“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.” ― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
― G.K. Chesterton
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Wednesday, August 12, 1998.
Dreams of the South Rim
The last week has been so difficult I keep escaping by thinking about what I want to do for vacation this fall.
I am drawn inexorably toward thoughts of Big Bend. The river, the desert, the mountains. The backpacking, a long uphill hike from The Basin trailhead, up and up until the very world itself ends in a spectacular and remote sheer wall down to the blasted desert almost a mile below.
The South Rim. It may be the best campsite in the world, the most special of special places. I can sit back in my desk chair and close my eyes and….
I see the lava, flowing up from fissures. Liquid heat born in the oven of the earth. It flows, it cools, it forms a layer – a huge cap. The years accelerate and the land all around wears away leaving this dried massive layer behind. Red-Black-Purple rock, shelf, cliff, mountain. Tilted slightly, the edges cracked away forming a huge precipice.
Now I sit on the top edge of this sheer mountain wall, a shotglass of Tequila in my hand. The setting sun glints off the gold liquid. It cost a lot, a price of sweat and weight, of other things left behind, to get this liquor up here. Yet it is a fermented child of the desert agave, it is at home here, the land of spikes and rocks.
The very earth is being eaten by black-purple shadows – crowding the yellow sun from the steepest canyons first, then the shallow arroyos, then the eastern sides of the hills. I toast my shot glass to the last red rays striking the highest spires of rough rock and drain it down.
Night comes quickly, the cloudless sky loses its glow faster here than in the city with its opaque air. The desert night sky is a vacuum, pulling heat upward; I can feel the cold – see the warmth rising – given to the rocks by the sun all day and pulled back by the moon at night.
It is amazingly quiet. The only sound is made by the slight breeze as it moans softly, pouring over the giddy edge.
In the distance, to the south, I see a small cluster of yellow lights. This is the only mark of man visible in the darkness. I feel some kinship and imagine for a moment the people living in that rocky, hardscrabble ranch. Their children play in the Mexican dust. The feeble sounds of a radio would be heard there – too far for TV, no cable reaching there. The lights look weak, yellow, pulsing; they must use a diesel generator.
I pull my pack open and replace the shot glass and the aluminum flask. The night clanks as I assemble my tiny gas stove, my Sierra cup. I pour out some murky water I collected in a plastic bottle from a puddle down in a deep canyon this morning. I strike a match and yellow flames flick from a puddle of fuel until, a Whoosh! of blue flame as it primes and kicks in.
I boil my precious water and drop in a tea bag, squirt in a dollop of honey from a tiny squeeze bottle. The cup’s wire rim is hot on my lip but the bitter tea gives a welcome taste of civilization as I sip the boiled liquid.
“Buenos Noches” – “Good Night” I silently say as I tip my cup towards my unknown friends thirty miles to the south, on the other side of the Rio Grande.
What the invention of the hypodermic needle was to morphine addiction, the invention of the smart phone was to behavioral addictions (addictions involving a behavior rather than a drug): pornography, gambling, gaming, shopping, tweeting, Facebooking, doomscrolling … the list goes on.
If we keep going down this path, soon we won’t have much of a “middle class” at all. When I first started writing about the economy many years ago, I often wrote about the tens of millions of “working poor” Americans that were enduring so many hardships. But at this point most of the nation now falls into the “working poor” category.
With only 1,000 ever made, the CTC was noted for its uncanny ability to always sit perfectly in the mix and was used on many hit records, such as “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and “Low Rider” by War, for its spectacular short delay and doubling effects.
It’s basically a speaker and microphone separated by a twenty foot coil of garden hose.
The major takeaway from this study is that “you do not need to lose weight to be healthy,” said Dr. Gaesser. “You will be better off, in terms of mortality risk, by increasing your physical activity and fitness than by intentionally losing weight.”
“One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Even with her new cane, the walk to the park was difficult. Joann needed her artificial hip replaced again and didn’t want to go through that pain another time. The excitement of the day sped her up, though, and thoughts of the past decades made the time go by quickly. She found her bench – dark green paint peeling a little more than it did a year ago – and sat down.
She pulled her birthday card from her grand-niece out of her purse. It said “I always think of you as my grandmother,” and that made her smile. She had been coming to this bench on her birthday for fifty years now, she had been looking forward to the silver anniversary.
Joann jumped with excitement as a few birds landed on the little-used playground equipment next to her bench. She chuckled as she thought that the scene was so similar to the one out of that old horror movie, “The Birds,” – though this wasn’t scary. Slowly more and more began to show up, lining up along the bars.
She couldn’t help but think back to the first time she had come here – thinking about James… when she still was in college down the road from there, a half-century ago.
Joann hadn’t actually been out on a date for over a year and she wasn’t sure she was out on one now, but it was close.
That afternoon – she had been working on her graphics assignment in the sixth floor lobby – her room wasn’t large enough to stretch the huge canvas out. She was working on two large horizontal triangular sections. While the rest of the piece was made up of geometric shapes of solid colors, fitted together in what she hoped was a clever, attractive, and subtly symmetrical design, these two triangles required, in her mind, a graduated hue of orange. It went from a bright saturated color a the pointed end to a pastel, almost white at the other. She worked slowly and carefully with an airbrush, slowly layering the colors, learning as she went.
She had been so intent and concentrated she didn’t even notice the boy walk up and sit down in an extra chair.
“Hey! Whatcha doin?” he said, a little bit too loud.
The unexpected sound startled Joann enough that the airbrush spray drifted out of the border a bit.
“James! Look what you’ve made me do!”
She angrily picked up a razor blade and began carefully scratching off the errant pigment. She shook her head at the mistake.
“Sorry Joann, I was just tryin’ to be friendly.”
The still-wet paint came up easily enough and after only a few seconds she looked down at the fixed error. Then she realized that the boy knew her name. For the first time she tilted her head away from the canvas and looked at him. He was a few inches shorter than her, stocky in a pasty sort of way, and had an unkempt shock of long, thin, red hair. He peered back at her through a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses.
She remembered him. His name was James… something… James Ellsworth. She had met him through some mutual friends at some informal group gathering or party or something. He didn’t live there – he couldn’t afford it… she seemed to remember. He was always hanging around, though. Didn’t seem to have anything better to do.
“That’s OK, I guess,” she said. “I didn’t see you come up and you startled me.”
“Sorry. What are you working on?”
She explained her ideas on the piece, how they fit in with the assignment from her graphics class. He listened intently. He even asked what seemed to be half-intelligent questions. After a while Joann began to forget her aggravation at being startled and started to enjoy the conversation.
“Well,” he said, “How much longer are you going to be working on this?”
Looking back at her work, she realized that the paint had dried and she would have to wait until it cured, at least twelve hours, before she could start blending again.
“That’s it for tonight, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to leave it sit to cure before I can work on it some more.”
“You gonna leave it here?”
“Yeah, it’ll be good – I leave big stuff out all the time. Everybody knows to leave it alone.”
“Cool. You hungry? You wanna go get a bite?”
Without thinking, Joanna nodded yes.
James had no car and no money. The only thing he had to offer was some food and some wine at his apartment.
“It’s not far. We can walk it no prob,” he assured her.
It wasn’t far, across the highway on the pedestrian overpass and then down into an older neighborhood of once-wealthy big wooden mansions now run-down and subdivided into tiny apartments for college students.
The only tough part was getting up into James’ place. He rented an attic space in a high turret of of of the largest, but now most decrepit homes. It was little more than a garret and after climbing up three stories past countless wooden doors, each leaking some genre of overblown music; they had to twist up a final spiral stair into his place. He pushed open the thin, unlatched door.
“No reason to lock it. Nobody comes up this high, and nothing inside worth stealing.”
The place was a large single, round room. The entire floor was cheap patterned linoleum. Blankets hung from cords divided up a kitchen, living area and a bedroom peeking around one side. Joann used the bathroom and was relieved to find it clean, although small with only a sink, toilet and narrow standup shower.
When she came back out to the kitchen, he had set out plates with microwaved chicken breasts, mixed vegetables, and rice. He had a cold bottle of some generic white wine and was pouring it into a pair of mismatched jelly glasses.
The meal was surprisingly good. Joann had been eating in the cafeteria or various fast-food places around campus for so long, a sort-of home cooked meal, no matter how humble. After they finished eating, James rinsed and piled the dishes in the sink and they finished the wine and another large bottle of something red.
The wine was gone and Joann was feeling more than a little tipsy and she began to wonder whether she was on a date or not. She was beginning to like James more than she thought she would – and he had fed her and given her wine. He hadn’t driven or taken her to a restaurant, but it wasn’t his fault he was a poor student – there were plenty of those around. She fell silent, thinking for a minute, when James spoke up. His voice was a little slurred and Joann realized that she didn’t know if he had drank more wine than her or not.
“Hey, Joanne… I wanna show you something.” He stood up from the table and walked over to the couch. He reached behind and pulled out two cardboard boxes – one a small shipping box and the other the kind you use to sell shoes in. It was a bit bigger than usual – maybe a boot box. Joann noticed that it had holes cut in the lid and pieces of fine screen glued over the openings.
“Watch this!” James said, his face flushed with wine or excitement. “I’ve been working on this for two years.”
He gestured for Joann to back her chair up and then folded the table and set it away. He cleared the other chairs and pushed a shelf back to make as big a space in the center of the kitchen area as he could. He turned on some lamps to illuminate the linoleum as much as possible.
Then, with a little bow and a flourish, he opened the small box up and poured its contents out onto the floor. At first, Joann thought it was only little pieces of paper, like confetti or something, but she saw that each one was glued to a tiny stick. They were a pile of miniature flags, a fraction of an inch high, some were bright red, the rest were green.
James how had the large shoe box and was getting ready to take the lid off. He was getting excited now – he sort of hopped from one foot to the other as he pawed at the box.
“Watch closely! This is really something.”
He slid the lid off and poured out a mound of what looked like some sort of reddish coarse powder. At first Joann thought is was a copper colored rough sawdust, but as soon as it hit the floor it began to flow and move. She realized with a start that it was alive.
“Ants!” she shouted. “Dammit, you dumped out a bunch of ants.”
“Don’t worry. Relax and watch.”
James had some sort of an odd flashlight in his hand. He pointed it at the ants and pushed a button.
“Ultraviolet. The ants can see it but we can’t. It’s what I sue to train them with.”
Suddenly the roiling movement of the large pile of ants began to setting into a shape, a square. James flashed again and the ants swarmed over the pile of tiny flags and Joann realized that they were picking them up – each and was emerging with a flag in its tiny jaw.
Another click and James began to yell.
“Watch this – it’s what took so much time to teach.”
Joann felt her eyes widen and her breath catch in her throat. She simply could not believe what she was seeing. There, on the cracked linoleum, the ants were marching in formation – moving geometric patterns of green and red, colored by the tiny flag that each insect was holding aloft.
They started with a checkerboard of red and green and then the ants marched past each other, forming two separate grids apart. Then they wheeled and separated into two linear ranks that moved past each other. Then they moved in a confused heap until they lined up in one square – red on one side, green on the other, with a graduated mix in between. Finally the square dissolved into a triangle, then a hexagon, then, finally, a red circle. A smaller green disk began to roll around inside the larger circle.
“That was the hardest to do. It took a long time to train them to do that,” James said.
He flashed another code onto the insects and they dutifully dropped their flags in a neat pile. He laid the larger box on the floor sideways with the lid off and the ants swarmed back inside.
“See, they like it,” he said.
Joann was speechless. Five minutes ago she was worried about how to deal with this dumpy, nerdy guy, now she was faced with something fantastic and unbelievable. She felt as if the floor had been pulled out from beneath her feet. She jumped up, breathless.
“Umm, I gotta go!” was all she could blurt out.
“Wait! Don’t you think that was cool! Aren’t you amazed?”
“I… I don’t know what I saw. That was impossible. That scared me.”
“It’s only a bunch of trained ants.”
“But… I feel… I feel the world isn’t the same as it was when I got here.”
“The world is the same, maybe you saw something you didn’t know before.”
That was all she could take. She stammered out an “I’m sorry,” and staggered to the door. The stairs down were steeper than she remembered, the brick sidewalks outside more uneven, the blocks home longer and lonelier than she could imagine.
As she feared, James kept calling her every day for a week. She was so confused. He explained that it was all a simple, though ingenious process, to train the ants. A combination of rewards for proper behavior and an electrified grid that provided punishment for errors – the ants were able to learn amazingly complex tricks. He said it was his ambition to expand his techniques to other species and types of animals.
She would talk to him on the phone but asked that he not follow or try to meet her. The thought of going back to that attic apartment gave her chills.
Time went by and she began to thaw a little.
Then one day, one her twentieth birthday, he asked her to go to an isolated spot just a bit off campus. There was a bench in a little used park. She sat down and waited, more than a little nervous. Then the first one came, followed by the rest.
And now Joann was in the same place, fifty years later. The bench had been replaced twice, but she supposed James had made sure that the city put the new one in the exact right place. It was funny, she had never seen any children playing on the equipment – though she supposed some must have. Somehow, they all disappeared on her birthday. She was sure James had something to do with that too.
She had not actually seen him in twenty years. After they had left school his life became more and more disjointed. He said that his innovative animal research had made him some serious enemies in the government and that he would eventually have to disappear.
Joann always wondered how much of this was real and how much was paranoia from the strange recesses of James’ brilliant mind. Almost certainly a little of both. Even though she never saw or heard from him anymore, and missed him terribly, she knew he was still out there, somewhere. Otherwise, where would the birds come from?
She sat back and watched the last of the dense flock of birds land on the playground equipment. Most years there were only one type of bird but this year half were some small brown wren and the rest were large gray doves. She purposely had avoided learning types or species of birds – the mystery made her birthday present all so more special. She knew that James had planned something special for the silver anniversary – and having two kinds of birds reminded her of the dual-colored ant flags from so long ago.
She smiled as they lifted into the air, as if on a signal, all at once, in a mass. Rotating in a whirlwind above her, they began to separate into smaller groups and these groups began to form patterns.
Her fiftieth trained bird presentation, her seventieth birthday present, was beginning and Joann was very happy to get to see it.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune
I read Frank Herbert’s classic novel, Dune, in college, in Kansas, in the Dorm – maybe 1975 – about ten years after it was published. I liked it… though I can’t really say I understood it completely. I was reading a lot… I was young… I had a sense that there was a lot going on under the surface that I couldn’t really comprehend.
Then, in Dallas, in 1984, I went to the theater and saw the David Lynch film. I was a fan of Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man) at the time and actually liked the film a lot. There was so much hate for it at the time. It wasn’t flawless but it was a unique vision – and that is rare. The film actually helped me understand the world of Arrakis better and it inspired me to re-read the source. Dune is definitely a book that benefits from a second reading.
Then right after the turn of the millennium there were the two television mini-series which covered the first three books, somehow. Again, not the best, but a game attempt. I barely remember them, except that my kids – nine and ten years old – watched them and actually liked them better than I did.
And now, 2021, forty-six years after I read the novel, we have Denis Villeneuve and his film.
Again, I was (am) a huge fan of the director (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) and have been hyped up for the film for years – the Covid delay was tough to take. But patience is rewarded, sometimes.
I had big plans of going to the theater and seeing it on the big silver screen – but I have picked up a bad habit of hanging around the house during the pandemic – something I need to work on breaking – something I should have used the film as an aid to breaking – but I didn’t have anyone to go with… so I ended up closing off the living room, scooting the recliner close to the screen, turning up the sound system, and streaming the thing at home.
(don’t worry – no spoilers)
It was very good – as good as I expected, better than I feared (and fear is the mind-killer), worse than I hoped. The only criticism is a bit of slow pace the last quarter. The best part – visuals, sound, acting – all top notch.
The first Dune film was interesting because it was, at the heart, a David Lynch film – with all his personal demons leaking out of the screen. I didn’t realize how much an impression the Lynch Dune made on me, but I could feel echoes of the earlier work all over this one. It is, of course, only half the story, and there is plenty of story for two films (I almost wonder if it should have been a modern cable R-rated mini-series) and it definitely benefits from not having the rushed pace of the earlier one-film version.
The new Dune also shows the mark of its director. There is a unique visual vocabulary – it reminds me of Arrival (especially the shape and motion of the space ships) more than Dune 2049. Denis Villeneuve does have the chops to handle the visuals, the complex political science-fiction landscape, and even the larger-than-life personalities – a lot of balls to keep in the air, but he pulls it off.
Now, how long do I have to wait for the next one? I will definitely go see that one in a theater (if such a thing still exists).
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune
A lot of people want to convince you that you need a Ph.D. or a law degree or dozens of hours of free time to read dense texts about critical theory to understand the woke movement and its worldview. You do not. You simply need to believe your own eyes and ears.
I actually am old enough (I was 13 in 1984) to remember this commercial live. In the decades since I have always been confused/suspicious/annoyed by the independent freedom-loving spirit of the ad and the locked-down hegemony of Apple itself. Every Apple product I’ve tried has frustrated me because there was something I wanted it to do… that I knew it could do… that it wouldn’t let me do.
Have you ever felt a little mbuki-mvuki – the irresistible urge to “shuck off your clothes as you dance”? Perhaps a little kilig – the jittery fluttering feeling as you talk to someone you fancy? How about uitwaaien – which encapsulates the revitalising effects of taking a walk in the wind?
“Something coming back from the dead was almost always bad news. Movies taught me that. For every one Jesus you get a million zombies.”
― David Wong, John Dies at the End
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Thursday, February 3, 2003.
We never did bring those crabs back from Galveston – I was worried that they needed deeper water so we put them back in the surf. Nick really wanted some though, so Candy bought him a couple at a kiosk in the mall. The things had gaudily painted shells – one looked like a soccer ball and the other was bright red with yellow stars.
Nick really liked his hermit crabs, though they seemed awfully shy. I remember the shoreline in Panama along the Atlantic reef. I wasn’t much older than Nick then, really. We would walk along, looking for shells (I had a thing for cowries). There would be a little inlet full of shells and when I’d walk up they would all pick up and scatter – they were all hermit crabs. Those weren’t really too scared of people – if you picked one up and held it still on your palm it would come out and start to walk around pretty quickly. Maybe it was the heat.
At any rate, Nick liked his two crabs even though they would rarely come out where you could see them. He’d give them baths – little spritzes of distilled water. He said they liked that.
Today he picked one up to spray him and he fell out of his shell, dead. Nick said he thought he’d been dead for a while – he didn’t smell too good. On the phone, I asked Nick if he wanted to bury the crab in the back yard. “I’ve already flushed him,” Nick said. I told Nick I was on the way and would be there soon.
When I drove up, Nick had obviously been crying. I didn’t really talk to him much, mostly let him tell me about it and said I knew how bad he felt. We offered to get him another, but Nick hasn’t decided. He’s scared that one will die too.
I didn’t tell Nick what I thought to myself. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to get too emotionally attached to something you bought at a mall kiosk.
“And only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped, like the passage of that silver bird on Dhaulagiri.” ― Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
“Love is a roller coaster… You can’t take your purse on the ride, you wind up strapped in upside down and someone throws up, and all you’re left with is a souvenir photo of you with your hands up, screaming.“