The Hairy Ape

I take for granted my own living body most of the time. Specifically, that it exists, filling up real space in a real world. Most days, it seems easier to stick to “the facts.” I’m “Alex.” I live in “Paonia,” a small town in “Colorado.” I am a “writer.” I am “white.” I am a “man” who “loves” my “husband.” And so I, like most humans, live in a world of layered abstractions.

Take away the distractions of our high-flying egos, elaborate wordplay, and endlessly reproducing screens, however, and we humans are no more or less physical than any other living creature. We are real. We are animals, always. Meeting others. Every day we act and react, want and withdraw, shriek and flail, run and remain.

In my most recent essay for Orion, “8 Meetings Nobody Scheduled,” I’ve curated a short list of moments that have cut through abstraction and left me gasping in shock and surprise at the very real world and my own very physical presence in it.

Despite the tired cliche of the civilized man vs. the wild animal, I declare that to know your wildness is to be more sane. To know your animality is to be more wise. To know you are no more nor less than the other creatures you meet each day is to be more honest, humble, and free.

Advertisements

That Music

I’d meant to read this poem at the Fab Planet summit but ran out of time. Fortunately, there’s always time for a good poem here at andtheuniverse:


“That Music”
W.S. Merwin

By the time I came to hear about it
I was assured that there was no such thing
no it was one more in the long trailing
troupe of figures that had been believed but
had never existed no it had not
resounded in the dark at the beginning
no among the stars there was no singing
then or later no ringing single note
threaded the great absences no echoing
of space in space no there was no calling
along the lights anywhere no it was not
in the choiring of water in the saying
of a name it was not living or warning
through the thrush of dusk or the wren of morning


This is resistance: hearing that which we are told to deny. This is hope: that the thrush and the wren will sing their own songs (regardless of the script thrust upon them). This is joy: to fill the darkness and light alike with song.

This poem can be found in Merwin’s gorgeous Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Also: I’m still searching for photo credit. If you recognize this image, please help me out!

On writing a memwah

Turns out writing a book is hard (real hard).  Who knew?  Likely just about everybody.  Except me.  Somehow, in my youthful wisdom (read whimsical naivete), I thought I could say I was writing a book.  And then just start writing.  And keep writing.  And voila, I’d have a book!

ImageNot true, good sirs.  Nope, turns out you have to dredge your soul.  Stir up all your demons.  Face all your doubts.  And fail.  And fail.  And fail.  And then after years of this–after the whole idea of the book-length story which you want to tell cuts you down right to your base, then, finally, maybe, it’s no longer an idea.  It’s an actual story-like thing.  And then, maybe, you can actually write it and write it and write it until it turns into a book-like thing.  More than a collection of words, but a body.  A living thing. That breathes and speaks and does the tango with itself and whoever else wants to join it.

Turns out writing a freaking memoir–or as I like to call it, a memwah–is real hardWriting a memwah means not only having to successfully tell an interesting story in the first place (which seems easy enough, but proves exceedingly difficult in practice), but that story also has to be true!  It also has to be fair to your dear loved ones who you are writing about–while also honoring your own, likely divergent perspective on shared histories and experiences.  On top of all of that, the real people I write about also have to be good characters–and the real events good plot.

Speaking of plot: it is the story of an adventure I undertook several years ago with my at-the-time-boyfriend-currently-husband Pete during which we paddled 1800 miles of the Yukon River.  The story is also about us falling in love, of getting married, and honeymooning in Everglades.  It’s also about making sense of love in general–and my gender and sexuality–within the culture in which I live.  It’s also about what and who is natural; where the line is between self and other; what we risk when we are true to our selves–our dreams, our loves, our desires; and what we have to gain.  It’s an adventure story.  And it’s a love story.  But it’s also a queer story, which hopefully means it will surprise and delight and confuse people and their expectations and assumptions.

Oh, golly.  Overly ambitious, right?

Well, as you might have guessed, all this is to say that I’ve dropped the ball on the blog for the past few months.  But for good reason: I was writing the story of my survival.  It took me to some of the darkest, scariest places in my life.  But the good news is that I’m seeing the light at the end of the river.  I’m days and weeks away from the first complete, 300ish-page, manuscript.  I will be starting to shop it around by the end of May.

For this moment when I’m about to embark once again into a new phase of the great unknown that is this living thing, I figured the following excerpt from Chapter 0 – Shape of a River would be fitting:

Peter says he’s feverish. He certainly looks a little pale. Phlegm rolls down my bronchial tubes, and I give a good hacking cough. We launch the boat anyway.

“To the sea,” I say.

“Sssslp, lpp, slep,” says the river against the boat.

I thought it was going to be more than this. There’s no ceremony, no witnesses except the lone Al-Can drivers that flash and rattle across the blue steel-girder bridge that crosses the river here. We talked for half a year, and then decided we had better start actually planning, like a couple who hadn’t believed they were pregnant until the belly started to show. What maps did we need? Were there even maps? Who could we talk to about the lower sections? How do we get home? What kind of boat do we need? How do we eat? We made our best guesses and figures from a third of a continent away. After a full month of packing and driving, driving and packing, packing, then yeah, more driving, we did arrive. In my dreams, we hadn’t looked quite so exhausted. A sign beside the launch reads: Warning: Stay clear of control structure. 400 Meters down stream. Stay right and use boat lock.

Maybe, at least, we look good to those lonely drivers rushing by overhead. If you squint your eyes and lean back a bit, you can see us even now: two lean figures in a loaded red canoe, ready. You don’t see Pouncer’s bow rocking dangerously low above the surface or the whole boat wobbling side to side as we clip our final possessions into it, grasp at the gunnel, perch ourselves half in and half out. You don’t see how lumpy our load is, all three hundred pounds of it, which we’ve squeezed into a family of canvas bags, river barrels, and plastic crates, all of it lashed to the thwart and crossbars. You also don’t see what that same load looked like half an hour prior when it looked more like a full-on yard sale or gas-main explosion.

It’s taken most the day to get on the water, and the sun already stalks to the north and west, pawing round the low dip between spruce and birch, right where we and the river intend to go. We squint as we look downstream, barely able to see it for all the shine and glare. I lift my foot out of the muddy bank while Pete braces the boat. I swear the whole thing nearly flips as I try to sit down. I grip my paddle with white knuckles, digging the tip of it into the shore. Then it’s Pete’s turn to climb in, kicking his feet clean of mud before picking up the paddle. We roost our butts in our seats for several seconds, find places to set the soles of our shoes. And just now, we strike off from the shore, shoving water around without plan until the current catches us and brings us along. We spin in stutter-step unison, Pete sterning on starboard, I bow on port. The sun pushes in through Pouncer’s translucent hull and the light breaks around my legs like an aurora. The sea must be down there somewhere, out beyond what we can possibly know. We push and the river pulls. “We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water” says Annie Dillard. And so Peter and I face the setting sun, all that can come, and we paddle one-two, one-two, one-two-three.

The control dam rises up through the sheen, a long and low thing, like the open gates of a horse race, spanning the full fifty-yard width of the river. The current flows right on through the dam, which was built to hold back the water only when there was too much of it for the liking of the downriver residents. We can’t go through any of the open gates without risking our lives and Pouncer’s, so we push river right, slipping between the rusted seawalls of the lock which rise around us like a shipping crate or cell. Closing off the end are doors like old river rafts mounted and hinged. Just as in a dream, a ladder appears, lines of rebar welded to one of the walls. I tie Pete and Pouncer off, then pull myself up on top of the dam, intent on finding the doorbell.

There is none. What there is is a long lever that you can unlock. And a big wheel like you’d find on a sailboat. I am able to unlock the lever, which is about as long as I am tall, but there’s no moving it. As for the wheel, it turns and turns and turns just fine, and would all night long, I believe. With no other options, I holler down at Pete for help. Pete checks again that the boat’s tied off well, which I don’t see him do, but know just the same that he does it, and then he climbs up the dream ladder too. I show him the situation: turning wheel, unmoveable lever, unblinking door-rafts. We’d purposely put in above the lock, just to get the thrill of the experience, I suppose.

Pete throws his whole buck-twenty-five against the lever, then he decides we need our combined two-ninety. One, two, three–we throw ourselves against the lever, which doesn’t even creak and gives only the slightest shrug of a bend. As for the doors? Dead. We do what anybody who’s hit a sudden dead-end does: we scowl, curse, and toss up our hands toward the sky. And we look for ways around.

“I sure as hell don’t want to portage,” I say to Pete. We’d have to make five, six, eight trips to haul all of our gear up and around the dam, then back down the steep slope to an unlikely put-in. I’m more afraid of the psychological trauma than I am of the physical challenge. Even though the distance is short, it could take us another two hours, at least. It is late already. Ten? Eleven in the evening?

The sun is still setting these days around midnight, though we’d probably have enough light to get wherever it was we needed to go for the night. Our plan had been to just get on the river, float down a mile or two, and then find a camp. I hack. Pete broodingly raises his brow first to the bank, then toward the river, which he surveys with an engineer’s fixed intent.

“No, we can’t,” I say, breathless. “We shouldn’t.” Like a thief, Peter grins.

“I think we can,” he says.

A few minutes later, we are back in the boat, paddling upstream on an eddy river right, then Pete says, “now,” and I dig in deeper as Pete steers the bow into the current, catching Pouncer like the wind catches a kite just as it rises above the trees. We whip about and then we are full on, I in the bow, Pete at the stern, paddling in time, one, two, one, two, one, two, moving with the current which is neither fast nor slow, but resolute, calm, like a madman or Siddhartha, bringing us onward toward our waiting door. Loose pieces of the mountain slopes, trunks and branches, have washed down and plugged half the gates. Pete steers us toward a gate that we had agreed looked clear from where we’d peered down upon it from the lock: third from the right. I can’t see Pete behind me, muscling and taught, but I feel him: the quick rocks of the boat side to side from the force he moves through the paddle to the water, the way the bow which is now our compass, slides right, then left, right, then left, to point dead on at the gate third from the right. Why do we risk ourselves? All we need we hold between us and Pouncer’s skin, and here we are pushing it through the gate, third from the right. No matter the outcome, we’re doomed, the two of us.

The river comes on and the future too. I keep paddling as Pete has instructed me. The dam rises up and blocks out the glare of the sun. Now I see the texture of the water, where it pushes up over the logs that jam the other gates, the way it smacks up and curls around the thin cement pillars. I see now that the gates aren’t wide, but enough: five feet, a paddle width–and I can see that each gate is in fact four, all in a line, two paired upriver, two down, and a canoe length of roiling river between them. Now we near our gate, and we keep our paddling. The river breathes through the gates, speaking now in a louder, constant voice. It is the sound of falling. The rush of on-coming. The press of the present upon our temples.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“We got this,” he says.

“A little right,” I say.

“Looking good,” I say.

Just at the gate’s center, I see that the river pillows through, piling up and tonguing over and into the mouth, down the two-foot drop, passing on through the third and fourth gates, and then out. This is our line we push toward with everything we’ve got. There is no knowing for us now, besides paddling, and breathing, and sliding toward our line. Now the dam is a hand commanding us to stop.

Now it is a mouth, open, laughing.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“Looking good,” I say.

And then we are in, and I do not pause to look about, but keep paddling, breathing, and sliding along that line. We pass through and out like we are opening a door that we will keep opening forever.

“Pete?” I say.

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

What we demand in all our foolishness

Traveling, that is, striking camp and carrying it with you, searching for where you can set it down next, is the process of asking to be let in.  I first thought this city was all wall and broken concrete.  Exhaust and gutter.  Peter and I spent days walking the outlines of long, overlapping rectangles through the streets, under the earnest Yucateco sun and rain, burning and soaking, soaking and burning.  We peeked through iron grates, straining our eyes through the cracked timber rafts of doors.  We caught shady gardens, pools, refugios.  We knew there was a city on the other side of those walls, but we weren’t in that one yet.

Our plan was to strike our camp in California, and set it down here in Merida for a few months.  We just came, no more details than that.  As a traveler, you are certainly asking, even demanding something of the places in which you enter, (ie. Let me in.) and even more, you are asking something of their inhabitants.  And so, I’ve realized, there are things asked of you in return.  Of course there’s the money, but I’m thinking more about the other demands.  In whiskey, it’s called the angel’s share, the bit that evaporates out of the no-matter-how-tightly-sealed cask.  I’m not one for religion, but the belief in angels, the sense of them, came before the sense of God, so let’s let ’em be for now.

I’ve traveled over lots of this green, blue, brown, red and white earth, and I say that everywhere demands its angel’s share.  In wildery places, out away from people, you might have to share your fancy schmancy electro-diode gps mahuey that takes a drink in the rushing river and never wakes up.  Or you offer up all the peanut butter you have, all 10 lbs of it, to the ravens.  And in fact, just like whiskey (preferably Scotch), the greater your ambitions, the longer you age it, the richer the product, the more substantial the angel’s share.  If you, traveler, go out and attempt to cross the Bering Strait on foot, asking to be let in each day, each hour, then you might just have to give up all of yourself to the angels. (metaphorically speaking, of course.  With less religiousity: you risk your life!)

Now here brings up a question I’ve been having about this angel’s share: how much is enough?  When are you paying your fair share, and when are you just a plain ol’ fool who doesn’t know the rules?  If the peanut butter is our guide, then I suppose there’s an inherent need not to want to give up your share.  To actively protect your peanut butter from the ravens.  But alas, inevitably you will underestimate the world for its inventive ways to give and take.  And then you’ve got to cough it up.

These are the thoughts that sprung from a recent misadventure Pete and I had here in Merida.  In retrospect, I’m not sure whether we conducted ourselves with grace, or whether we were baboons (metaphorically speaking, of course.  Baboons, I’m sure you are intelligent and graceful in ways made clear from your own perspective.)

Peter and I bought two hats, sombreros, Jipi Japas.

The city streets stay busy late into the night, full of people just being outside, reveling in the special joy found in just being outside at night in a tropical climate (a joy which many of the locals probably don’t find special at all, but rather quite ubiquitous). As we walked down the street casually, with no particular destination in mind, a man engaged us.

Jose stood with purpose in front of the yawning door of a castle-like building in the city center, the University of Yucatan – Merida.  He was looking for dupes like us.  He wanted us to know about the Maya, his people.  His enthusiasm was sincere, I do believe, though the details–which were suspect in the first place because Pete and I were interpreting them with our stutter-step command of the Spanish language–were murky, if not downright lies at times.

There was a festival going on, he said in Spanish. He told us that we should visit the festival tomorrow, but if we were to visit, out of respect, we should be wearing traditional Mayan garb.  His enthusiasm was real, and so ours was too.  Yes, we do want to be respectful travelers.  He explained hammocks: Maya only slept (and made love (he said with a quick vulgar motion of his hands)) in hammocks.  He explained guayabera: the traditional maya shirts had four pockets, which the men would fill with guayaba fruit (which could only be found in the native villages, he said.  We had to go and taste them, he said) after climbing up the local trees. And he explained the Jipis, the hats: the best hats, the true Maya hats, were made out of Cayamo (best attempt at phonetic spelling), a fiber made from the henequin plant, a type of agave.  He also told us that we needed to hurry to the artisan shop, not the governmental one, but the local cooperative one, that it was closing and would be closed for the next month because of Mayan festivals.

We arrived at the cooperative, which did not appear to be closing within the next few minutes.  Immediately, a kind employee swept us in, explaining that five artisan families had come together to create the cooperative.  All the items were the highest quality: hammocks and guayaberas, belts and tapestries, and Jipis.  First we tried out the hammocks.  The finest quality.  We needed a bigger size, he told us, because I was so tall.  Cuanto cuesta, I asked.  Tres mil ochenta.  Nearly four thousand pesos.  Even with the strong dollar, that’s in the almost three hundred dollar range.  We politely refused, and then we moved on to Los Jipis.  He took us into a side room, for the air conditioning, he said.  He showed us many Jipis, explained how they were made from Cayamo.  The scent repelled mosquitoes, he said.  They also hold their shape, he demonstrated as he folded up the hat into a ball, thanks to the process in which they are formed, after being woven–inside a warm, wet cave to cure.  It was impossible to know what was true and what was false.  On the street, I’d believed it all.  But now, we were ducks waddling around through an impressionist’s garden.  Our friend was the painter himself. What did he want from us? How much were we worth?

Tres mil  sesenta, for the two.  Three hundred dollars.  I immediately balked, and expected Peter, the generally more-thrifty of us, to do the same.  But Peter looked at me with those let’s-get-the-puppy eyes.  Maybe he was having trouble with the conversion rate.  That’s ALOT, I said smiling, glancing at our collective friend.  I said, in halting Spanish, that we would have to wait for another day.  But you will have to wait a month, he said.  That’s okay I said.  But we need money for the festival now, not in a month, he said.  I’m sorry , I said.  Tres mil pesos, he said. No, you don´t need to lower the price, I said.  We just don’t want them.  He was no longer our friend.  Is it the quality? he asked.  No, I said.  The price? No, we  just don´t want to buy them now, I said.

Dos mil cinquenta, he said.  Peter, still with that let’s-get-the-puppy look.  That´s like a hundred dollars a hat, I said.  They will be with us for the rest of our lives, Pete said.  Okay, I said.

After the momentary thrill, Pete and I both began wondering if we’d been duped.  We went home and inspected our hats more closely in the privacy of our room.  Mine had a weak point, a soon-to-be tear.  We were embarrassed to show our friends we’d made at the hostal we’d been staying at, or to tell them how much we paid.  Our guidebook said people could spend between 200 and 5000 pesos on a Jipi, which told us nothing.   Days later, we went to the Sunday market, and found a display full of hats just like ours, for 200 pesos.  Arghhhhh! We blew our budget on a broken hat.  We walked home and grabbed our hats, put them back in the bags in which we had carried them home, and returned to the street vendor.  Identical.

And so we went back to the collective, asking for our share back.  Here was our dilemma: we were strangers, güeros, that really didn’t know anything about these hats, how they are made, or the people that make them.  We’d already accepted that we were destined to always climb our way out of the hole that is the legacy of ugly US imperialism (and corresponding tourism).  Had they given us a good deal?  Had we paid our angel’s share?  Or had we, like fools, paid too g-d much for our g-d Jipis.

We walked in and put on our best business faces.  We were doomed.  Good afternoon, we said in our best business Spanish.  We would like to return our hats.  This one has a hole, we said.  Oh, sorry, you can only return them one day after, he said.  We can still return them, Pete said. I don’t understand, he said.  You understand, I said. Awkward silence.   You can change the one with a hole, he said.  We want to return them, we said.  You can’t, he said.

We exchanged them, and took our sweet time finding the finest, best made hats in the place.  The poor guy who had greeted us at the door this time had passed us back off to the original sales-guy, who wasn’t quite our friend, but wasn’t wasn’t either.  After our neither friendly nor angry goood-byes, we took to the street.

As we walked past, a man pointed to our bags, which were apparently quite obviously Jipi bags, and said we needed Guayerabas with our hats.  Yes, we know, I said, but not today.

This man began in again on the Maya.  I accepted the fact that this was both a scam and an education.  But then I decided to ask him: if we were to still need hats, how much should we spend.  Oh, a good hat can be tres mil pesos, he said.   We pulled ours out of our bags.  Oh, yeah, those, those are the highest quality.  How much did you spend on them? he asked.

And so we still don’t know the truth of it all.  We’ve asked around some more about the hats.  Did we get ripped off? Maybe.  Did we give them a hard time, even after they gave us a good deal?  Maybe.  It doesn’t matter so much though, not only because they are just hats, but also because it has been a full exchange.  We asked to be let in.  And we thought we were being let in.  But we weren’t.  And so we asked again to be let in.  And we thought we weren’t.  But maybe we were.  Or weren’t.  And so we’ll ask again.  And again.