13. The Story of the Boatman and the Serpent

Humble as he is, Howie Usher stands shaggy and tall among the sons of Sinbad.

In Mesoamerican stories, sky and sun energy embodied in the eagle sought union with the water world.  The water world is the subterranean world, the unconscious and amniotic world, – the deepest diluvian recesses from which we come.  According to the stories, the Mesoamerican people would settle in that place where the eagle seized the snake in his beak.  The eagle was eventually seen on a small island in Lake Texcoco and it was there that the great city Tenochtilan (that would one day become Mexico City) was built.

The procreative seized the generative and that’s how life came to be born.  It’s an important story that finds expression throughout Latin America:  in the serpents that guard the base of the temples in central America, in the Hopi snake dance, and even in the image of Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl that can be seen in practically every taqueria on the West Coast.

Some of those people from Middle America continued on, possibly following the Colorado river up into North America and the Southwest.  In Hopi stories the first person to follow the river back down to the Sea of Cortez came from Tokonave near Rainbow Bridge National Monument.  On his return he brought water knowledge and the snake people with him.

Howie Usher has spent his life riding the back of that serpent.  He’s served as one of the guides for Hopi elders, descendants of the people who emerged from there.  He knows the Canyon and the River nearly as well as anybody who comes from that place.

He knows you don’t tread lightly when you enter.  He’s in that canyon again now, deeper than ever before.  He’s still conscious, I hope.  I imagine him at the bottom of a deep pit, trying to sense the glimmer of light that will indicate which way is up.  I imagine he’s beat and hurt and tired.  He’s trying hard to find his way up. We gaze down, hardly shimmers on the surface of the water.  He’s a brother and he badly needs help.   He carried my own daughter through Lava.  I owe it to him.  If you’re near, it’s occasion to reach down hard.  And if you’re far it’s occasion for prayer.

If you can, reach for him.

Leaving

We left Hopi because a small boy was run over and crushed by a truck.

Because a man killed his pregnant girlfriend and threw her off a cliff. Because a girl and her brother beat their mom to death with a barbell and burned her house to the ground. Because on the rez you can get away with murder. Because non-natives were dealing meth in the villages and no one seemed to care. And even if they did no one could do a thing about it.

Because every week acquaintances would drink themselves to death. Because a neighbor killed a raven. And poisoned an anthill. And beat a harmless bull snake to death with a hoe.

Because after eight years of digging the hard pan, the clay was still bone dry. Because I knew that after all I left, my work would remain undone.

Because our daughter needed to know what it was like to live off reservation. Because I couldn’t drive the 120 miles to flag one more time.

Because I spent my days composing telegrams from hell. Because most everyone we knew had already left. Because children were under served by their own families. Because I was tired of all that I knew. Because I was tired of the lies.  Lies told by my community.  Or by my own family.  Because we didn’t have much more left in us.

Because If you’re a sensate being you one day reach a point where you just can’t take it.

And then it’s time to go.

The Orchard and the Raven

It was partway through the transaction that I learned the adjoining orchard was for sale.  People had known and no one had told me and I was livid.  Like all the old Grav orchards in the area, it was destined to go to vineyard.  The water would be drawn down, pesticides would be sprayed.

But it wasn’t just that, can you understand?  It was an old way of life, it was the culture of the Gravenstein orchards that had shaped this town for nearly a century.  And it was the life itself, one hundred and twenty apple trees, many over 80 years old.  Whom do you know who has lived to see eighty years? Termite ridden, some barely husk and bark, they still yielded apples.  Year after year giving up their own progeny so that others could drink and take sustenance.  A collective 100,000 years of sentience would be taken out because they couldn’t turn a profit.  By that measure, I should have been dead a long time ago.

So I had a vision.  I’m prone to visions and they sometimes overtake me.  Rarely to great fruition.  Sometimes to no good at all.  All the same I had a vision.

We would buy this orchard.  We would somehow find a way to make it work.  I would learn how to care for Gravenstein apple trees and we would learn to press our own cider and make our own vinegar.  We would have this raven Poe and over time he would get better, we would nurse him back to health and he would be our family mascot and my friend and companion.  Our home and the orchard and the adjoining parcels would become a haven where our friends, and the wild turkeys and the quail and deer and ravens, where all manner of life could come and live.  We would do this crazy thing and we would do it together.

But Anna would have nothing of it.  She was away in Arizona, Mazie and I in California.  Me running between her school, and a sick bird, and the county recorders and a West County real estate office.  Anna said it was too much to take on and what was the point.  She was distracted and preoccupied, and what with all it was hard for her to get the time to listen.

She didn’t want to be tied down, she said.  She wanted to be free and unhampered by an orchard.

I finally did figure out how we could get the land, but I was five days two late.  The vineyard people bought it.  Four days later the bulldozers arrived and began to rip out the trees.

That night I walked out into the orchard, and row by row, I sprinkled homa, and laid my hands on each and every tree standing and fallen. I said I was sorry.  It began to rain, slowly, then heavily and I trudged on in the mud and the dark.  I thanked them for all the life that they gave, for their sacrifice, for everything they had given.

A house is just a house, my father-in-law once admonished.  You are the moveable feast.

You can say that.  But it doesn’t matter in the end.  The truth?  Dreams and dreamers are just slim pickings.

Remembering Steve

Steve isn’t dead.

The most physical and perhaps most limited instantiation of him, of course, is gone.  No more will we know that unique conflation of DNA and environment that gave rise to the person we knew as Steve Jobs.

But his larger self, the ripples emanating out from him, those will continue to move people on this earth.

He rode sidecar in the lives of many people.  Or perhaps it was the other way around.  Perhaps it was his motorcycle all along.  Perhaps he gave expression to that motorcycle ride that we all dreamed for and wanted.

How have his ripples moved through me?

1979.  San Diego.  I’m an awkward fourteen year old boy.  It’s the first day of ninth grade and my math teacher Virginia Hamilton ushers me into a room that contains some new equipment which she doesn’t understand and has no idea what to do with.  She shows me a new Apple II.  It’s your’s to play with, she tells me.  Earlier that summer I had read about these two guys, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who had invented the first real personal computer.  I understood instantly.  I took the manual home that night and was on the machine the next day tirelessly.  It couldn’t just move numbers and text.  It could play sound.  It had a color screen.   You could do art on it.  It could be a musical keyboard.  It could be a kind of stereo.  I learned to program in hex. I set to writing a program that was like a wordprocessor for music.  Why, a person could play and the computer would transcribe the music for you.

1981.  Reuben H Fleet Science Center.  I sit at a table with the director of their science center.  They had live location data on several satellites orbiting the earth, he explained.  Could I write a program that could visually display where in the sky the satellites would be visible?  Why yes.  The truth was I couldn’t program worth shit.  But I set to it with David Calabrese, a kid I met hanging out in an Apple store.  That was a thing then – kids who couldn’t afford computers would hang out in Apple retailers programming and pimping the machines.

David and I would get together each day and type out code.  We were nuts about Apple computers.  We also debated who was the stronger genius – Wozniak or Jobs?  Jobs was a petulant jerk. And Wozniak was brilliant.  He after all was the real inventor of the guts and OS of the first Apple.  He invented the first magnetic hard drive over a weekend.  But Jobs was the guy who saw what it all was.  He was the one to put it together.  He drove Wozniak relentlessly.  And eventually he drove Wozniak out.  David and I worked on our satellite tracking program. We kind of got it working, but a real programmer ended up finishing the work. I had a crush on David’s sister and I just wanted to make out with her.  I guess I got kind of distracted.

1982.  Biology class.  I borrowed an Apple IIe from a kid – I think his name was Eric Altman.  His family was pretty well off and they could afford the latest toys.  I didn’t have a computer of my own and I needed to do a demo of my science project – something about computer music transcription.  I plugged in the computer with the power switch on and I fried the mother board.  I stood in front of the class and felt like I was going to throw up.  Eric was heartbroken.  I took his machine to the Apple store where I hung out.  I had no money, but the technician worked on it for a week and fixed it for free.  He was so generous, but then he wanted to hang out with me more and I didn’t know what his intention was. I felt the the foreign edge of a grown up world and it scared me.

1983.  I stand in my childhood home, decrepit, filthy, largely stripped of furniture.  I’m seventeen and I no longer have parents.  I hold an acceptance letter in my hand.  Would I have gotten into Yale without all that freakish experience with those Apple computers?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does technology really make a difference?

1984.  At Yale my college roommate ended up with one of the first Macintoshes.  I could use it whenever I wanted to write papers, he told me.  He basically bribed me with his Mac so I would hang out with him.  Regardless, never again would I write a paper on a typewriter.  And the sheer terror I felt at having to write on the page began to dissipate just a little.  I could write, and erase, and cut and paste.  Back then the words, “cut and paste” still connoted glue and scissors.   How strange to think that in our minds the words now evoke the clicking of a mouse.  And what would the mouse have been without Steve Jobs?  And by extension, to think that our very vocabulary and the parts of our brain that support that vocabulary have been rewired by that one individual.

1987.  I camped out in the basement of our residential college for much of the spring, sitting at a bank of Macintoshes, writing my senior thesis on the Diggers, a counterculture anarchist group in San Francisco.  Why did history have to be constituted only of old stuff, I wondered?  What about recent history?  The 1960’s?  Cultural history?  I wanted to write about something that hadn’t been touched yet.  And so I looked at something so new and so insignificant, that real historians hadn’t gotten to it yet.  For hundreds of hours I stared at the screen of a Mac.  I thought about those machines of loving grace, of how that generation of tech pioneers, Steve in particular,  came out of the counterculture, how parts of their visions were fueled by acid.

1988.  Seattle.  I’m out of college by now.  My first years at trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I was alone in the world, and if I’d ever chanced to look down, I would have been terrified.  I read biographies of Steve Jobs, looking for guidance.

I inherited the stories:

Steve in India being pulled aside by a guru who, laughing hysterically, shorn his hair off.

Steve tracking down his birth mother.  He had little to say publicly about the matter other than that he believed in nurture over nature. I wondered over the years what that encounter must have been like.  Who was she?  What did they share in common?  What did they not?  Why should I even care?  But care I did.

Steve inviting John Scully to his Woodside home.  Over thin crusted pizza, asking if John wanted to continue selling sugar water to children, or if he wanted to change the world?

Steve being exiled to some lone building on the Apple campus.

Steve being fired from his own company and following his departure, retreating to his Woodside home where he raised a pirate flag and another sporting the logo of the NeXT computer.

Steve throwing crying fits, insisting that the robotic arms assembling NeXT be painted the proper shade, and then his eyes welling up again as he watched those arms moving in unison.  Thinking machines building other thinking machines.  This was poetry.  This was art.

Steve commenting years later that technology in the end doesn’t change the world.  People live for an instant and then they die.  What does technology really change?  All those widgets and gadgets and gizmos, they make the world different.  But do they really make it better?

1989.   I sat in an auditorium in Seattle as Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT computer.  I saw OS X in it’s very first incarnation.  It had a Unix kernel and full sound and graphics and an amped up graphic interface.  Why did I still care about this stuff?  I wasn’t a computer guy anymore.  But I loved Jobs.  Watching that demo, I wondered why no one wanted to buy it?  None of us knew that 10 years later we all would.

1994.  I have an MFA by now.  I’m writing.  I scratch out a living with low-end desktop publishing.  Why that and not something else?  Because I have loads of experience on a Mac.   All on Mac’s.  Steve made the best tools I have ever touched.  I have a Sheffield digging fork.  And an Apple.  And in a way they are the very same thing.  They allow me to do most of the work I do.

1996.  Vermont.  My wife and I have just moved to the northeast.  I’m referred to a woman who’s having problems with her Mac and needs some tech support.  I end up helping her and afterwards we go for a walk and she asks about my life and she listens in a way that ranks that afternoon on the shores of Lake Champlain as one of the most important conversations of my life.  I tell her that I don’t sleep at night because there are too many things left undone.  Left undone, she said.  One day that will be the title of your autobiography.  We had a chance encounter because of a screwed up Mac and our deep friendship has lasted to this day.  What difference, really, does technology make?

1996.  Vermont. Driving through the snow with my wife.  I had heard about a new codec called MP3 and was thinking through the implications. The physical medium for content was now obsolete, I told my wife.  We no longer needed vinyl or CD’s or tapes.  All music could be shared digitally.  I wrote out a 2 page summary for a digital jukebox that would exist online, and you could purchase songs and play them on some device. I tried to find interested people.  I met with some guy from the Media Lab.  I got a job working for a start up telecom company, thinking it would help.  I was employee number 7.  The company took off and I dropped my idea, an idea which I now realize I was in no position to execute.

1998.  Steve returns to Apple.  It’s not the hardware.  It’s the software, he insists.  And the dictum becomes apparent.   There’s no reason to have buttons and physical widgets on our devices.  Practically all of it can be done by software.  The ideal computer wouldn’t even exist physically.  It would be pure software.  Pure instruction.  Pure energy.

2001.  Apple releases the iPod.

Why did Steve Jobs do it?  And why not me?  Well, because he was Steve Jobs.  And I am me.

2007.  The company I worked for got the contract to provision the iPhone on the AT&T network.   And the company screwed it up immeasurably.  Probably the single greatest failure of the iPhone release was AT&T’s botched turn up of the service.  A small number of former coworkers  got pretty rich off it, though.  But I had already left three years before and had moved to the Hopi reservation.

2005.  I stand in a parking lot in Flagstaff before a meeting with a prospective funder.  I’m trying to get money for a youth farming project.  I have my Mac Powerbook on the trunk of my car and I select 30 photos, choose a Hopi planting song, and within seconds have a slideshow.  I sit with the funder as luscious images materialized on the screen, showing kids planting ancient terrace gardens.  At the end of the slideshow he sits there in silence and then announces  that he’ll commit ten thousand dollars.

2009.  I have a recurrence of a tumor on my parotid gland and am undergoing radiation treatment in San Francisco.  Unbeknownst to me Steve Jobs is getting his liver transplant in Knoxville.  Late one night I hole up in a sushi bar in the Sunset district, seeking some morsel of food that won’t make me sick.  I chat with a woman next to me – an attorney specializing in real estate law. Her boyfriend is an oncologist in Palo Alto.  He’s been working with Steve.  It’s not good, she tells me.  But didn’t we all know that? Not just for him, but for all of us?  Isn’t life itself a terminal condition?  I drink my sake and eat my toro.  I don’t want him to go.

2011.  Sebastopol where l now live with my family.  I have struggled for the last few weeks to buy an apple orchard next door, but my efforts come to late.  It’s sold to a vintner.  Several days later bulldozers arrive and plow down the 80 year old trees.  Even as I write I can hear the sound of the dozers.  I take a break to watch a movie on my daughter’s Macbook Pro about the mining of blood minerals used in cellphones and wonder what Apple’s stance on the issue is.  I think of small boys mining colton deep underground with small hammers.  Of women being raped and mercenary groups demanding taxes on the minerals used in all our electronic devices.  Small drops of blood tainting perhaps even the devices popularized by Steve Jobs.  Does technology change the world?  Ask the boys in the mines.  I consider their lives and their terminal conditions.

I turn on the radio and learn that Steve Jobs has died.

1955 – 2011.  Apple could have said it so many ways.  What was the most simple?  They could have said, “2011”.  But that just tells you that he died.  It doesn’t tell you that he was. They could have displayed the exact month and the day of his birth and death.  But what really do those other pieces of information add?  Nothing really.

Steve Jobs.  1955 – 2011.  He lived.  And now he is dead.

I once wanted to be Steve Jobs.

And in the end we all will be.  Steve admonished that life is about the detours.  That we never know how those detours will add up.  But what if your life has been composed entirely of detours?

It took me too long of a time to realize that Steve Jobs was not the life I was born into.  I can have visions with the best of them.  But everything depends on execution.  And in the end, focus.

 

Intense, excruciating focus.

 

Insomnia

Three a.m.  Another hotel room.  Another sleepless night.

An old friend, Louie Conin “the Barbarian”,  Car Talk producer and writer, once told me about this pipe in her bedroom in Somerville.  She was a chronic insomniac.  Routinely she’d awaken to another dark night of the soul and wait, eternally it seemed, for that excruciating pitch to succumb to the light.  She’d lie in bed and stare at a floor to ceiling heating pipe in the corner.

That’s such a fucking ugly pipe, she’d think to herself.  I really need to paint it.  It’s such an ugly pipe.

She’d stare at this pipe night after night and it never got painted.

Louie grew up in Somerville across from Dr. Spock’s house.  She came from an old Boston Catholic family with all sorts of Catholic pathologies going on in her household.  She once wanted to go play over with the Spock kids and her mother flipped.

“You can’t go over there!” she screamed. ” Those kids run around naked and shit in their own yard!”

Which according to Louie was kind of true.

Which maybe also explains something about Baby Boomers and tech bubbles and housing bubbles and divorce rates in the seventies and maybe something else I can’t think of.

—-

In a few weeks we will have moved from Hopi to an undisclosed place in California.  In the place that we will have left, this twilight hour is kind of important.  Routinely people stay up all night praying for wellbeing not just in this world, but for all life everywhere in the universe.  I imagine that at times the experience can be physically excruciating, sad and lonely, and at times terrifying as one faces that great void.

Through unity of spirit and sheer will, practitioners attempt to summon goodness and life into a world threatened by it’s antithesis.  I whither to think of it.  And I whither as I imagine that three a.m. hour when your spirit claws for dawn to break, for that scarcely imagined moment when you emerge into a new world to be greeted by the new light.

On the Lam

So that’s how my daughter and I became fugitives.

We bolted left then right then left out of the suburban neighborhood. We got caught behind a truck trying to make a left hand turn, all the while eyeing the rear view mirror while Poe sat swaddled in Mazie’s lap.

Within minutes we were on the Interstate heading west toward California. Ten miles down the road we pulled onto a side road and released Poe into the dog carrier which we positioned again on Mazie’s lap. We got back on the highway and once we were safely past Bearizona in Williams (where I was afraid the rehabilitator might be), we pulled off once again and positioned Poe behind us, giving him a full frontal view of the road ahead.

We all felt elated – Mazie couldn’t believe we stole a raven, I was pumped that Poe had a fighting chance, and as for Poe, I think he was just glad to be free of jackhammers.

Mazie and I talked contingencies. Keep your eye out for highway patrol, I told her.  Once we crossed the border into California we’d be a measure more safe.  If we were pulled over for any reason, she would drape the sweatshirt over the carrier. If anybody asked, it was a pet animal that was easily agitated. If anyone caught sight of him and had questions, we were rehabilitators taking him to a sanctuary in California. We decided we would keep him covered when we passed through the border inspection station.

Early evening, we pulled into an In n Out and ordered Poe a cheeseburger with fries. He didn’t take to the deep fried potatoes or the bun, but he relished the cheese and beef. He paced inside the carrier, he gurgled, he peered out at the advancing road.

It was time, I decided, for Mazie to hear the talk on Huck and the Higher Law. It’s not good to steal, I told her. And it’s not good to lie. But consider Huck. He was an orphan and outcast. He habitually stole. He was profane. And given a choice between truth and the lie, he always told the lie. And what’s a lie, but a fantastical story? But as he and Jim float down river deeper and deeper into the dark soul of the country, they are increasingly surrounded by the larger lies told by all the adults around them, and the largest lie of all, that Nigger Jim was chattel, a slave unworthy of even being considered human. And as Huck’s lies and the lies of the world compound around him, the deeper truth emerges, that he and Jim, outcasts though they may be, are friends and brothers.

It’s something to think about as we fumble through our own untruths, ever into the ascending darkness.

And with that, the interstate ribbon unfolds before us. Lots of ravens drift in and out of sight, sentinels each and every one. They roost on telephone wires, pick at carrion in the road, mouths agape, cool themselves on the side of the highway. Under their watchful eyes, the three of us – my daughter and I and a fugitive raven – descend off the Plateau, past the Colorado and into the Mojave.

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Poe eating road food

It Takes a Thief

“Blame it, this whole thing is just as easy and awkward as it can be. And so it makes it so rotten difficult to get up a difficult plan. There ain’t no watchman to be drugged — now there oughtto be a watchman. There ain’t even a dog to give a sleeping-mixture to. And there’s Jim chained by one leg, with a ten-foot chain, to the leg of his bed: why, all you got to do is to lift up the bedstead and slip off the chain. And Uncle Silas he trusts everybody; sends the key to the punkin-headed nigger, and don’t send nobody to watch the nigger…..Why, drat it, Huck, it’s the stupidest arrangement I ever see. You got to invent all the difficulties. Well, we can’t help it; we got to do the best we can with the materials we’ve got.

Anyhow, there’s one thing — there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head.”

And so spaketh Tom Sawyer in the 35th chapter of Huck Finn.

There’s the right way to do something and the wrong way.

In our case, Mazie imagines black face paint and ninja costumes.  Kerry dreams up fake transportation permits and forged documents from the Hopi Tribe.  I consider several furtive and superfluous transfers between waiting vehicles a la Mission Impossible.

In the end though, we just take him.

In our last moment before leaving Hopi, we disinter an old dog carrier from the garage and load it in the car.  That’s the extent of our plan.

A few hours later we find ourselves at the home of the wildlife rehabilitator.  We knock.

After a long wait, the husband shows himself.  His wife is gone.  He doesn’t know where she is, or when she’s getting back.

We came to visit Poe, we explain and he says that we are free to go to the back.

Which we do.  Mazie carries with her a Middlebury sweatshirt.  The air once again is filled with the cacophonous roar of jackhammers.  I step into the cage with Poe and he looks up with wearied eyes.  I whisper for Mazie to walk quickly to the car, retrieve a shred of burrito and bring it back.  I meanwhile sit with the stricken bird.  Mazie returns and we feed Poe with some scraps of meat that he takes eagerly.

And just like that I drop the sweatshirt over Poe and swaddle him in my arms.  I race across the yard.  Behind me I hear Mazie closing the gate so it is slightly ajar.  Goodbye Poe, she says.

We dive in the car and quick as can, we peel away.