Here it is July and he’s still hammering. And then a raucous cry, rising and falling like a loon’s.
The first time I heard the racket, I thought it was something wrong with the heating system. The ducts would rattle and buzz with the new furnace sometimes, till I figured out how to damp the vibrations.
But this noise was coming from up on the roof. A chimney fire, or something akin? The cadence had a bit more intelligence to it, though, like the work of a live thing.
If intelligent, it was an alien intelligence, to be sure. What sort of creature would have an interest in banging on the chimney pipe, that late winter dawn in Colorado?
By and by, the mystery was solved. The utility bill even had a leaflet. This was a type of bird, something related to a woodpecker, called a “flicker”. The tapping was its mating call. Or “his”, I should say.
The utility bill said to watch it. If your bird were hammering on metal, it was noisy, but no real damage was being done. However, if he were pecking at a wooden part of your structure, the leaflet insisted firmly, you must “stop it immediately”. The utility bill didn’t exactly say how to “stop it immediately”. I suspect there are city ordinances against discharge of firearms.
The noise at my house reverberated down the old chimney. This was good news, meaning the bird was hammering on metal, the flue cap. Wooden chimney caps had never really caught on as a general style. The not-so-good news was that he insisted on performing this ritual just about dawn, every morning.
Before too many more weeks went by, I started getting complements from the neighbors. “I heard your flicker this morning,” Margaret said. As if my place were so natural and conducive to wildlife, living next door was almost as good as watching the Discovery Channel.
Indeed, I had started thinking of him, as “my” flicker. There was a certain grudging admiration in his sheer doggedness. Other houses were occasionally tapped, but “my” flicker was like a country rooster, reliable as the dawn, loud and clear every morning.
“If only it were that easy,” I thought, “Knock your head against a piece of metal to attract a mate.”
We humans don’t have it so simple. The flickers must look in bewilderment at all the bizarre things we try. Going out to bars, wearing the latest fashions, getting a Ph.D. The phrases I’ve heard that pass as “flirting” — well, nothing’s any more or less odd, I guess, than banging your head on a piece of sheet metal. But you’d think we could figure out the code.
Some guys douse themselves with cologne so heavy I’m about to gag. But, for them, it’s the way to appeal. I’d prefer the other extreme; no scent concoctions at all. Even a natural manly funk would be better than that. And why not? Do the flickers have any such concept as banging their head too hard!?
But we’re a visual species. The family story of how my parents met is wrapped up with the history of photography itself. They were both on vacation in south Florida. Imagine postwar 1940’s. He had one of those newfangled home movie cameras. He was using it to get the attention of girls he liked the looks of, shooting them on the beach.
“I don’t believe you’ve really got film in that camera,” future mom coyly quipped.
“I’ll prove it,” he retorted, “I’ll send you copies of the pictures!” So, addresses were exchanged, and the rest is family history.
But there are no rules. A generation back, my father’s father, my Arabic grandfather, my jidi — when he went a courting, he had a harder time than the young bachelors in Fiddler on the Roof.
His beloved had a domineering older sister who controlled her every move. This sister already had designs to marry my future grandmother, my siti, off to a wealthy businessman.
Poor jidi, when he went calling, the only way he could even so much as touch siti’s hand, was to ask for a drink of water. As she handed him the glass, they might momentarily brush fingers.
I know what they were up against. Us guys still have to watch it where we hold hands.
The opposite extreme is my mother’s parents.
There are many grand family tales, but about their meeting there is no story at all.
“Oh, I guess they knew each other in school.” That’s all anybody has to say.
He and she both grew up in that little Ohio Valley farm town. They loved each other, and had a long life together. But the inception of it has no dramatic tension, no literary conflict.
And so, no story.
Myself, I think I could live happily, all the little stories with my lover under a nice umbrella “non story” like that. I’d like to give it a try!
My brother, Allen, and his wife, Wendy, met at a bar.
This has to be cosmic, one of those meant-to-be things. Both of them “never” went out to bars.
But that particular night, they were both flaking out, taking a break from studies.
Wendy’s father “never” approved of her boyfriends, but somehow my brother’s standing in medical school was an antidote to that.
My parents’ marriage had been delayed awhile, simply because they were from different “rites” of the Catholic Church.
In the Roman rite, my mother’s, the tradition was to be married in the bride’s church. In my father’s Melkite rite, the groom’s.
The pastors dragged their feet, and didn’t sign off on things.
Maybe it seems petty now, but a half-century ago people took all this very seriously. There were letters to Rome. There were backroom deals about whether the future children would be baptized Eastern or Western rite. I am not making this up.
Well, maybe I am. I wasn’t there, or at least so they have assured me!
By contrast, in 1980’s Alabama, Allen, and Wendy, managed to pull off what would’ve been scandalous but a few short decades before — a mixed marriage.
No, not different shades of color. Wendy is blonde, but Protestant. Of Southern Baptist extraction, to be exact.
Maybe there were backroom deals there too, but by the time I arrived the dust had settled and the decorators were bustling around the church placing pots of flowers and “greenrae”.
That wedding planner must have been gay, to give such a succulent, Southern pronunciation to that simple word for foliage.
The Catholic priest and the Baptist minister co-officiated, with jolly good humor. I know because I was backstage too.
I did my part, and gave one of the scripture readings. I combed my then-long hair down, and fluffed my beard over the tight collar of my shirt and tie. I stepped to the podium, possibly the last time I have ever worn a suit.
Afterwards, filing out of the church, I overheard a woman remark to her friend, “What a nice ecumenical service. They had a priest, a minister — and a rabbi!”
Two decades later, this little family is still on the cutting edge.
Allen and his kids, my niece and nephew, have all gotten heavily into this online Internet role-playing game called SquashBuckle.
I am no stranger to computers, but somehow online gaming is just not my cup of tea. I don’t quite get what you can do with it.
I was about to find out.
SquashBuckle is like a whole world and realm and reality.
I looked askance at the screens full of posturing elf warriors, gnomes, wizards, and trolls. Scrolls and placards appeared, providing information and clues to what was going on. There were spells to cast, and hit points, and buffs. You could click and drag to do things, combine things, “make” things.
But, to my mind, it was all disquietingly “virtual”. Mere phosphor dots on a CRT, transmitted hither and yon over a fast T-1 line.
Allen has always had the touch for making money.
By day, a physician with a profitable cosmetic surgery clinic. By night, over the past few years of escapist stress-relief in SquashBuckle, he has played various roles. One of his favorites is a female character named Valia. He has played Valia up to near-goddess stature.
Valia, wisely, plied the trade of tailor, before the SquashBuckle realm had many tailors. By long practice, she became ever more adept.
Her spells now seldom fail when she sets about to create the rare and magical platinum chain-mail armor for which she is rightfully famous.
My brother is now getting a little bored with the game. What to do with all Valia’s accumulated plat?
People are offering to buy it online. These are the players, not the characters; and they’re offering cold, hard cash.
So much for virtual phosphor dots and pulses of electrons. What was that about not being “real”?
My fifteen-year-old niece, Rebecca, has her first boyfriend, Jacob.
He lives two thousand miles away.
How did they ever meet? Through the game!
I asked Becky about it, what they found in common.
“Oh,” she said, “we talked about a song we both liked.”
One of the first other things Becky and Jacob did was, as their SquashBuckle characters, go raiding together for loot and glory. And they asked Valia to go along.
I guess you can’t find a better chaperone for your first (virtual) date than a power-goddess. The family that plays together stays together.
It all makes so much sense, but somehow online gaming is just not the metal chimneypiece I can see my way to bang my head against.
I traveled with them all recently. No, not the online game, in “reality”.
Allen planned a trip to California and I met up with them there.
We assembled the crew. I timed my flight to rendezvous at the San Francisco airport. Each of the kids, Henry and Rebecca, would have a guest along. Henry’s friend, Don, arrived with them. Rebecca’s would be her boyfriend Jacob.
We drove north of the bay to San Anselmo where Jacob’s parents lived. Perhaps this cross-country trapeze meeting might seem like it would be strange, but it was not.
Maybe it was from being the same social strata of business professionals. Jacob’s family had the feel of down-the-block neighbors we just had not happened to meet before.
Their actual next-door neighbor, Paul, was over doing most of the cooking. He was a dentist. Jacob’s father, Roger, was a pilot in the nautical sense. He boarded freighters as they entered a harbor and brought them safely to port.
Jacob’s mother, Ann, had a degenerative neurological disorder. It had progressed to the point she was in a wheelchair. She could not speak, but got thoughts across by pointing to letters and words on a clipboard-sized card. Her brother, Ross, and his wife, Maxine, were there visiting too.
The food was great. Ross told hilarious stories about growing up working at his family’s Armenian restaurant.
At one quiet moment aside with him, I asked how it was seeing Ann after so long.
“It’s hard,” he admitted, “She’s really going downhill.”
All through the ensuing trip, I was really impressed with Jacob.
Our first day out, we headed up into the Sierra foothills for a day of rafting on the American River. Our main guide was Paula, Jacob’s aunt, his father’s sister. She had been running rivers for decades.
After slathering on sunblock and getting the boats ready, we hit the water. On the trip, we had the usual splashing waterfights, and drama of the big rapids.
Jacob was not in the main boats with us, but doing it all in a small kayak alongside. Some of the major cataracts were quite a bit beyond what I could even imagine navigating alone. I guess he’d been doing this awhile.
The next stop on the road trip was a rest day near the town of Truckee. Jacob knew the area well from ski trips. Seems he was quite the skier, as well as kayaker.
I was starting to wonder a bit what he found in common with Rebecca. Her taste in sports runs more towards those things you put quarters in and then try to snag little stuffed animals with a metal claw.
The day after that, for the willing, was a hike to the top of Mt. Lassen. Allen had planned that to start getting us used to the altitude for what was coming later. There were snowbanks the first few hundred feet up the trail. From this cold slippery slush, Rebecca was not one of the willing. I have no doubt Jacob could have easily gone to the top, but he chose to stay behind in the parking lot with Rebecca.
At the top of Mt. Lassen there were lots of butterflies flying around. I’m not sure why, but an entomologist in southern California once explained to me about butterflies in his region. Certain species, when mating season comes, their instinct is to all fly to the highest point of land. By this elementary tactic, they come into proximity, and find each other to mate.
Another nice simple system. Even a butterfly can figure it out. Just fly uphill, and since all the butterflies have the same idea, it works.
I liked spending time with the kids. Teenagers are, well, teenagers. Very emotional and expressive. The best part is the explosions of creativity they’re going through. You know, up to age twelve, they answer the phone “Hello, Smith residence”. Then suddenly it’s, “Bill’s morgue, you stab ’em, we slab ’em!” or worse.
They were just so funny all the time. I still laugh thinking of little spots they would do, such as from movies or TV, how they captured the schtick of some comedian in just a phrase.
The boys were all about the books they were going to write and the movies they were going to make. I offered some wan advice, such as how to get past stuck points in the creative process, and computer hardware to try. They were surprisingly savvy about conceptual details, like foreshadowing, symbolism, plot lines, and the like.
Still, they have a ways to go before the Oscars. From what I’ve seen of their writing, they have a hard time putting together one sentence with correct punctuation, spelling, and grammar. But I didn’t say anything about that. I think it’ll be obvious where the squeaky wheels are, once they get moving. If you have the dream, you can fix the mechanics; but not the other way around.
The high point (literally) of the trip was a summit climb up Mt. Shasta, fourteen thousand plus feet elevation. Allen and I did it with a friend, Nickie, who’d met up with us for that segment.
We’d got the advice from the Forest Service to begin about 2:00am, and I’m glad we did.
We did a standard first-timers climb, the route up Avalanche Gulch. We started up the trail with headlamps aglow, under the stars. About daylight we left the last vestiges of visible trail behind, and found ourselves at the start of the steep, deep snow.
This was the long pitch by Helen Lake. We spent all morning making our way up it. It was close to a hundred percent slope, you know, forty-five degrees. For every step you take forward you have to hoist yourself the same distance uphill. Finally we passed the Red Banks, Misery Hill, and came to the Summit Plateau.
“I don’t think I can make it,” said Nickie. The peaks of the true and false summits were now just small hills in front of us, only a few hundred feet higher. “I feel like I need to save all my strength for going down.”
“Oh, sure you can,” encouraged Allen. “It’ll be so much easier on the descent, you won’t believe it.”
We made it up that last stretch, putting one foot in front of the other and trying not to think about it too much. There were wafts from the sulfur springs near the top. The volcanically heated water seemed out of place in that realm of rock and ice at the roof of the world. As the story goes, those springs had meant survival for John Muir, caught up there once when the weather turned bad.
Finally, we were signing our names in the register book and snapping the victory photos. It was early afternoon. And, sure enough, it was so much less strenuous going down.
Nothing about that trek was easy, but in truth our timing, and the weather, could scarcely have been better. Climbing up in the morning, the late-season snow was sun-pitted but solid. There were pitches so steep we felt we were teetering on the brink, but our crampons got a firm bite in the icy rime.
One of the biggest helps was simply that the snow, though dwindling fast with the advancing season, was still there. In a few places we had to climb stretches already bare of snow. Those proved to be caving, sliding slopes of volcanic cobble and pumice. You’d slip back half a step for every one you took upward. Compared to that, huffing up the hard snow was a breeze.
The notoriously changeable Mt. Shasta weather spared us. It was clear and sunny, with a grand total of two clouds in the entire sky; one of them over Mt. Lassen in the distance, and both far away.
By the time we were making our way down, the strong afternoon sun had softened the snow into slush. This made it luxuriously simple to glissade, namely slide down (wearing rain pants) on our butts. We retraced most of the hours-long morning pitch by Helen Lake in twenty minutes. Parts that had been on the edge of harrowingly steep going up were now barely a thrill.
The snow had become so mushy there was no chance of speeding out of control. In fact, every several hundred yards of slide we’d bulldoze up a little pad of wet snow beneath the derrière. This would act as a brake as it accumulated, finally bringing us to a stop. We’d have to bump up over it to get going again.
How different it would have been with the opposite timing. Trying to kick uphill in that slush would have been multiple times more strenuous than the cog-railroad effect we got on the hard snow. And glissading down those sun-pitted slopes, after evening chill re-froze them, would have been a bumpy ride, and treacherously fast, even if the sharp edges didn’t rip all our outerwear to shreds.
I’m glad Allen planned that trip because, on my own, I’d probably never have done it. I think I had the easiest time of us three, since I work outdoors and live at altitude. But climbing to mountain summits isn’t really my style. On my own, I’d tend more to explore some place like an interesting valley or ridge and get to know the area, rather than bomb up to a peak and back just to say I’d been there.
I’m not all that impressed with people “bagging” peaks. Maybe it’s strenuous; but, hey, how is it any different from the butterflies? Simple system. You just go uphill till you can go no further. The kind of stuff I’m called on to do in my work can be much more of a challenge. Tasks like finding a spot in the forest with no street address. How do you do that? GPS is not the open-and-shut answer a lot of people think. It can take all your human intelligence, and then some, to get a pretty good idea when you’re “there”.
Back down from the mountain, we resumed our trip. We headed over to the coast.
Rebecca is not much of a hiker. But there was one beautiful trail through the California redwoods, by the sea. She remembered it from another vacation years ago when she had been a young girl. She wanted to do it again, so she came with us on that one.
Sure enough, as we dropped from the trailhead down through the forest, it was awesome. The huge redwood trunks towered like pillars and the filtered sunlight cast slanting beams through the high canopy. Great clumps of ferns waved their fronds in the gentle breeze, and the ground was carpeted in places with the redwood oxalis. This low ground cover has leaves like inch-wide shamrocks, each one on a slender stem so they give the illusion of floating several inches over the forest floor.
During this trip, I sometimes wondered how it was for Becky, being the only girl. Well, if she had a problem with it, I’m sure we would have known. She’s full of spit and vinegar, and doesn’t take any guff; you always know what she’s thinking. Emotionally, she can take care of herself.
Finally we came out on the beach. We exited the deep shade of the forest though a canyon so narrow it was almost like passing through a gate. Steep slopes leaned back from the Pacific, tilting rock slabs that in some places cupped small meadows. Where springs seeped out, there were flowers in natural hanging gardens.
The beach itself was several yards wide, and made of chunky gray and white stones. Blue-green waves crashed onto it. There were picturesque rocks jutting up from the surf, and small islands further offshore. Right where the trail came out there was a natural bridge, a hole where you could climb through a rock fin and go further south on the beach. Obviously, the things childhood memories are made of.
We played there a long time. I clambered a ways up the cliffs to have a look at the plants. The kids tried to see how close to the surf they could sit without getting splashed by the surprise spurt of a big wave. Beachcombing, there was driftwood, and mussel shells as big as your hand, pearly and purple-blue. At one point, Allen came along towards a clump of giggling kids, mime-lumbering, with two long stems of dried bull kelp, curving like mastodon tusks, held to his face.
Finally, we started back up, snacking on the occasional thimbleberry in the meadow slopes at the bottom of the canyon. Soon we were in the deep forest again, and climbing. The trail was steep, but not excessively so, I thought. Besides, we were in the shade, and it was cool from the Pacific breeze.
But Becky was having a hard time. She kept stopping, and complained loud and long.
“She’s like her mom,” Allen said, “She can’t slow down and pace herself. She goes full speed, then gets all out of breath.”
I didn’t know what to do: Wait back? Go on ahead? She was kind of too big to ride piggyback, but my Search & Rescue background was considering chair carrys and such. I tried making her laugh, with scant success.
I was out of my depth. I’m not always the fastest one on a hike, but this drama I had no way to understand. Once, she even lay down on the forest floor and cried awhile.
Jacob stayed right there by her, patient and cheerful.
“I wonder what the two of them see in each other,” I mused out loud to Allen, “They’re so different.”
“They’re not alike,” he observed, “They complement each other. See how he stays by her side and cares for her? He gets that from his father, the way he takes care of his mother.”
Put that way, it seemed so simple and clear. And it gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t think I have the capability to understand weakness, nor know how to work with it.
Limitations, yet. Process, even when it’s Byzantine. But, deep, soul-filling, life-thwarting weakenss? No, I don’t understand that. And in a way, my existence is the poorer for it. Whole avenues of the human condition are behind a closed door.
I am so used to the logical, systematic approach.
Last spring, I was learning the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The tune is not that complicated, but it had enough changes to throw me. I would listen to it twenty times in a row, and then I could sing it. For awhile. A few hours later, it would be utterly gone out of my head, not even one note.
I was also doing a programming project in the computer language C. I did not know the C language, so I was learning that at the same time. I would spend hours getting one little piece of code with the right syntax.
Then, the next day, putting together something similar, I could not remember how to do it. I would have to look up all the same syntax over again.
But by and by, before too many days went by, I knew “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. And before too many weeks, I could write a function in C, and everything would compile with no errors.
Somehow I have learned to trust that process. That I can dive spread-eagle into the void, and somehow make a path out the other side. In the midst of it, there can be long periods where it seems like I am making no progress at all. My feeling is always panic. I am lost in utter trackless abysmal pitch-black darkness.
Then I remind myself: You’ve been here before. The panic point. You feel like you’ll never get it; you won’t be able to do it; you’ll never figure it out. But your track record shows, you probably will.
So, even though not one thing has stuck from what I covered the day before, not one concept has jelled, not one idea has panned out — or for days and days. Even though it all seems to crumble like sand through my fingers, something must be sticking. Because it finally does cohere and come alive.
Even though it didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere, on the secret hidden levels of reality, something was moving along.
I am trying to steer by that same faith that I will someday meet a man who will be my partner. Nothing I do seems be bringing me one inch closer.
I think I’m doing everything right. I work on my stuff. I bang my head, like the flicker, on the chimneypiece of Internet postings. Like the butterflies, I fly the way I think is uphill. I climb mountains. I try to be the man I would like to meet.
I even hired a consultant.
After studying my case, she was surprised. “You’re already doing all the things I would recommend you do,” she concluded. Networking. Website. Personal ads. Meeting people. Communicating and being clear. “Do more of it,” she recommended, “But you’re already doing everything right!”
Is it possible you can do everything right, you can try and try; and in the end nothing will come of it?
Everything else I seek to accomplish, I go step by step. I take something into my hands. Perhaps figuratively, but I marshal the resources. I may begin with researching what resources to marshal. Then, as things come together, I feel for the problems and rough places. I try this and that. I get a sense if I’m going in the right direction.
But having a relationship with somebody, I’m stumped on step one. Well, uh, somebody else has to be there to have the relationship with. There does not seem to be any systematic way to “marshal” that “resource”. Am I even going in the right direction? Is this the totally wrong way to even think about it?
How one creature meets another, from birds to butterflies, is as different as the flowers in a garden.
If you’re growing Coreopsis, it is recommended you should deadhead the blossoms. This means cutting the spent flowers off so the plant will continue to bloom. It takes a lot of energy to finish those seeds. When you remove them, the plant puts its effort into more flowers.
Is the cosmic universe deadheading me? Every budding relationship gets nipped, so my energy goes somewhere else? But no, human intimate relationships are where you really grow. Or so everybody says.
Are there are people out there, perhaps misguided churchgoing relatives, praying fervently to God that I will turn straight? And by extension will never be with a guy partner?
Is there something deeply, unspeakably wrong with me that I can’t even see? Or am I too functional and competent, so will never fit with anybody complementary? Is all my effort to be an interesting, exciting man for naught because it makes me too intimidating for any guy to even consider?
Am I looking too hard? Like everybody says, you only meet your partner when you quit looking? Is the systematic approach doomed to failure, because finding your mate has to be fate?
Is it my own bad attitude, from being alone and lonely so long?
What if this is that cosmic tragedy, that life-thwarting weakness, I cannot find the flavor of in any other avenue of my life.
Maybe the man I’m looking for exists nowhere in this or any other world.
About a year ago, in exchange for me fixing her stove, my friend Janis did an energy treatment for me. I’m not sure if I believe in energy treatments, but I took it as a ceremony for myself. I let it be a mark of commitment for change.
The theme was “no more unbalanced relationships”. Seems like the tone of all mine have been, either I’m way more into him than he is into me, or vise versa. I am not going to do that any more.
I think things are changing. Last fall, a young guy, Kevin, found me on the Internet. We exchanged several emails, and finally met in early October. We had such a great time!
Oops! That sounds like he was my sex toy. Actually, sex was very little part of it, just some sweet cuddling in bed. Mostly, riding bikes around Denver, hiking in the woods, laughing, joking, and talking about everything under the sun.
As much fun as it was, I just couldn’t see being his “lover” or anything like that. But I didn’t judge our connection in that light. We just let it be what it was, perfectly honest, and it was great fun.
Neither of us was obsessed with the other one, neither of us “missed” the other when we were apart, though we thought of each other fondly and often. Balanced. Not the stereotypical “in love”, but no complaints.
Since my energy treatment, who knows how many potential screwed up relationships the Universe has been filtering out for me? I don’t even know about them. I take it that’s why it’s seemed so slow lately.
I have a gay hiking buddy I think is gorgeous, but he’s never made one whisper of a suggestion he’s interested in being more than friends. So I let that be what it is.
I have a guy I exchange email with, who’s on the East Coast, and we may never meet.
One club I hang out with has bearded guys I like the look of, but most of them are about as sedentary as sea anemones.
I go hiking with another gay club, where the guys are the same energy level as me. But with their universal athletic style of prickly shaven faces I’d be about as likely to have sex with any of them as, say, sea anemones.
I don’t look at this as hopelessly screwed up. I look at it as all the pieces swirling around, coming into alignment.
Home from the trip to California, it’s past the middle of July. At first I don’t notice, but my flicker has stopped his banging. Did he finally find a mate? Or did he get a mosquito bite, and West Nile Virus take its toll? Or one of the neighborhood boys blow his fool head off?
If he’s back next year, I’ll should help him find a website where the lonely lady flickers post. But let him do what he wants. Myself, I’m not going to bang my head against anything anymore.