, "Why is life the way it is?" But instead I say, "No, thanks, I found what I’m looking for."
She disappears.
But there is not "a" sharpie in the display.
The closest thing is a four-pack for $6.79.
I check the display again.
Nope, only the four-pack.
I am nearly resigned to take the four-pack.
The sales woman cruises by again. She gives me a glance.
I ask, "Is it possible to get just one sharpie?”
"Yes," she says, "we moved that display up front."
I go up front.
There they are. Individual sharpies.
They are 2 for $1.00.
I take one to the checkout.
The woman scans it.
"$1.83," she says.
"The sign says 2 for $1.00," I say.
She looks puzzled.
She walks around to the display.
She reads the sign to me, "2 for $1.00, or…" she squints at the fine print, "1 for $1.67."
I take another sharpie.
She scans them and says, "That'll be $1.08."
Do the math. Everything makes perfect sense.

Gordon Bunker

Monday, October 13, 2014

Day of Rain

Not a breath of air moves, a soaking rain has been falling since dawn. Colors have intensified, the mature greens, rich yellows and reds of fall. The smell of leaf mold permeates the air, reminding me of so many rainy autumn days and times spent in forests I love. I’ve made a cup of tea, and now at my desk sip the hot tangy liquor. Tendrils of steam rise in the chill house.

Water collects on seed pods of white lacy vine just outside the living room door. The vine has had a good time this summer, engulfing the coyote fence around the patio. Droplets form, swell and hang, each a tiny brilliant lens on the world. When surface tension can no longer hold them together they fall. They’ll find their way through the timber deck, to the roof and out the canale, hang briefly on the lip of the metal flashing and fall again. Onward in their march to the sea.

I walk into the village to check in with goings on and have some lunch. My jacket is made for rain, and just about anything else Mother Nature can throw at it. Remarkable, how snug and secure a few thin layers of fabric can be. Rain drops hit puddles, tiny waves spread out in concentric rings, intersect with one another and dissipate. Border plantings of marigolds along the flagstone walkway to the State Law Library are yielding to fall, the blossoms are tired, yet today in the wet, their orange and red vibrate with one last hurrah against the lush deep green of clipped grass lawn.

Heading south on Don Gaspar between Water and West San Francisco Streets I encounter a couple walking north, both are thoroughly engrossed in their respective phones, both of which seem to be chattering at them. One of the phones says with triangulated authority, “In twenty feet, go right.” It scares me, the sense of context, the potential connection to our surroundings and one another the greater we who glue our noses to these things are missing out on. But on the other hand, statistics on world population show only 34% of us have internet access. So I guess there’s hope.

The French Pastry Shop at La Fonda is a beehive of activity. Everyone’s thinking the same thing. We want hot coffee and good things to eat; today in the wet and chill we exhibit no shyness regarding butterfat. I quickly take a small table beside the window, one of my favorite places to sit, and order the aforementioned coffee and a piece of spinach quiche. I pull a pen and sheet of paper out of my pocket. Having already done more than my share of staring at a screen today, the simple blank page before me, ready to absorb my thoughts, is a relief.

The quiche arrives, steaming hot, oh pastry crust, butter and eggs, cream, oh the delicate and savory browned cheese on top. Oh spinach. Each bite is a gift. I write and watch passersby, people seem to be moving quicker than usual. I had no idea so many umbrellas even existed in Santa Fe. Most are basic black (suitable for formal occasions), a few are fashionable colors, moss green, eggplant, periwinkle blue, and yet others are full on design statements, brilliant multicolor stripes, or polka dots.

Rain comes down harder, the sidewalk puddles fill, each surface a riot of ringlet waves. The water finds the breach; there are an infinite number of ways it gets in, and only one way out.

Gordon Bunker

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Taos Day

After last night’s downpour, Bob suggested it might be too slick to get to the house on the bike. Although a little disappointing, with a few muddy roads in my past, it was a clear pick to take the car. Driving in, I notice plenty of dry dirt between gaping mud craters, enough that I could have navigated the road on two wheels. Darn. But fully across the two track to Vic and Bob’s house, a soupy mud wallow about twenty feet long lays in wait, one which could have easily tipped me over and sucked me in, never to be seen again. I will save The High Road on das motorrad for another day.

It’s beautiful, clear weather. The sky shimmers fathomless, the same heartbreaking blue as alpine forget-me-nots. To the east, aspen in the mountains are turning, brilliant patches of yellow spot nearly black slopes of spruce and fir. From last night’s storm, peaks are capped pure white. The first snow has come. I am reminded of climbing Wheeler in the snow just about a year ago. (Click here for a full account.) This majestic landscape, this time of year, the waning light and colder temperatures bring out so much. Once free of the car I stand and look and breathe deep.
.    .    .

Bob and I go to the Bent Street Café for lunch. We take a table on the outdoor patio in the shade, we wish for sweaters. The chicken tamales with red are so good I consider licking the plate. What is more important: respecting my fellow diners with at least a few shreds of good manners, or getting that last micro layer of chili? It’s a tough call. I split the difference and do my best to gather what’s there with the edge of my fork. Someday, somewhere, in a restaurant I’m going to actually lick my plate, if for no other reason than just to see if anyone objects.

As luck has it, today is the San Geronimo Feast Day at the Taos Pueblo, and so we head in that direction. With the car parked in a field, we along with hundreds of other people start walking. A relatively new, but well-mudded pickup truck pulls up beside us and the man driving asks if we’d like a ride. Sure, we’re game. We clamber in, Bob’s a big guy, it’s a tight fit. The man is part of the pueblo, his face, beautifully ruined by the years, is set with sparkling jet eyes. His short-cropped hair is silver and black. He lives in the old part of the pueblo and tells us the younger members of the tribe have mostly succumbed to desire for the modern conveniences of new housing. “Older folks prefer the simple ways,” he says. Mostly. He is after all driving a new Toyota 4x4. We all make concessions to modernity, while a few of us, the romantics at least, never like admitting it.

At the pueblo we thank the man and hop out and make our way into the crowds. The rambling four story structure, of gold-brown adobe sits against a long piedmont of piñon forest leading to the steep slopes of Pueblo Peak and surrounding summits. The place has spirit. Looking through the crowd I squint my eyes against full sun, all the dots of color, it is as though we are in a Prendergast painting. The Koshare or Sacred Clowns, with bodies painted in broad stripes of black and white, faces smudged with soot, and heads dressed in straw, wander around causing trouble. They hoot and caw. They pick on people, they grab young children to throw in the creek, worried mothers run in tow. This is all in good humor, they do not actually throw children in the icy water, but they certainly put on a good act.

No one is safe and we know it. When the Koshare come around everyone shies away, casting furtive, curious glances. We don’t want to miss the action but at the same time attract too much attention. And so the clowns move through the crowds, hilarious trouble makers.

In the center of the plaza a pole is erected, perhaps forty or fifty feet tall. Strung on cross sticks at the top hang a slaughtered sheep, a net full of bread and squashes and brilliant fabric sacks stuffed with goodies. Long yellow, orange and red streamers shift against the sky. The clowns continue their antics, a few New Mexico State Police officers walk about, and the clowns hassle them. It’s funny to watch. The officers, usually so composed and self-assured, don’t know quite how to take a ribbing.

Things happen here in mysterious ways, and so we stand and wait for the climbing of the pole. More people congregate around the plaza, we stand and wait for at least an hour.

I feel a slight, warm pressure rest against one of my feet. Perhaps it is a child… no… I look and see a dog has decided to lay himself down and use my foot as a pillow. I’ve been chosen and feel honored. Even surrounded by the crowd, the dog is completely at ease. I look up and there’s Cat, surveying the scene, smiling. Not an animal of the cat type, but a woman of the Cat name. It will be later that we introduce ourselves, but I’d rather refer to her as Cat than “the woman.”

“Looks like you have a buddy,” she says.

I nod and smile. “Looks like I do.” The dog stays put and so do I. The little place of warmth against me feels good. I bend down and with my thumb give him a rub from the point of his brow to the furrow between his eyes. He stares blankly as animals do, into the sea of legs, as though lost in thought.

Bob decides to wander around a bit. Cat and I start up a conversation. We talk about how we happened to land here and share laughs over the clown’s antics. We talk about the Taos Pueblo’s generosity having us as guests, and I mention the Deer Dance will likely be performed this Christmas. I’ve attended this one a number of times over the years and every time, it gets right into me.

A clown saunters by and grabs a woman’s hat. “Rut-rho,” says Cat.

“Did you just say rut-rho?” I ask. I haven’t heard anyone else say this in years.

“Yes,” says Cat.

“I say that all the time!” I tell her, and go on about my neighbor, mystified by what I was saying asked me to explain. It was one of those funny wake-up calls, like I must be using this quirky expression regularly, all the while oblivious to the fact most people have no idea what I’m talking about. Having searched my memory, I can think of only one other person who says “rut-rho.” Might be time to start the Astro Club. Membership: 3. But I digress.

The clowns gather around the pole. With tiny toy bows they shoot tiny twig arrows at the booty high above. The arrows rise all of eight feet into the air, the parody is hilarious. Their first few blundering attempts climbing the pole are in vain, but finally, with the crowd cheering him on, one of the leaner ones succeeds. He straddles a cross stick, methodically pulls his knife from its sheath and cuts down the goodies. Working with ropes to those on the ground, first he lowers the squash and bread, then the sheep, then the sacks. Fooling around as they do, they manage to make laugh-out-loud fun of it all.

The clown up top then stands on the cross stick and calls out a lilting chant. People in the crowd continue to chatter and giggle, a woman turns around, I’m guessing she is part of the pueblo. Of imposing stature and face she glares and shushes them. What we have been witnessing has sacred meaning which is kept secret, and it is now serious. Typically, the clown climbs and stands on the very top of the pole. We wonder if he’s going to do it, he stands on the stick, hugging the pole for a long moment. Tension fills the air… but he does not. I later learn this was due to the wind. He shimmies down, the crowd erupts into hoots and applause.

Everyone begins to disperse and Bob reappears. Cat says, “Maybe I’ll see you at the Deer Dance.”

“That would be great,” I say, and we introduce ourselves.

After an ice cream at the Taos Cow in Arroyo Seco, Bob and I take narrow back roads to the mesa. Pitched roof adobe homes of modest scale, parcels of farm land between old fence lines, flowing acequias… timelessness lives here.

At the casa we each get a beer and head for the back portal. Ice cream with a beer chaser. We know how to live. Late afternoon sun floods the portal, the breeze has a chill to it, the soaking warmth feels good. We settle in and recount our adventures, we look out across a vast rolling plain of sagebrush to distant summits. Maybe a hundred miles away, the peaks float on the horizon, only slightly darker blue than the sky above. Iridescent pink and green sun dogs glow in high icy clouds.

Gordon Bunker

Illustration: Southwest Postcard, c.1950