Saturday, June 28, 2008

Coyote Falls Again

"Most people leave in the summer, you know," Dad said with a grin.

"But it doesn't feel that hot," I told him. And I meant it, too. It was 115 degrees Fahrenheit, but I didn't feel hot. I could feel the pressure of the heat on my arms, but that was all it was - a little pressure.

I know about the dangers of the heat. I grew up in Phoenix, after all. We came prepared with "camel packs" for carrying water, extra sunscreen, light clothing, hats, and plans that called for days full of swimming, hiking, driving, and fun sandwiched between days of visiting and sipping cool drinks in the air conditioning.

"And you really want to move back here?" he asked, incredulously.

The thing is, I do; but we tried it before and failed. I'll have to make sure I do it right this time, and I want to be sure that I have a job lined up - preferably one I like as much as my current job - and that all of the other things important to us are possible. I want to settle in Arizona, but I don't want to settle for Arizona.

It is a big state, and we wanted to see a lot of it. We budgeted for a rental car, and plenty of gasoline; we ran without the air on to conserve a bit, and to revel in the dryness and the scents of creosote and blooming cacti. Of course, it's a bit cooler up at the Grand Canyon, where we spent three days (two to travel, one to soak up the splendor) in the middle of the trip. Trade pine trees for creosote and lop 20 degrees off the thermometer; that definitely helps survive the heat.

Sunset was a priority at the Canyon. My lovely bride has photographic ambitions, and wanted to get some shots of the sun going down on that particular horizon. My job was to keep the children from running along (off) the edge while she focused on her task. I grabbed the two smaller ones physically, and they immediately protested.

"Wait, what do you see out there?" I asked excitedly, pointing west. "What's that?"

"It's the sun. Now let me go!" protested our little blond Hercules.

"But what's it made of?" I asked. The little princess was sulking on my lap, but I knew if I could get the boy to answer me, I'd have his attention.

"Burning hot gas," he said.

"Right, but what does it look like it's made of?"

"Gold?" answered the older boy, settling on my other side.

"It does," I said. "In fact, that's what Coyote thought it was made of. That's why he built those wings. But you guys already know about all that."

"No, we don't!" they cried. "What wings?"

I told them how Coyote, who spent most of his days trotting around in the desert, looking for something to eat or for someone to play a trick on, tried to fly to the Sun to steal the big, gleaming pile of gold when it touched the horizon. He knew he couldn't jump high enough to get to the Sun when it was high overhead, but it occurred to him that he should be able to get to it when it set each evening. At first, I had to explain, it was very frustrating for Coyote to figure out where the Sun would touch down. He would watch it set, mark the place with landmarks, and spend all the next day trying to get to the spot where it had landed, only to have it come down somewhere else each night!

He followed the Sun for weeks and weeks, until he came to the rim of the Canyon, and there - on the very spot where we were sitting! - he gave up. "I'll never figure out where the Sun is going to set if it keeps changing every night," he said, and he sat and watched the condors flying around. The next night, while he tried to figure out how to trick one of the condors into landing next to him for dinner, he noticed that the sun was setting on the lip of the Canyon across from him. And it was setting in the very same spot as the night before!

Now this is where Coyote showed how clever he was; he realized that if he tried to get over to that spot during the day, the Sun would see him, and would just set somewhere else. He would need to wait off to the side and then pounce at the last minute. But how to get across that huge Canyon and surprise the Sun?

That's when he got the idea to copy the condors. He went around the desert there, gathering sticky pitch and yucca leaves all day, and stuck the leaves together to make big wings that he could fit on his arms and back. Then he waited until the sun began to settle down on the rim across from him. He ran out to the edge and leapt high, catching the strong winds that up-drafted from the river at the bottom of the Canyon.

Coyote soared high and fast across the Canyon, startling the condors and confusing a cottontail that happened to look up just then. (The cottontail was so scared that he dove into his warren and started digging down so far that he eventually went blind and became a mole.) Coyote only saw his prize ahead of him, though. He reached out, greedily ready to snatch up as much gold as he could grab... but the closer he got to the sun, the hotter it got.

And, of course, you know what happened. The pitch melted, and his wings fell apart, and Coyote fell just short of his goal. Down, down, down into the river at the bottom of the Canyon he fell with a plop.

"Now, you would think Coyote would give up, but he still tries to get that gold. And sometimes, he thinks of a new way to make wings or some other trick to launch himself across the Canyon, so if you sit still and watch carefully, you might see him leap out there tonight."

They all looked out, just as I'd suggested; even the 11-year-old, who was still recovering from the disappointment of not being invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry last year. We all watched as tourists snapped photos of squirrels and each other, and leaned precariously over rails and ledges. We watched the birds swirl far below us, and the tiny twist of river turned into molten copper.

"I see him!" cried the little one, pointing. There was nothing there, but they all started shouting and laughing until the sun was all the way down. And my lovely bride got her few moments of peace to snap her photos.

A couple of days later, we were at the Phoenix Zoo, where we were pleasantly surprised to see most of the animals awake and roaming around their pens despite the already oppressive heat. There were two shy coyotes skulking around in their area, but the littlest one had trouble spotting them until one came right up to the front and stopped to watch the human exhibit for a bit. When she saw him, she got very excited, and leaned forward to stage whisper at him:

"Next time, go for the MOON! It's silver, and won't melt you!"

She's a wise one, that littlest little.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lb4Lb#4: Where There's Smoke There's Fire and Trouble

Just got back from 2 weeks in Arizona, and I state for the record: I'll take 99.9 F° in Phoenix over 85 in Baltimore ANY time. When they say "it's a dry heat", they ain't kiddin'.

But now we're back, and the settling in process can begin: buying groceries, finishing chores that were left hanging (like blogging and posting music journals), and trying to absorb our fortnight of adventure. This includes, of course, scrobbling the 294 tracks played as we drove all over the Grand Canyon state, and ripping the CDs purchased and - so far - unscrobbled.

Great trip, full of music and family and food, and lots of driving. The lovely bride allowed me to pick up the new Weezer (Pork And Beans seemed to be the theme song of the trip), and the recent Lyle Lovett (It's Not Big It's Large), which impressed both my father and my 5-year-old daughter with both Up In Indiana and Up In Indiana (Acoustic Version).

To visit the Grand Canyon, we borrowed my aunt's cabin, which wasn't far from the famed Route 66, a road so famous it has a song ...which is also so famous that I can't link to all of the versions that I know and love in one journal. (I highly recommend comparing the Depeche Mode and John Mayer covers for a real kick in the head.)

But it was a small bit of serendipity that brought my favorite version up on the iPod as we drove along that stretch of road in Flagstaff, Arizona (don't forget Winona): Buckwheat Zydeco's cover on his album Where There's Smoke There's Fire.

Talk about an album made for the "" tag; from the smokin' lead off question What You Gonna Do, to the gentle reminder that It's Getting Late, Buck doesn't let up. There's a healthy dose of rollicking blues, pure bayou madness (Pour Tout Quelque'un); Dwight Yoakum shows up to duet on Hey Good Lookin', and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos fame produces the whole shebang. It's simply 11 tracks of pure love & joy being squeezed out of a flaming accordion, and it is Good.

But it's short.

In fact, I'd feel like I was cheating you if I only gave you a taste of this stuff, so I'll mention Buck's more recent release, Trouble, which I'd dare say sounds even better (though none of the tracks are yet available yet on

Man... vacation rocks.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Virgin Oil, or, The Fats Out of the Bag

I haven't always been the calm, self-assured celebrity you see before you. In fact, I'm not now. But that's beside the point: I'm here to tell you how it all began. My "big break"; my "discovery"...

We lived out in the sticks when I was a child. I blame my lack of childhood friends on this. My school was the nearest one to us, and it was a good 15 miles - and that was on a cool day. Heat expansion often stretched the journey out to 16 miles. And while my parents were not poor, I certainly was. When I got to that certain, magical age, I wanted to drive to school. Funnily enough, my parents didn't want to drive me, either. But, insurance for a 16-year-old boy is astronomically high. (How astronomically high? Click here.) So my father determined that I should pay my own insurance. And, in order to pay for insurance, I needed a job.

Since I had a pretty full after-school schedule, between band, choir, theater productions, and - uh... something really tough and manly I used to do that would scare you too much to mention here - it was difficult to find the right job.

Then one day, I noticed that one of my fellow band-geeks was working behind the lines in the cafeteria. I asked about the job, liked the terms, and filled out an application. It didn't pay much, but it was enough to make my dad happy. And I got a free lunch every day that I worked. Sweet!

It didn't start out very glamorously. I was a dismal failure at kitchen duty. At home, mom would ask me to help, and after a few clatters, a couple of knife drops, and a little broken glass, she would invariably tell me the same thing: "Go tell your father he wants you." But a school cafeteria's cookware is very durable, and can survive quite a bit of abuse from a high schooler. So with a bit of persistence, patience, and a smidgen of yelling, I got the hang of things.

After a short while, I even found my niche, my place in the universe, my Special Purpose: They made me the fry guy.

It started with a simple task: put the french fries into the paper bowls, and hand them out. Somehow, this tiny bit of social interaction brought out the showman in me. I discovered, welling from deep within my bosom, this amazing gift of repartee! I found 1,000 ways to say "would you like fries with that" and provoke a giggle. My portions became famous ("Dude, he really piled them on!") and my delivery became as polished as the reachable sections of the Blarney Stone.

My God, it was a wonderful time that I looked forward to each day. Girls smiled at me! Guys did that super-cool head-nod thing (and refrained from threatening me with bodily harm). By and large, my classmates - most of whom wouldn't have dignified me with their loathing if I had asked for it, before - actually liked to be served by me. I became a minor high school celebrity. The Fry Guy.

This position of respect led to a few new skills, as well. The boss-lady let me operate the fryer, and I learned the importance of keeping clean, fresh oil heated to just the right temperature. I learned the exact right amount of time to leave the fries down, and how long they would need to drain before serving them up.

Not only did I have insurance money, respect, and a future in the food services, I had fun. I learned how valuable my "enjoy everything" attitude was by volunteering for the seemingly mundane tasks of washing up, and was rewarded by getting asked to do really prestigious jobs, like washing out the 50 gallon cook-pot on chili or beef stew days. (You haven't lived until you've sung "I Am the Pirate King" from inside a suds-filled cauldron. It is, it is a glorious thing!) Truly, I had "arrived".

One fine day, riding on a cresting wave of popularity, and feeling on top of the world as I handed out perfectly crisped and golden potato strings to my fans and admirers, a cloud crossed over the sun. A sulky blond-haired girl came through the line, and glumly took a basket of my now-famous fries... and didn't smile. I made some witty remark - I'm sure it was VERY suave and tasteful - and instead of warming to my charm, she stared into my face with widening eyes, dropped her tray and stormed out of the cafeteria line at a near run.

I shrugged it off; every comedian has to learn to deal with hecklers. No biggie, right? It wasn't, until she came back with three large friends. The largest (but not the tallest) of them leaned over the sneeze guard, seriously encroaching on my personal space.

"Is your name 'Tom'?" she demanded.

"No," I squeaked, manfully.

"Are you sure?" she asked, taken aback. She looked confused, like when a dog licks ice for the first time. Then she turned positively fierce, and snarled, "A guy named Tom got my friend, here, pregnant!" She put her fists on her hips and seemed to be challenging me to answer for my crimes. The other two moved up to flank her, and the blond cowered behind all three of them, peeking out at me furtively.

I was at a loss for words. And, truly, it was as much a sense of shock that I couldn't speak that was keeping me from speaking as anything else. I visualized my mouth as a logjam in the North country, with lots of bearded, en-flanneled miniature Tad-loggers stumbling and slipping on the conflicting idea-logs of fear, outrage, and ill-advised amusement that were trying to flume out of my throat.

One thing I knew: a joke at this point could be fatal.

The situation called for dignity and respect, and so I drew myself to my full 5' 2" height, and looking the bully straight in the eye. "Do you know what I would have to have done with your friend for her to be pregnant?" I asked her. She nodded, again looking surprised that things had not come to blows yet. "Well, I know what I would have to have done, and I have never done that. With anyone. And if I had, I most certainly would have done my best to remember it."

They looked at each other, and at the blond girl, who reappraised me with a bit more confidence, now. What had she to fear of a virgin? She shrugged, and left, her friends straggling out behind her. The big one turned around one more time, though, and stuck out a finger.

"I better not find out you're really Tom," she said. She never really looked away; she just slipped out backwards, and the last I ever saw of any of them was her menacing index finger, waggling in the doorway.

And that, my friends, is why to this very day, I am still not Tom.