Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sedona, Oak Creek and Cave Springs

Just about every July, my brother-in-law takes his family up north to go camping.  They always go to the same place, the Cave Springs campground in Oak Creek Canyon.  Over the last six years or so (with the notable exception of last year), we have tagged along, at least for a few days each time.  Camping at Cave Springs brings a welcome break from cicada season here in Phoenix, and relief from all the symptoms of summer madness their ceaseless droning represents.    

Oak Creek Canyon is just north of Sedona, that internationally-recognized focal point of new-age flakiness set in the midst of some of the most amazing terrain on earth.  You’ve probably seen pictures of some of the more famous buttes and rock formations and the striking colors they display.  One of the things I like most about camping in Oak Creek is that we pass through red rock country on our way.  There’s nothing quite like the experience of arriving in Sedona’s environs after driving a hundred miles through the flat, washed out, non-descript landscapes of the desert.  It’s always a magical moment, coming around that final bend in the land of tan to see the first richly glowing rust-colored hills emerge in one fluid, constantly expanding vista.  It’s like that classic moment in The Wizard of Oz when the movie goes from black and white to Technicolor, or in the old version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when they first step into the big room in Wonka’s candy wonderland.  It’s also something like an incredible strip-tease performance, only it’s Mother Nature peeling off her beige blouse, and taking off the horned-rim glasses, and unfastening her hair…  

Another few minutes of driving and the surroundings have completely transformed into something strangely wonderful.  It is a realm constructed entirely from enormous red blocks of weather-sculpted sandstone.  The world outside the car has abandoned its standard, bland palette in favor of one that focuses with an artist’s intensity on just three colors:  that signature color of the land itself, which we call red, but which is really an indescribable mix of pinks and reds and oranges and creams, and whose predominant hue seems to change with every elusive morphing of the light; the deep, dark, absorbing green of juniper and pine which cover the hills, stud the slopes of the buttes’ bases, and sprinkle across their tops like chocolate jimmies on a cupcake; and the color of a sky so sweet, so juicy, and so thickly blue that for some reason you can only think of watermelon, and how much you’d like to sink your teeth into it, and let those cool sky-juices run right down the sides of your mouth and drip from the point of your chin, puddling sky-blue at your feet.  Their combined vitality produces an exquisitely interlocking balance, a harmonization to some secret platonic template of beauty. 

It’s no wonder the vortex-worshippers and crystal gazers go ga-ga for it.  I know I feel different when I get there, although I’m not there to align my chakras or get my aura read.  But there is a mental shift that takes place upon arriving in red rock country, and for me it's the moment of release from all the work and stress that comes from getting the hell out of town.  Sedona is my visual confirmation that the escape is real, and now.  In turn, my body instinctively begins to relax, and my high-revving mind downshifts to a slower gear, automatically lowering the frantic spinning of my brain to a smoother, calmer rpm.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dark Tower: ka and ka-tet

I’m in the middle of something I never thought I’d be doing:  reading Stephen King.  His Dark Tower series, to be specific.  If you had told me a year ago that at this time I’d be knee-deep in Stephen King novels (literally; I stacked them up the other day and they came to my knee cap, and that’s not even including the one that just came out, The Wind Through the Keyhole), I’d have said that you’re fruitier than a box of Harry and David Royal Riviera pears, nuttier than the pecan pancakes at Cracker Barrel.  But here I am, some 2,000 pages in, and there’s no turning back now.  In the world of the Dark Tower, there’s a word for such a thing: ka.

The basic story follows the quest of one man, Roland Deschain, who is seeking this mysterious and foreboding Dark Tower.  In the beginning, and for a long time after, we don’t know what the Dark Tower is (a place? a thing? Donald Trump’s office?), nor do we know why Roland is so anxious to find it.  What is clear is that he will stop at nothing, and will allow nothing to get in the way of achieving his goal.  It’s a lot like Moby Dick, except Melville doesn’t make you wait until page 200 to give you the first clue about why Ahab is maniacally pursuing this certain white whale.    

At any rate, in Roland’s world they have this thing called ka.  It’s like fate, or destiny, or The Force, or the will of the universe, or God, or Stephen King’s bank account, or something, and it plays a part in everything that happens to Roland.  Just like in our world, some people believe in it, and many people don’t.  Roland accepts the existence of ka, and even though it imposes great tragedy and suffering on him, he relies on it to know that it can lead him to this Dark Tower, where he must…do something.  I still don’t know; I’m only just starting the fifth book in the series right now, The Wolves of the Calla (and by starting, I mean I’m on page 175 of 900 or so).  There are two more volumes after this, and so far each book has been longer than the one before.  It’s like one of those hallways in your dreams that just keeps stretching longer and longer, and the more you run, the farther away the end of the hallway gets; which, now that I think about it, is a very fitting, King-like metaphor (I keep thinking of that scene in The Shining).

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Missing Andy

It’s an interesting feature of human nature that, too often, it takes a person’s death to get us to fully comprehend the importance of that person to us.  You would think that after going through the process a few times, we wouldn’t keep falling for the same old prank, but we do.  It’s like we’re Charlie Brown.  We see Lucy holding that football, and we want to believe that she will let us kick it, even though we know, based on past experience, that it’s wrong to believe it.  So we go through our whole routine, and, well, you know what happens.  And then, as we’re lying on our backs with little Woodstocks circling our heads, we are confronted once again by the thing we somehow keep forgetting.  It’s not Lucy that suckers us into doing this every time; we sucker ourselves.  And the worst part is, even though we know it now, we also know that we will forget it again, probably right before the next time we come around a corner to see Lucy, holding an innocent-looking football and grinning sadistically…

In other words, it would be nice if we could fully esteem someone while they’re still around, when both we and they could reap the rewards of our heightened sense of appreciation.  But unless someone gives us clear and unmistakable advance notice of their imminent passing, there’s no real sense of urgency driving us to a full scale assessment.  It’s simply not the kind of thing that needs to get done today, like getting to the grocery store for milk, or washing the kids’ school clothes.  Our minds cling to the illusion of permanence, and we keep our daily stores based on the erroneous belief that things don’t change much from day to day.  I don’t know if there’s a whole lot we can do about that.  It’s seems to be the way we’re made.  Death just has a funny way of refuting that particular belief.  It also has a funny way of focusing our attention. 

These somber, perhaps even macabre, reflections come in response to the news of Andy Griffith’s death last week.  Strange that the passing of a TV sitcom actor would be the catalyst for such introspective spelunking, but there it is. 

Like millions of others, when I think of Andy Griffith, I think of The Andy Griffith Show.  And when I think of The Andy Griffith Show, I think of two things: the classic sitcom itself, and Griffith’s character at the center of it all, Sheriff Andy Taylor.

For my generation, The Andy Griffith Show is part of that great triumvirate of classic television sitcoms, along with I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Growing up in Phoenix, then-independent Channel 5 was the station that carried those shows, always clustered together like a prized, three-piece collection of rare Tiffany glass.  As I remember it, the classic order was The Dick Van Dyke Show at noon, followed by The Andy Griffith Show at 12:30, and I Love Lucy at 1:00.  There was a fourth (mostly Hogan’s Heroes, although other shows would sometimes supplant it for short stretches) that bridged the gap until Donohue started at 2:00. 

Throughout the seventies and eighties, no matter where you lived in this great land of ours, you probably had a Channel 5, and that station probably played the same trifecta of sitcom greats at least once every weekday on what appeared to be direct orders from God. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Guest Post: Kent Yoder

Today marks another first for thunderstrokes:  the first guest post.  It comes courtesy of Kent Yoder, a friend and fellow blogger.

Kent and I came to know each other through our mutual friends, Rick and Karri.  Over the years, we would connect at the occasional get-together, and, of course, Rick and Karri’s seminal white elephant party at Christmastime.  I always appreciated Kent’s quick comebacks, sarcastic asides, and obscure references (three of my favorite pastimes); and as a result, we formed a kind of friendship by association, a friendship once removed, you might say.  For a short while, we actually worked together at the post office, and it was during that time that I developed an appreciation for Kent’s honesty and dedication, and learned that his sharp, dry wit wasn’t just something he saved for parties.

Last year, Kent was unexpectedly diagnosed with prostate cancer (really, is there any other way to be diagnosed?).  Over the last twelve months the disease, and its treatment, have taken a serious toll on him physically.  Seeing him, especially as infrequently as I do, is to be surprised all over again by the constant and relentless siege he is enduring.  He seems to exist within an increasingly narrow range of the physical spectrum, between manageable discomfort on the good side, and unalleviated pain on the bad.  Despite this, his positive attitude, sense of humor, and a certain, not wholly definable form of good-natured nonchalance - or is it humility? I can’t quite put my finger on it - continue to throw out sparks from under the inconceivable weight of fatigue and suffering.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Floating Lessons

I watched Maria struggle with learning to float on her back in our local public pool.  It was her second week of swim lessons.  The instructor had his hand underneath her, holding her up, and he was encouraging her to relax, and spread her arms and legs out. He was there, he told her soothingly, and nothing bad could happen.  Maria’s arms were flailing and slapping the water, and her rigid legs were sticking out of the water like two arrows shot from the same bow. 

This was actually progress.  She had spent almost all of the first week clinging to the side of the pool and wailing.  And last year’s lessons, when she was two, were a study in a small-scale disaster.  We were in the pool together for those classes, and she had absolutely no interest in anything but the bucket of pool toys the instructor brought with her.  Every day we tried, and failed, to practice blowing bubbles, dunking, and doing “big arms.”  Leg-kicking was the only area where she would make any effort at all, in short spurts, and only because we shamelessly dangled toys like carrots as a reward.  Her stubborn tendencies were on full display, as were mine, and many days our lesson ended early.  Sometimes very early. 

This year we decided to put her into the first level of real swim lessons straight away.  No toys, no holding onto Daddy, no getting out early.  Thus, the initial clinging and wailing.  

It might sound harsh, but we desert dwellers take the ability to swim seriously.  We have to.  In Phoenix, every other house has a pool, and for a long time we led the nation in child drownings and near-drownings every year.  When you live here, swimming isn’t a luxury; it’s a survival skill.  So, watching her struggle with putting her face in the water, or floating, while difficult, was a hell of a lot better than the alternative.