Sunday, May 30, 2010

Of Enchiladas and Encephalitis

A couple nights ago I met up with some old friends from high school. Our numbers are dwindling, and the groups get smaller with each successive reunion. We’ve scattered, dispersed, changed. It’s the inevitable fact of life that people leave—you yourself leave—you move on. When I was younger, this bothered me immensely. Now I’ve accepted it for what it is and instead look forward to new meetings and encounters, and cherish all the more strongly the relationships that really last.

Anyway, the six of us met downtown for some good Mexican food and chattered on with our requisite catching up on the past semester’s activities. We’re a science-heavy group, and all but one of us are Biology majors, so despite our differences in curriculum and locales we had a lot in common to compare and contrast our “shared” experiences.

Afterwards, we tromped off to a nearby park as twilight fell, passing on the way an odd production of Shakespeare. The play was A Comedy of Errors, but the set was clearly St. Louis, and the actors were all wearing Cardinals uniforms. I’m not sure how well Shakespeare translates to modern-day Missouri, and I’ll never know since I couldn’t hear their words through their overly-exaggerated but poorly enunciated hick-British accents and lack of microphones. We walked on.

If I thought up a list of the most dangerous things for children to play with, gigantic rocks might be up there, following piranhas and machetes. But apparently playground designers beg to differ, for in the middle of the park sat a giant fake rock. “Fake” in the sense that it was obviously not naturally occurring (unless a meteoroid had struck the center of Springfield, MO but forgotten to leave a crater), and if you tapped on it hard enough it sounded hollow, but you would also cut and bruise your hand for it looked and felt very rock-like. It was probably about eight feet tall at the highest point, and had crude “natural” steps coming up one side. All the other sides, however, were either vertical drops or actually slanted backwards, probably to discourage climbing but really having the exact opposite effect. There were, of course, no warning signs anywhere about parental supervision. A tiny plaque on the side of the rock said that it was recommended for children aged five to 12 and might cause death if installed over concrete. Luckily, the park directors had installed it over shredded tires. Safe! Painful on the feet! Enough to cushion a landing, but not enough to prevent a neck from being broken if someone tumbled down headfirst from the slippery precipice!

So, of course, we climbed it. Including the backwards-slanted side, which had neither handholds nor footholds, and which I completely failed to summit after nearly mooning everyone else in the party and destroying a day’s worth of upper body strength. There were also a handful of young children—no parents in sight—who fearlessly joined us strangers and catapulted themselves from the sides while I winced. The guys in our group attempted jumping and rolling from the top (success) and doing a back flip off the walls (repeated complete failure, accompanied by multiple pathetic sprays of tire shreds).

Afterwards, we sat and talked in the dark. A baseball game at the nearby stadium ended, and there was a pretty cool fireworks display. We ooh-ed and ah-ed appropriately.

Topics of discussion ranged from the extraordinarily efficient microflora in cattle stomachs (did you know that you can cut a hole in a cow’s side entering the digestive system, leaving it permanently open to the outside world, and everything will be hunky-dory?) to the ruthlessly cutthroat and competitive industry of apple farming and copyrighted fruits (those hybridization laws are intense) to whether or not you could kill someone with a Taser if you first dipped them in salt water and them positioned the probes far enough apart. Yeah, we’re nerds, I guess.

Eventually we parted, this time for at least another year. It had been a nice meeting, with good food and good old friends. Some of us were going off to summer classes, others to continuing research products, some to jobs.

We’ve all entered the real world.

We’re grown up.

I’m grown up.

When the hell did that happen?

Monday, May 24, 2010

That am a Proverbial Chicken

As sunsets go, the one Sunday evening wasn’t particularly impressive. There were no vibrant red hues and no striking purple clouds to sear fire-orange for a split second as the haloed orb sunk behind the leafy hills. Instead, the sun was a rather nondescript shade with dulled, hazy edges that crept lazily across the sky. But there were, however, rays of light emanating from the drowsy star that shot out across the paling blue. The rays were so numerous, and so defined, and so large and long and bright, that I found myself unconsciously reaching for them. I could have plucked them like the chords of a harp….and released sweet music. But I couldn’t reach, so instead I snapped a few quick pictures.

Later, I went on Facebook and noticed that one of my friends had also taken photos of the sunrays on his phone and uploaded them to his wall. He had different clouds that I—he’s in a different town, after all—and of course a different house and different hills. But it was the same sun, and the same majestic rays streaming from the center. Funny how we’d unwittingly shared a moment.

And I almost didn’t spare that moment to stop and gaze at the lyrical strings of the sun. Since school let out (and of course before), I’ve been running around like mad trying to tie up loose ends. Why? Now that’s a good question. First, I’ve got my two jobs. Those are legitimate concerns. Gotta go on call with the vet and do all the “fun” reproduction work—collect stallions, cool and package semen, clean and inseminate mares—in short, it’s a paycheck and good experience for the ol’ résumé. Then I’ve got the other job, where I ride and train the horses and help out with any odds and ends on the farm, assisting with marketing and such. It keeps me pretty occupied, that’s for sure.

[Side note: I’m typing this in MS Word, and the grammar check is insisting that “that’s” should be replaced with “that am.” I’s pretty sure that am wrong.]

Beyond my ~30 hours a week of jobs, however, I have few pressing commitments. Yes, there are the daily chore responsibilities around the farm. Stalls need to be picked, waters changed, horses fed. The latter need to be ridden, too, and exercised occasionally, tuned up, and practiced. If the gray mare stays sound I’d like to start back up barrel racing her again. I do miss it.

But in between important engagements, I frantically scramble to do….noting. Putz around on the Internet, for one, but also slightly more noble tasks like creating a big hardbound book/ photo album and beading some tack for sale or personal use. And reading. I’m so intimidated by my stack of To Read books that I hardly dare to pick one up. I started out strong, racing through An American Childhood. It was good, but not as great as I’d hoped. Since then, I’ve stalled. I’ve got a half-completed volume of Jack Kerouac novels—started a year ago and still not finished—but I’m procrastinating because, quite frankly, I don’t much care for Jack Kerouac. His road-ready bum and devil-may-care persona are so far removed from my own way of living that I can hardly relate. Still, I do enjoy his stream-of-conscious prose (and find myself imitating it after reading a bit too long), and there’s that whole “cultural exposure” deal, and that whole “can’t start something without finishing it deal,” so I forge ahead, making myself miserable with my own self-imposed agenda, as we are all wont to do.

The past two days it’s just been too damn hot. It went up to 87 degrees Fahrenheit today, with high humidity, and I was dying. Never mind that we’ve got at least another 10 degrees to go. And I thought this was the sublimation point. The heat bakes me into an unproductive lethargy. Alas.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Endless Round

“Spring is when there are new babies in the meadow.” This was a line from a beloved childhood story, I think, perhaps told by an anthropomorphized animal. The circumstances are forgotten. The words surface out of context. New babies in the meadow….and new nests in the birdhouses. And in this particular nesting box, there were five speckled brown eggs, from which five wrinkled and pink aliens emerged—bulbous-headed, jerky, reptilian, blind, and hideous. I found the first one shortly after it hatched, before its siblings has chipped their way into the bright blue world, and held its tiny limp and wobbling form cradled in the palm of my hand. New babies…new life. Everywhere.

The birds are the most obvious examples, in their lively courtship rituals and rowdy fights and poorly concealed hidey holes (beneath the lid of the propane tank, for one, or along the back walls of the horse stalls, where I watched transfixed as a tiny few-day-old chick moved too close to the edge, faltered, frantically flapped its budding ineffectual wings, and tumbled haphazardly down the gap behind the wall; alas, rescue efforts were in vain and the mice—themselves teeming with offspring—must have feasted well that night). Trees and shrubs bud, the voles in the field build their endless network of dens and hide their litters safe below, and the music of the frogs at twilight is deafening. And everywhere, everywhere at night, beetles and moths and craneflies blanket the ground, crunch underfoot, slam stupidly into buildings and cars and ricochet down, cluster around light fixtures, get tangled in hair.

But this outstanding fecundity comes at a high price. Of the five chicks in the northern birdhouse, the first one jumped out of its own accord—free at last!—proceeded to hop and scuffle into the garage, and was quickly dispatched by my mother’s curious and brain-dead dachshund, who carried her prize triumphantly around, clamped tightly in her vise-like jaws. The last bird to remain in the nest seemed healthy enough when I checked a couple of days ago; this morning, it was a crumpled and ant-riddled sack of feathers. I fished it out with a long piece of pasture grass and dumped it unceremoniously in the field so that nature could continue to take its course. Its parent squawked angrily at me from the roof of the house. “Your child is dead,” I wanted to tell her. Instead, I retired inside. I don’t know what happened to the other three chicks.

An old professor saw me sitting vacantly in a campus computer lab the other day and decided it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on things. We discussed polite social subjects: my schedule for next semester, my summer plans. I asked him what he had been up to. Hadn’t he been on sabbatical? And then he got so excited to tell me his story that he glowed like a boy and stuttered and fumbled in his rush to get the words out fast enough.

Yes, he had been on sabbatical. He had gone to Africa. He had seen Tanzania, the Serengeti. He had been close enough to a bachelor band of giant elephants that he had heard the beating and whooshing of their ears as they lazily fanned themselves. He had seen a leopard crouched low in the tall grass, stalking an antelope. He had heard the noises of night life on the African plains, the fighting and dying and bleeding and breeding that went on under cover of darkness, that world into which tourists like American Chemistry professors were forbidden to enter, lest they become victims of the night.

But, he lamented, there was one thing he had not seen, and one thing that he wanted to go back so that he could experience: the great wildebeest and zebra migration. He told me, through his tripping tongue and brilliant eyes, that millions upon millions of the herbivores make the trek across the river annually, and here they calve and foal, millions upon millions of gangly-legged babies cavorting through the rich green grass of spring, before the oppressive summer heat burns it down to yellow desert. There are so many of the young wildebeests and zebras that the predators are sated. The lions have all they care to eat, and after gorging, they laze in the shade and watch, eyes complacent, tails idly flicking. The crocodiles eat their fill, and the hyenas, and the giant black African vultures—in turn fueling their own reproductive success. Yet, by sheer mass of numbers, the wildebeests and zebras preserve, nay, thrive. It’s a brilliant strategy.

Elton John had it right:

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

Let us all jump from the nest and ford the river—dare to do, or die. Take our chances. Stretch our legs and spread our wings—full of vivacity—let’s go!

Friday, May 14, 2010

An Empty Chair

I return from my little lapse in blogging, Semester-From-Hell ended, just in time for the commencement of graduates. It’s a funny occasion. All Pomp and Circumstance and a few long boring speeches and cheers and then waltz outside for a photo opportunity with parents and siblings, go party or whatever, and then move on, and forget the past four years. Another chapter completed. One door closes, one door opens. I myself am halfway there!

I wrote the following poem when I was 13 years old; I have seldom written poetry since. I’m no Whitman or Keats, let’s put it that way, but this one little piece, for some reason, sticks out as the highlight of my poetic literary achievements. I penned it to commemorate and lament the high school graduation of a friend of mine, and her subsequent departure from the concert band we both enjoyed. Now, as I prepare to watch some new(er) friends graduate from college, the words of my younger self rise and beg to be remembered:

We sat with horns to lips and eyes ahead
As the magical scene before us unfolded
And we watched, caught in the joy of the moment
A single day to be cherished for a lifetime
And yet with bittersweet regret
There was a silent lonely place
Amidst us all
Its hapless grace
Was all alone:
An empty chair

We could see him sitting in the ranks
Of all the young who met their future that day
Who thought, or joked, or cried, or prayed
All present there, waiting their turn
But as the bold, brassy music we played
There was a quiet spot
All but forlorn
Left there, forgot:
A vacant chair

And loudly
Pomp and Circumstance we played
Our tapping feet and blissful smiles belied
That inside we laughed and cried
As we watched them step up to receive
An honor, yet
Our eyes wandered
To the left
That forgotten token:
That empty chair

We lost them that day, and they left us behind
They went forth, for futures must be made!
Their diplomas taken, and new levels reached
But remembered the band where memories were made!
Sorrowfully we watched them go
The five seniors
And five seats
Unoccupied there:
Five vacant chairs

One day the rest of us will follow them, away
We too shall proudly step up to take the honor
And go forth into our worldly conquest
Our destinies to find; our futures to mold
And leave behind us memories and friends
Who sadly gaze
At the lonely spots
We have forgot:
Our empty chairs