Embarcadero

The doctor is in. I’ve prescribed myself a daily walk along the Embarcadero, gradually extending the distance until I walk the Bridge to Bridge — Bay Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge and back. Over 12 miles. I figured I’ll make my goal by end of May. 2004.

If you’ve never been to San Francisco, the Embarcadero is the road that follows the Bay, providing access to attractions such as the world-famous cable cars, Ghiradelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Pier 39. The sidewalk along the water side of the road is extra wide, providing plenty of room for bikers, walkers, joggers, inline skaters and skate boarders.

Palm trees line the road, and the sun and breeze are in your face. There’s plenty of breaks between the waterfront buildings to stop and watch the seagulls, pelicans, and other sea birds, as well as the sailboats and freighters. If you get tired of watching the water-based wildlife turn inwards toward the road and watch the stretch limos, stretch Humvees, and stretch SUVs flow past.

Near the Ferries, I walked behind three backpacking kids, tattooed and body pierced to the point that you wonder how they can hold water when they drink.

At Pier 23, a bike passes to my left, ridden by a guy in a red athletic suit, wearing a gold crown with color coordinated red velvet lining. Yesterday another bike rider had a basket attached to his handlebar containing a black cat, front paws on the basket edge, nose into the wind.

Near Pier 30, skate boarders have claimed a wide section of the sidewalk, testing their agility against the cement blocks that are placed all throughout the Embarcadero. The California rite of passage — skate boarding without pads, daring each other to wilder and wilder maneuvers. Strangely graceful. Oddly beautiful. Brainless.

Held Captive

We are a society that is progressively looking inward rather than outward. As we spend more and more time among concrete towers and experience more and more of the world through our computers, we’re relying less and less on our senses, on all our senses. We are quite strong visually or aurally, but even that is becoming more selective. Cogito, ergo sum or “We think, therefore we are” is becoming “We think, more, therefore we are, more” and sacrificing much of our sensory selves to achieve this state.

I must confess that I am not an intellectual. To me, “I think, therefore I am” becomes “I think and smell and taste and hear and see and touch, therefore I experience rampant joy at the minutiae of endless and daily variety of life, of which I am just one part.” I have no idea what that would be in latin.

And I am easily a captive to my senses.

A year or so ago I was walking with some people I worked with when several pigeons took off and started flying, as a group, around some of the buildings. I stopped walking and just stared at the display, calling out my appreciation of the flight to the people I was with. One of them returned with, “They’re just birds. You’ve seen birds before, Shelley.”

Yesterday when I walked to the subway I passed a few trees in downtown San Francisco and heard birds singing to the dawn and stopped, right there on the street, looking up at the trees and just listening to the sound. And as usually happens in these circumstances, some of the people passing me — those who weren’t on their cell phones, or hurrying past because they were late, or trying to walk and read the newspaper at the same time, or involved in intense discussions with another person — also glanced up, trying to see what I was looking at.

(It’s not very heartening to know that the majority of people around you think you’re touched in the upper works because you’re standing in the middle of the street staring up into the air, not looking at anything.)

And what of the more subtle senses? Am I overcome by taste and touch and smell?

Years ago I watched a wildlife preservationist give a talk about birds, a flightless owl perched on his arm. I chatted with the person after the show and he moved the bird a bit closer to me to provide me a clearer view of the bird’s eyes. When he did, I brought my hand up to touch it, whereupon the speaker drew back in alarm and exclaimed, “This bird is dangerous!”

“Do you always reach out to touch things!?”

Well, actually, yes I do. And it has been known to get me in trouble a time or two. It seems I haven’t quite lost that childlike aspect of myself.

People rely on their sense of taste and touch and smell almost entirely when they’re young, but seem to lose this sensory dependency as they get older. Right and wrong is explored first through taste and touch, trying to swallow everything at hand, trying to touch everything that’s new — in both cases prematurely aging their parents in the process. And when asked to try a new food, they’ll sniff it first, wrinkling their nose and rejecting the food if the scent falls too far outside of the familiar.

Younger children prefer blander foods not because they lack sophistication, but because even the simplest taste overwhelms their unfiltered receptivity. Anyone exposed to babies know that anything within the grasp of an infant is first put into the baby’s mouth, to be chewed on and swallowed if possible. I, personally, have been chewed by more babies than I care to remember, and that includes kittens and puppies in addition to human babies.

And be honest — did you really believe your Older Significant Person when he or she said the fire or the stove was hot? The first time?

Survival dictates that we learn from our senses, quickly, until we’re at an age of reason and can think our way out of troubles.

(With wars and crime and addictions to various materials, I’m not quite sure when the age of reason will hit, but I have hopes for the future.)

As we mature and rely on our senses less, we have to find larger and larger sensory inputs in order to break into the creaking, whirring, machines that are our minds.

We increase our use of spices as we burn our mouths with the hottest peppers and chilis, not stopping until we literally sweat from five-star Thai food or five alarm chili. Why use one clove of garlic when we can use 40?

We use packaged apple pie smell and packaged lemon smell and packaged “Spring Fresh Scent” and so on, until our homes and our bodies reek of undifferentiated stink.

We buy books on how to touch each other, how to touch our children, and even the appropriate way to perform a handshake. For instance, I read that before going into an interview, always go to the restroom, wash your hands in warm water and then dry them completely. When grasping hand, do so with confidence, firm but not too firm. No cold and clammy hands. No weak and tentative grasp.

We think, therefore we are. Or the Postmodern equivalent — it thinks therefore I am only if I recognize that I have the capacity of thought to appreciate that it thinks independent of its own capability of understanding that it can think without being aware of its own self and its own appreciation of self within a greater cosmic awareness.

Me thinks, at times, we think too much.

Isn’t it nice when we shut down our minds and let our child out to play?

To breath the salty, weedy smell of freshly mown hay or the rich, fresh smell of huckleberry plants in the midst of tall green pines. To close eyes and drink in the scent of freshly baked bread, or clean laundry hung out to dry. To walk in gardens of lavender and lilacs.

To taste a wild strawberry, still warm from the sun. To savor the sweet crispness of a fresh apple or the bite of good, sharp cheese. And chocolate. Mustn’t forget chocolate — the only taste known to break through even the most dedicated intellect.

To touch a stone worn smooth by flowing water and to feel its coolness and the softness of its surface. To hold sand in your hand and let it slip through your fingers. To face someone you love and move your hand slowly and gently down their face, from temple to chin, feeling the curves until you place two fingers lightly on lips soon joined to yours.

Reflections on Still Water

When I worked at Stanford last year, I used to take the commuter train to work. It was a ride of about an hour each way and I always looked forward to it. Head phones on, favorite music playing, I would lay my head back against the seat and spend the time just staring out the window.

In the mornings, as the fog was beginning to dissipate, the train would pass a small inlet. This tiny body of water was really nothing more than a small finger of the Bay, crowded under a concrete freeway onramp and surrounded by the debris of half-built and abandoned buildings, homeless encampments, and a steel graveyard.

In this inlet was an old wooden row boat, anchored in the middle of the water and unreachable by shore. As far as I could tell, the boat never moved, was never used. It had all the appearance of something forgotten or abandoned.

It became a ritual for me to look for this boat every morning and I would stare through the windows with expectation until it came into view — weathered and old, covered in peeling and dusty paint, tethered by weed draped rope in the midst of water smooth as glass surrounded by society’s throw aways. I would crane my head around trying to keep it in view as we passed, regretting that the train couldn’t go more slowly.

Occasionally, other passengers seeing my actions would also crane their heads around to see what event could be drawing such intense attention. Seeing nothing, they would resume working on their computers or reading their newspapers.

It surprised me a little that others weren’t struck by the perfection of the boat. I expected that one day I would be craning to look at the boat and my eyes would meet with another person’s as he or she turned from viewing it; I imagined that we would smile, self-conciously, in the way two people who witness something beautiful at the same moment do. Sadly, this moment never occurred.

In more fanciful moments I would think to myself that the boat was my special secret and only I could see it. However, with another sip of coffee reality intruded and I knew that others saw the boat, they just didn’t see it the way I did. Out of all the people in the world, and all the images in the world, the perfect image formed itself for the one person most able to appreciate it.

I checked the location of the inlet and the boat and I know I can find it without being on the train. I’ve thought many times about grabbing my camera some foggy morning and trying to capture the image on film or disk. However, I know that no matter how much I try or what camera or film I use, I could never capture the boat as I see it.

And I’m rather glad I never tried because now the image will stay in my mind, wrapped in the softness of time — always perfect.

The Trickster

I’ve always been fascinated with the myth of Trickster. He is cunning and sly; the wise man who acts as the fool. His very nature is contradictory because he is a bringer of both chaos and order. He is considered evil, but a necessary evil.

Every culture has Trickster in it, though the actual representation may differ. For instance, to many Pacific Northwest and Alaskan native people, the Trickster is Raven. The winged God with the dual nature, Mercury, is considered Trickster in Greek Mythology by some (because of Mercury’s dual nature), and Loki is Trickster in Norse mythology.

To the Turkish (Islamic) people, Trickster is a person, Nasreddin Hodja, and takes on the personification of Trickster as wise man who plays the fool. It’s hard to pick among them, but my favorite Hodja story is probably Everyone is Right:

Once when Nasreddin Hodja was serving as qadi, one of his neighbors came to him with a complaint against a fellow neighbor.

The Hodja listened to the charges carefully, then concluded, “Yes, dear neighbor, you are quite right.”

Then the other neighbor came to him. The Hodja listened to his defense carefully, then concluded, “Yes, dear neighbor, you are quite right.”

The Hodja’s wife, having listened in on the entire proceeding, said to him, “Husband, both men cannot be right.”

The Hodja answered, “Yes, dear wife, you are quite right.”

The Navajo (the Dineh) have, in my opinion, the most sophisticated outlook regarding Trickster, who to them takes on the persona of Coyote. In fact, Coyote still forms an important aspect in current Navajo culture to the point where many of the Dineh will not cross the path of a live coyote, in case it is Coyote come to play a trick.

Occasionally you might hear a reference to Coyote in regards to a person having to fight their own personal demons. In particular, the Navajo associate many forms of illness with Coyote, referring to alcoholism, drug addiction, stomach and other illnesses as “coyote sickness”. This sickness is usually associated with an external influence such as alcohol or drugs, or poor diet and even exposure to chindi, or ghosts.

To resolve these illnesses, the shaman will perform a healing ceremony and take a person back to their center, performing a ritual cleansing — a healing way — as the person makes reparations for the offenses they have made.

You won’t find much online about healing ways, nor will you find much about the sandpaintings used by Navajo shaman during the rituals associated with healing — the Navajo consider that this information gives power and power given foolishly can rebound on the person who disseminates it indiscriminately. However, I did find reference to one healing way, the Bear way, that seems to be for women in their 40′s. The mention of the “crystals” in the ceremony, though, would lead me to guess that this is new age rather than traditional Indian ceremony.

The study of Coyote and illness, particularly illness associated with addiction, isn’t restricted purely to Navajo medical and religious tradition. In an excellent article, Jacques Rutzky discusses addiction and Coyote from a psychotherapist’s position, somewhat based on Jung’s Archetypal Trickster:

Forced to cultivate an awareness of the Coyote in myself as well as my patients, I have come to recognize that Coyote’s greatest delusion, that he knows everything, is frequently my own delusion as well. I try to remember that the images, associations, and thoughts that arise in my mind may be a link to another’s experience. Or they may not. And though I know with great certainty that Coyote will never be destroyed, I can, at least, recognize his familiar shape, smell, and howl when he comes into my office, sniffs the furniture, and plops down beside me, smiling.

The Yellow and Black Skunk

When I was a young’un, I lived on a farm several miles outside of Kettle Falls, in Washington state. Below the farm was an undeveloped field with a dirt road running through it that connected several homes. And below the road and the field was Lake Roosevelt. Surrounding all of this was bits and pieces of the Colville National Forest.

Back in those more innocent days, my mother let me go down to the field by myself as long as I didn’t go down to the water.

I loved this field of tall golden weeds. Since I was only about five at the time, the weeds would come up to my chest and I could look out on a sea of waving fronds and imagine I was on a ship in the ocean.

I loved the dust of the dirt road and would walk it slowly, sucking on the end of a grass blade pulled from the side of the road, occasionally chasing after a grasshopper or butterfly. Every once in a while I would see another critter such as a deer or a skunk, always trying to entice the former towards me, always giving considerable room to the latter.

Imagine a soft, warm summer afternoon, blue sky, glimmer of light reflection off of the water in the distance, the sound of insects and birds the only noise. And absolutely nothing to do but walk along the road and think thoughts of faraway places and strange new doings, such as my cousin coming for a visit and my Uncle giving my brother a rifle and not me because I was a girl. I got a stupid china tea set. You know the kind of thoughts — a child’s thoughts.

One day, there was a movement in the field towards my left. I stopped and looked, hand over eyes to shade the sun, squinting my eyes al-most tight (sign of glasses to come the following year), trying to see what was causing the motion.

Up a head pops and then down it goes.

What?

Up a head pops and then down it goes again.

What is that?

Again, the head appears and I have a better view. It’s golden and kind of flat and has black markings.

That’s not a deer. Too small for a deer.

Up the head pops and then down it goes again.

That’s not a bunny. It’s too big.

Up and down.

That’s not a skunk though it does have markings like a skunk.

I watched this strange creature for some time. I wasn’t frightened. If anything I thought this new experience was a huge treat considering the usual activity associated with a warm sunny afternoon, such as standing in the middle of a road of dust, listening to the insects rub wings and legs.

Up the head would pop, down it would go, each jump moving it farther away until with a last rustle, it disappeared into the woods.

I ran home and opened the door and there was my mother, washing something in the sink, the smell of good things to eat hanging in the late afternoon air. I remembered running up to her, excited, telling her in the jumbled child manner about this creature in the field that had these black markings and it jumped up and down and up and down and up…

“That’s a skunk, honey, You just saw a skunk is all.”

A yellow and black skunk? Well, okay. If you say so, Mama.

So I went for the just the longest, longest time, with this memory in my head of my warm, sunny afternoon and the field of gold and the dusty road, and my yellow and black skunk.

Until the day when I was looking at a new picture book and realized that my skunk was a bobcat.