The Seer and The Skeptic

A week before our trip to Mexico, my wife became inspired by a co-worker’s recommendation to visit some Mayan ruins.  “But I don’t want to just stand there and look at them,” she said. “I want to walk up the steps to the temple!”

DSCN0601Having walked up and down stairs my whole life, I didn’t quite see the attraction.  I could even, from my own recliner, imagine what it might’ve been like on top of a temple a thousand years ago.  There I am, strapped to a rock slab while a short, painted man in full plumage dances around me and then swiftly relieves me of my head.  Having no want of mine since he’s been getting complaints from the Mrs. about having too many human heads at home already and now the neighbors are starting to gossip and why can’t he just get paid in goat’s milk and venison like Mr. Chicxulub does, he tosses it down the stairs to the crowd below, which, to show its appreciation, starts “the wave.”

Once in Mexico, we spoke to the resort concierge who mentioned Coba, one of the sites that still allowed walking on the structures.  But I jumped on the fact that it was three hours away and began to moan about spending “our entire vacation trapped in a van.” In light of that, the concierge suggested Tulum, which was closer although somewhat restricted.  At about this time, a woman I’ll call Margaret and her husband joined our conversation and said they were planning the same trip and asked if we might want to go together, split the cost of hiring a driver, and so on.  We agreed, and the next day we were off to Tulum.

On the way we chatted pleasantly, comparing family trees and asking the driver questions like “why do the Policia carry fully automatic weapons?” and “is that drug war thing really so bad?” or “what is the most popular drug down here?”

On the way back, Margaret asked my wife “so, what do you do?”  She gave a succinct yet detailed description of her entire career, while I looked out the windows hoping the subject would change.

The question bothers me.  I wish I had the guts to tell people I was a haberdasher or a monk, some fantasy life I could don for a few hours and then discard.  But I am burdened with a reality that includes having no prepared remarks about what I do, despite the fact that what I do is write, a deliberate and creative employment of words.

When it was my turn, I rambled on and on, or as I’ve heard it put, “talked the balls off a rhinoceros.” And in my bout of verbal diarrhea, I mentioned that one of my biggest challenges is finishing a piece – the how does a writer know when he’s done problem that I’ve written about before.  And that, as a result of this, I abandon some pieces in favor of something new.

“You have adult attention deficit disorder,” she interjected.  “And did you know that it’s really a respiratory problem?”

Having already used most of the words in the English language, I could find no others suited for a response.

“I’ve noticed you have a little trouble breathing” she said.

“The cold that I have, perhaps?” I suggested, reaching for yet another tissue in my backpack.  But she shook her head.  A cold.  Please.

“You have a chronic lung irritation, and didn’t you say you’re a ‘light sleeper?'”  It was true I shared this, in addition to admitting my fear of snorkeling and how I believed “Hola” can mean hello, goodbye, or thank you depending upon your inflection.  She continued, “so, your brain resets during the day.  That’s why you have trouble focusing.”

Now my silence was intentional, and it gave her ample time to explain her experience in holistic medicine and why I wouldn’t read about any of this in the relevant research literature.

Margaret is a lovely person with whom I could even be friends.  A person just right for a company of travelers to the epicenter of the coming apocalypse.  Which brings to mind some advice I remember – don’t listen to anything someone says before the word “but.”  

But, my dear, I don’t buy it.

I am a skeptic, maybe sometimes to a fault.  I am dubious about someone’s ability to diagnose the condition of, let alone the causes for, something as complex as the attention of a human mind merely from a rambling response to a common question.  I must admit that she had blown herself up as a credible source even prior to this free behavioral consultation.

Earlier, while eating lunch, I mentioned something about wearing sunscreen and trying to avoid further run-ins with skin cancer.

“You need to eat green algae and seaweed.  Skin cancer is not only preventable but reversible.  I had a friend that had this rat (maybe she said it was a guinea pig) and it had a big tumor.  It wasn’t doing well and couldn’t even walk.  So I took it in and started feeding it fresh greens and vegetables.  And it lived another 18 months.  It’s all reversible!”

DSC02169So here I was, sitting at a little shack of a restaurant on the beach, drinking a local brew and eating fresh grilled fish that likely came from the clear blue-green water before me.  But more incredible than all of this was that I was eating lunch with the modern-day Jonas Salk.

Back in the van on the return trip, I managed to keep my cool and not turn into Asshole Man, a lesser-known superhero and close cousin to Childish Man, whose superpower is mocking and annoying his enemies until they shut up or go away.  And I managed to ask her, before my brain reset and its attention squirreled away somewhere, what I could do to fix myself.

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said.  “Eat turmeric.”


Game of Thongs

Never having the guts or the money to go to a destination like Cancun as a college spring breaker or a twenty-something, I had only the stereotypes and rumors perpetrated by Girls Gone Wild infomercials to guide my expectations for the trip me and my wife were about to take there.  But to my pleasant surprise upon our arrival this past weekend, the hotel strip and its gated compounds of luxury and bottomless buffets is well removed from the areas that earned Cancun its sleazy reputation, although some of the locals assured me that this reputation is still kicking.

Closer to downtown, they said, there are plenty of bars like the Tequila Barrel that serve fishbowl-sized drinks and the vomit-paved sidewalks as in front of disco joints like Coco Bongo, which is a curious favorite of news giant CNN.  These are the kinds of places that require owners to post signs about the dangers of standing on toilets.

Like many cities in the world, Cancun is a place of extreme haves and have-nots.  But one thing (or should I say two?) is in abundant supply.  Ass.

I admit I am a sheltered sort, seeing most of the beauty and colostomy in the world through the pixeled comfort of a flat screen.  So when I see it in person, not to mention right up in my face, I feel a moment of scared stillness.  It isn’t that people on Mexican beaches are so loose as to flounce pure waist-down nudity, although they are uninhibited enough to smoke from hookah pipes in plain view.  But it makes one, this one at least, wonder what possesses a woman (I saw thongs only on women, not men, thank god) willfully feed a strap or string through her gluteal crevice. Is it ribbed for her pleasure?

I’ve had the thought before, I must admit, but not until this trip was I curious to the point of almost buying a cheap beaded thong sold in one of the hotel shops for 100 pesos (about $8 USD).  But I didn’t, alas, abiding the wisdom provided by my mother and which has become my life’s cornerstone – nothing good comes from sticking something in your ass.

Prepare To Be Mounted – Part 2

Let me first apologize for the lack of pictures from the weekend hiking trip (see Part 1).  My digital camera, though a mere 5.7 ounces and fits in any pocket, was quickly spotted by Friend #1, determined to be an unnecessary addition to the load, and was tossed into the trunk of my car.  “That shit adds up, man,” he explained as he transferred yet more crap from his pack to mine in the parking lot of Vogel State Park.

Despite boasting that I was probably in the best shape I’d been in for 15 years, I soon realized that the equation changes when you become a human mule carrying 30 pounds of jerky at 2500 feet above the carpeted living room where you normally perform your silly hops and buttock pinches.  Not to mention the trails themselves.  Although not specifically mentioned in the trail guide, Bear Hair Gap Loop and the Coosa Backcountry Trail were apparently designed by Dutch artist M.C. Escher, i.e. no matter which direction you choose, you’ll be going up.

I also discovered that under such conditions I develop a temporary sort of Turrets syndrome (for any Turrets sufferers or sympathizers out there, I’m not making fun of the affliction, just myself, so don’t get your panties in a bunch).  Within the first 30 minutes of our ascent toward Slaughter Mountain, and the close-by but no less comforting Blood Mountain, I noticed that I would blurt out some winded nonsense like “hoooowaaaah” or “ussshhhhoooooga.”  At other moments, perhaps when I got hungry, which was about every three minutes, I’d say “BAM” as if channeling the human ewok Emeril (thanks to Anthony Bourdain for that description) and on another occasion exclaimed “manna from heaven!” when I saw a skink slither up a chilly stream that crossed the trail.

We had carefully read the warning signs about bears and shared other various assumptions we brought with us, all of which suggested that the best way to survive a black bear encounter was to fall to the ground in a fetal position, something I assured my friends came naturally to me.  But nothing could have prepared us for what we encountered.

Not far in, we heard noises behind us.  This god awful noise got louder and louder, closer and closer, until the sinking feeling in our pits gave way to recognition.  It was French.

“Shit,” I said. “Or should I say ‘merde.'”

For some reason I decided this was a good time to take a pee.  About mid-stream, Friend #2 gave me the waving hand sign, which I was pretty sure from having watched Top Gun a million times in high school meant “turn left,” which I did.  Now facing back down the trail, I saw what looked like a teenage girl bouncing along through the edge of the trees, so I had to stop and quickly zip up.

I can honestly say I had no previous animosity toward the French.  But this family of four sounded like ten.  As they passed by, the father and son started shouting “Setanta!” at each other.  “Setanta! Setanta! Setanta!”  As I now know through Google, this isn’t French at all.  For some reason, they got great enjoyment out of yelling this word, which is either the name of an Irish boy or of a European soccer channel.  Next time I go to a bibliotheque (that’s a library) in Paris, I will be sure to return the favor and shout “Seamus! Seamus!” or “ESPN! ESPN!”

We did everything we could to get away from them, but without success – we took detours, let them pass, sped up to put distance between us.  But they lingered like a fart in an elevator.  Finally we gave up, picked out a camping spot, and began setting up for the evening, and only then did they disappear.

That evening we built a fire, more because I like to burn stuff than anything else.  But it also got us talking about how different our lives were the last time we got together without a child or spouse present.  “It’s a strange thing, life,” I said trying to be profound while lying almost prostrate like a snow crab, stretching out my cramping right quad that was pulling my groin half way down to my knee.

After a sleepless night thanks to 25+ mph winds, we packed up and had to get back to civilization, meaning duty and family.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Well, I’d trade the French.  Jesus, those people!

Prepare To Be Mounted – Part 1

I am going hiking and camping with two friends this Saturday.  That is the plan, at least.  The three of us rarely get together anymore and the years of empty promises that “yeah, we’ll definitely do that some time” finally chapped one of them bad enough to insist that we go this weekend.

So last Thursday at 4:18 a.m., the one I’ll call Friend #1 who got all this together, sent an e-mail (something unusual in itself) entitled “hello keep sending incomplete sorry.” In this e-mail was a list of 37 items, many of which were multi-part or paragraph-long explanations of alternatives, of what he felt we should bring.  The list included:

  • locator beacon, etc.
  • Purell sanitizer
  • sunglasses
  • bear spray
  • earplugs
  • “a lil rope”
  • “I have a whistle for me and you” (meaning me and himself, Friend #1.  Not sure why Friend #2 was not allowed to have a whistle), and
  • bathing suits “for the way up” (for a mid-October hike in the North Georgia mountains)

Like pretty much everyone else raised in ITP Atlanta (inside the perimeter, which refers to Interstate 285 that encircles and protects Atlanta from the rural hordes), I have little experience hiking or camping.  This is because metro school systems limit the education of students about “the rest of Georgia” to only what is included in James Dickey’s Deliverance and the movie based on it.  This is to dissuade us from ever traveling OTP (outside the perimeter) or, god forbid, if we ever went WOTP (way outside the perimeter) we would at least know how, when commanded, to “squeal like a pig.”

In truth, the list also included necessities like tents and backpacks, socks and shoes, and lots of toilet paper, but nonetheless it seemed a bit over-enthusiastic.

In the e-mail, he also encouraged me to come over to his house to try on an arctic jacket that he wanted to sell me for $50.  The jacket would have been too large for Andre the Giant and I imagined myself tripping over the sleeves dragging along the ground and falling off the side of a mountain, so I turned him down.  Next, he showed me his own backpack that he insisted I borrow, refusing to consider my comment that I’d be fine using my son’s Spiderman backpack.  He had, in fact, already packed it for me and gave me the tour of where all the essentials from the e-mail were.

“What’s this Christmas ornament for?” I said pointing to what looked like the lost bell on Santa’s sleigh.

“That’s a bear bell,” he said, getting annoyed.

“Why do we want them to know we’re coming? Aren’t we supposed to avoid bears?”

He went right on showing me all the other special pockets and their contents – one for the bear spray, another for the headlamp that I would need in order to look for bears while getting up for late-night pee, and which I would have to wear while sleeping. etc.

On the way home I called Friend #2, hoping to get some confirmation about what to bring.  Maybe #1 was right, that we really did need all this stuff.  How the hell would I know.

“I’m not taking all that.  Just a tent that we can all sleep in, a small stove, and some socks,” he said.

Hopefully I will have an entry Part 2 after the trip.  If not, it’s been real, y’all!

It wouldn’t be a trip to the Mountains without Rubber Chickens, Government Contracts, and Stromboli

A few tips and observations from a recent trip into the Appalachians and Smokies:

Rafting, and Chickens:  If you schedule a rafting trip and notice that the guide has replaced the T-grip of his paddle with a rubber chicken, don’t go.  The rubber chicken is detachable and he will drop it into the river.  And then, with the apparent mental constitution of Tom Hanks after months on a deserted island, he will dive out of the raft to retrieve it, abandoning you and the folks from Sheboygan who can’t row in rhythm to save their fucking lives and keep hitting your damn paddle.  But he will at least recommend that you watch out for that big rock there called “Jaws” and most certainly to avoid the one farther down named “Timmy.”  “Why is it named Timmy?” you’ll ask stupidly, wasting the few precious moments that remain of your life.  And as he grabs for his chicken, he will yell “Oh, that’s the boy who, you know… least we raised enough money for his momma to get him a real nice wheelchair!”

Car Engines, and Prayer:  If you intend to drive a car in small mountain towns, know that it will not start unless you hold a lit cigarette in your left hand, which you must hang on the steering wheel like a ham hock drying in the sun, and say “oh gawd damn” each time the engine fails to turn over.  When it does eventually start, offer the quick mountain prayer, “that’s right mutherfucker.”

Hiking, and How To Do Local TV Interviews:  When you are told about a good four-mile day hike, this means the U.S. Forest Service will dispatch all available Rangers to search for your ass when you don’t return home by Thursday.  When you are pulled out of the helicopter at the closest trauma center to an awaiting crowd of local TV reporters who ask you what happened, and you blame the person that recommended the trail, you will be told, to the sound of great laughter, that all folks in those parts learn about distance by teaching crows how to fly in a straight line and then come back and report how far it is.

Photography, and Government Contracts:  If you stop to take a picture of a junkyard and the political signs posted there, be prepared to engage in a conversation with a local about the infamous Contract of ’43 which he ain’t never seen a dern penny from even though he’s “got a stake in it,” and the government done seen fit to take all the taxable land and now it’s only about 10%.  And Heath Shuler, who ran for Congress before but he ain’t runnin’ again cause there ain’t no more taxable land, well he ain’t worth a shit and whusn’t much good a quarterback anyhow.

Telling Time, and Coffee Makers:  If you visit in the offseason, know that all towns are inundated by busloads of New Jersey tourists, all of whom wear three watches, and each of which are calibrated to the atomic clock in Switzerland.  And by god, I promise you that if the complimentary hotel breakfast starts at 7, they will descend on it at 7, each and every last one of them, telling the poor old lady at the omelette station that they have a bus tour to get on by 8 but they really need to get on by 7:45, no later, so they can sit on the left side because the driver said it’s the best side, and just add a little more cheese to theirs, oh just a little more, and where is the coffee, oh it’s in the same place as yesterday, and the day before?

Restaurants, and Divorce Paperwork:  Many restaurants have two hostess stations, one outside and one inside.  The one outside is presumably for patrons who are inhaling or shoving a tobacco product into a facial orifice and, as a result, aren’t allowed within 75 feet of food prep areas.  If you are one of the few non-employees to actually go inside, just before you are able to ask for a table, the hostess will abandon her station with a cell phone mashed into her ear and shout “where the papers at? How’s I supposed to know where the fuckin’ papers at? They ain’t never sent me that crap!”  And you will wonder if she is, for the time being, married to or otherwise related to the rubber chicken raft guide.  (Additional note on Stromboli:  If you are dumb enough to order one, know that they are made entirely of cheese.  Trust me, that’s not bread crust, nor is the other material pepperoni.  And despite all your chewing and swallowing, your body wants nothing to do with this so-called “pepperoni cheese pie” and will not absorb even one single calorie of it.  In other words, the train’s gonna come out the tunnel the same way it come in.  And to punish you for this poor menu choice, your body will keep you in bed for three days without tolerating food or water while somehow causing you to gain seven percent of your body weight).

For the Pigeon Forgers:  It’s Vegas-on-crack for kids, Batman!

And Dollywood:  “Free ice water is available at many venues.  It’s a perk that few people at Dollywood know about,” or so a customer service representative will tell you if you ask where you can park.