Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Birthday Blog

Today I am 39. No, really. At least this year it's true.

And I'm really digging the coming decade, if I'm lucky enough to get another 10 years. I'm not blind enough to believe I'm guaranteed another day, much less years, and that's really not morbid if you understand I'm quite looking forward to getting to the other side. "Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind."

Nick, who is 6'1 and still growing, and 5 of his football friends came trooping up the stairs to surprise me with a rousing, heavy bass rendition of Happy Birthday to You that made me laugh. These 6 giant guys FILLED my living room, but one look at them, and they're all such sweet kids. Ah, to be 16 again. Nick has recently fallen in love and these guys came over for what they termed "an intervention" because he's been spending all his time with his girlfriend and none with them. I had to tell him tonight, I get it. I remember being so ga-ga that even your friends get disgusted, try to go out on a double date, and just roll their eyes at the two of you because you don't want to do anything but stare goofily at one another. He smiled that sheepish grin and nodded and worked out a compromise. The two of them are going to meet the gang for a couple of rounds of bowling before cutting out on the excuse that it's my birthday. Parenthood just keep delighting me. I am incredibly blessed with two wonderful kids. Their birthdays are infinitely more interesting to me these days. But today was lovely. I still think everyone should get their birthday off each year, but what're ya gonna do? Between presents, sunflowers, hundreds of birthday wishes (thank you Facebook), lunch, and PIE, what more can a girl ask for?
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Memento Mori

Memento mori is the flip side of carpe diem and perhaps more challenging. I was reminded this morning of what is becoming one of the crystalized themes of how I understand life: remembrance is the key problem of being human.

It's been two years since I taught Hamlet, but for the previous 14 I taught the play seemingly nonstop. One ambitious summer when I was hungry for the good pay that comes with summer courses, I had three literature classes back to back to back. Those of you who've taken summer college courses will probably have one defining memory: those suckers are looooong. 2 hours every day for a month. So for 6 hours straight every day for a week I'd cover scenes from Hamlet, rewind, do it again for two more hours, rewind, do it a third time for three more hours. By the end of that week I hated him. I was lobbying for Hamlet to meet Nike and just do it so he wouldn't stand around yammering for so damn long, scene after scene.

Of course, the philosophical side of me prevailed, but I never again did three of the same classes in a 6 hour stretch in any given summer. You just have to protect both sanity and love for Hamlet.

Alright, I've wandered away from the point (again.) and am ready to get back to it: Hamlet, like life, is primarily about remembrance. It's the ghost's last command as he returns to purgatory and it's the command Hamlet struggles with throughout the play and, in the end, ultimately fails quite miserably at.

The Ghost is plain in his description that he is forbidden to share (clever boy) when he speaks of his confinement to fast in flames of fire until his sins are burnt and purged away. He comes up from the depths of the stage in the production, not from on high. That Shakespeare is writing this and having it performed in the midst of a power struggle most unfriendly to any public suggestion that Catholic purgatory exists is quite fantastic. The ghost wants Hamlet to kill his uncle and leave his mother along to her own guilty conscience, but what he wants most is his last command: remember me.

And then Hamlet promptly and repeatedly forgets. In the end, when he's finally managed to kill his uncle and care a bit about his mother, who is collateral damage in the carnage, we don't hear a PEEP from him about his father. It's all about Prince Hamlet, not the King. The Branagh Hamlet version, full-text with all its warts, does a lovely job at the end having the King's statue struck to the ground in pieces to reiterate the final failure.

Hamlet came to me in church this morning, when the young man tasked with leading the communion began to read the familiar passage, This do in remembrance of me. But He knew we wouldn't, couldn't, not for long and never very well. So while I was contemplating this during communion, one of my favorite Memento Mori poems, in its loose terza rima, arrived unbidden but quite welcome:

When I was twelve, I chose Dante's Inferno
in gifted class—an oral presentation
with visual aids. My brother, il miglior fabbro,

said he would draw the tortures. We used ten
red posterboards. That day, for school, I dressed
in pilgrim black, left earlier to hang them

around the class. The students were impressed.
The teacher, too. She acted quite amused
and peered too long at all the punishments.

We knew by reputation she was cruel.
The class could see a hint of twisted forms
and asked to be allowed to round the room

as I went through my final presentation.
We passed the first one, full of poets cut
out of a special issue of Horizon.

The class thought these were such a boring set,
they probably deserved their tedious fates.
They liked the next, though—bodies blown about,

the lovers kept outside the tinfoil gates.
We had a new boy in our class named Paolo
and when I noted Paolo's wind-blown state

and pointed out Francesca, people howled.
I knew that more than one of us not-so-
covertly liked him. It seemed like hours

before we moved on to the gluttons, though,
where they could hold the cool fistfuls of slime
I brought from home. An extra touch. It sold

in canisters at toy stores at the time.
The students recognized the River Styx,
the logo of a favorite band of mine.

We moved downriver to the town of Dis,
which someone loudly re-named Dis and Dat.
And for the looming harpies and the furies,

who shrieked and tore things up, I had clipped out
the shrillest, most deserving teacher's heads
from our school paper, then thought better of it.

At the wood of suicides, we quieted.
Though no one in the room would say a word,
I know we couldn't help but think of Fred.

His name was in the news, though we had heard
he might have just been playing with the gun.
We moved on quickly by that huge, dark bird

and rode the flying monster, Geryon,
to reach the counselors, each wicked face,
again, I had resisted pasting in.

To represent the ice in that last place,
where Satan chewed the traitors' frozen heads,
my mother had insisted that I take

an ice-chest full of popsicles—to end
my gruesome project on a lighter note.
"It is a comedy, isn't it," she said.

She hadn't read the poem, or seen our art,
but asked me what had happened to the sweet,
angelic poems I once read and wrote.

The class, though, was delighted by the treat,
and at the last round, they all pushed to choose
their colors quickly, so they wouldn't melt.

The bell rang. Everyone ran out of school,
as always, yelling at the top of their lungs,
The Inferno fast forgotten, but their howls

showed off their darkened red and purple tongues.

-- Diane Thiel, "Memento Mori in Middle School"

Saturday, July 25, 2009

feet in the water: a quick photo history

The last post got to me to thinking about how long I've been pluging my feet in cold mountain streams over the years. I want to say this was on one of our first trips up to the Rocky Mountains, in 1974, but I already had the drill down.

Mammammy never trusted that I wasn't going to go falling to my death in those streams. I don't guess it helped that she never learned how to swim, but she held on anyway.

I came by it honest. Mom loves doing this too.

One of the last mountain trips we took when I was still at home, in 1984. After that, things got busy with high school, then college, then out on my own, so this was the last time I'd find myself in the Rocky Mountains for two decades. We went early that year and the river was REAAAALLLLY cold, as you can tell by my typically newbie toe touching move here.

Flash forward 20 years and I finally get my feet back in those streams on our trip to Santa Fe in 2004, with the next generation in tow. It was too long a break, for sure. I'm so thankful I get to do this every summer now. It makes my toes tingle to just think about it.

the hike today

Lower Gold Camp road, one of many small trail heads we'd passed on our mountain drives, finally got us to stop and check it out. Now, on normal, smart hikes, you need to start early in the morning if you're going to get there and back again before noon, when the uncertain mountain weather, especially at high altitudes, can kill you. Now, we're not all that high and our trek is just hike til your ready to turn back ones most of the time, so we'd already broken the start early rule and didn't get going until 11:00.

This was my turn back point shot. We'd lost everyone along the way who decided to wait for our descent, except Dad and me. And as it turns out, we'd just followed the dry creek bed, NOT the trail, straight up, instead of what is sure to be a more reasonable hike on a well marked trail. Instead, we were doing grades of 50% in places. Between the thin mountain air and high noon, this hike was a fantastic workout.

Me and my impromptu walking stick pose at the end of the worst of the decent. I wouldn't have made it without him!

Some of my favorite moments are the rest stops in the shade, looking up through those straight, dark trees.

The July colors are not as majestic as the earlier summer blooms, but they are the hardiest of the bunch and are always a joy to discover in the meadows between the rocky terrain.

But my favorite part has always been the streams. After a hard hike there is NOTHING better in this world than to dip your feet snow melted streams and let them go a little numb. Ahhhhh.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Some things never change

Loves naps.

Loves playing in the rain.

Love animals (and always feeds strays).

Loves books (and green grass and shade trees).

And still gives you this look.
Thursday, July 23, 2009

of Saltsmans

This is one of my favorite pictures of my great grandaddy, John, his wife Lessie, my grandfather Pearson, and all his siblings. He's the tall boy, far left. Beside him is Price, who descended into his own private hell and landed in the asylum. John is holding the youngest, Baby Edith who was never well and died at 19. Between his mother and father is Wilson, the only other Saltsman to have descendents. Then there is Lessie, who died of ovarian cancer because John refused to let her have a hysterectomy, is holding Travis, killed at age 11 when a train hit the ice truck his brother Price had been driving before it stalled on the tracks. Price escaped, but never recovered. Far right is my beloved Aunt Laverne, who had only one stillborn child, but doted on me as her great niece. I will never forget firing her pearl handled Colt 45, her cussing, her blind German Shepherd Buddy, bouncing around in the back of her 50s era Ford truck. But I digress. Which is entirely the point of my blog.

of Saltsmans
My great-great-uncle, Dan Saltsman, of Birmingham, Alabama, undertook to sketch out what he knew of the Saltsman line in 1956/1957. What follows is his recounting of my father's family line:

The name "Saltsman" reaches far back in European History. The family of William Saltsman had lived in the Rhine River Valley for generations. William and family came over the Atlantic in the Steamer Edinsburg on Sept. 16, 1751 and settled in Clinton County, Pennsylvania.

His three sons, George, Anthony, and Phillip served in the Army under General George Washington. George was killed in action; Anthony and Phillip survived the Revolution and brought up families in Pennsylvania.
Phillip Saltsman's eldest son, Martin (1781-1849) is buried in New Somerset M.E. Church Cemetary, Jefferson Co. Ohio. His youngest son, Daniel, was born in 1812.

Daniel Saltsman, age 18, took up work as an engineer on the steamboat "Mary Swan" as she put in on the upper Ohio River at Pittsburg in 1830. Her main work was between Mobile and Montgomery on the Alabama river.
During this time a group of Dutch immigrants arrived at the Port of Mobile from Holland. They were seeking earlier Dutch who had established a gold mine and sought passage on the "Mary Swan" to reach it.

One Miss Mary Fables, age 17, of that company elected not to continue on with her family but take up work at a restaurant in Montgomery where one Daniel Saltsman often visited when his boat pulled into port.
"He spent his off days in Montogmery where they spent many happy hours in each other's company. He taught her most all the English that she ever knew."

[One of my favorite descriptions here]"She was efficient, nice, and always dressed immaculately; she was respectful, for she had been brought up as a Catholic in her homeland."

She married Daniel and had two children, Agnes and "Freddie" and continued her work as manager of the restaurant for years. A working mother in such days!

Daniel, however, grew restless with his work aboard the Mary Swan and elected to take up work designing and overseeing the building of a "Mill and Gin" for a wealthy plantation owner in Coneuch (sp?) County. While away from his family, he met and fell in love with a young 15 year old by the name of Miss Haney Kennedy, a member of the county's oldest and most prominent family.

Mary Fables Saltsman was granted a certificate of separation on the grounds of desertion and moved to Shelby County where she and her son Fred owned and operated a Restaurant and General Store for a number of years before selling out at a profit to move closer to her Fables relatives in Tallapoosa Country.

She bought 160 acres and she and Fred planted a vinyard. They made wine "of the very finest vintage. Wine merchants from Montgomery bought every gallon, because it had the European flavor."

Mary and Fred lived quite happily until the "War between the States" broke out in 1861. Louis Frederick Saltsman, born May 9, 1843, had turned 18 that year and thus took up the call from President Jefferson Davis and joined the 14th Alabama Regiment of Volunteers as a private. He was wounded at the Battle of Fredricksburg but survived the war to return home and marry Miss Martha A. Davis who bore him four children and then died.

Left alone with four small children, he soon married again to one Mrs. Mary Gamble Davis, a widow with three small children of her own. Thus the couple started the marriage with seven children and Mary bore Fred another ten children from their union.

The eldest of these ten was John Frederick, born January 22, 1879. His grandmother, Mary Fables Saltsman, died a month after his first birthday on Feb. 17, 1880. Louis Frederick Saltsman died March 4, 1904 when John Frederick was 25 and his mother and 9 younger siblings were left without a breadwinner.

His grandfather, Daniel Saltsman, was buried in Evergreen, Alabama in 1864 where he left his second wife and their ten children. The two Saltsman families, one in Tallapoosa County, the other in Monroe Country, had no knowledge of each other until the Spring of 1929.

John Frederick's birth in 1879 was welcomed by his seven half-siblings and soon John was working hard on the farm alongside them while every two years another Saltsman baby was added to the mouths to feed. His older half-brothers left home very young [hmm, wonder why?] and John put in a full's day work alongside his dad.

When the farm work was done in the fall, John attended school until the beginning of March when corn was planted. "However, it is to be thought commendable of him when he had the opportunity to attend school, though he had to walk miles to school, he never missed a lesson or was tardy a day."

By the time John was 15, his father had hired him out for $5 a month to help supplement the family's meager income. The $15 he earned from his first three months salary purchased the family milk cow, which was a godsend in particular to his frail half-brother Jeff, the only one still at home, who could only have milk and eggs in his diet. When the doctor's collector came to collect for Jeff's medical bills, he was paid with the cow and her calf. He then worked a year for F.M. Nelson at Sanford Bridge for $8 a month, all of which went to his father's farm, and then the next year at $10 a month plus board for John Sassar, again sending every penny home.

The year after, he went to work at a saw mill earning 85 cents a day and was able to finally save a little of his earnings for himself. He and his best friend, L.B. Yates, took a trip to Corsicana, Texas, arriving on December 31, 1902 to work for L.B.'s relative, rancher Wallace Brown, making $15 a month. At age 18, John fell in love with Texas and the freedom from the family farm and he resolved to build his future here. "Alas! In less than a year, chills and fever (malaria) seized him; his health failed; reluctantly, he returned to his home in Alabama."

He continued to work tirelessly for the large Saltsman clan, renting land nearby and producing a large crop. But a tornado ripped through in late summer that year, destroying his hopes. The next spring, working as a sharecropper, word came of his daddy's death, dropping the the fields of a heart attack, leaving no income and no prospects for a crop on the family farm.

John moved back home to assume the head of household and took a second job at the gold mine. They took in boarders at the house, where his six younger siblings still lived, to pay off the mortgage, and had good crops in 1904 and 1905 so that they could improve the buildings on the farm and invest in better tools for planting. The youngest of the Saltsman 10 was little Dan, age 8, [who would undertake to write this history down some 50 years later.]

John, now aged 26, hired a man named Barker to run the farm so that he could get married to Miss Alma Lessie Pearson, 19, of Bluff Springs in 1905. "They fell hard for each other; he was a handsome young fellow, slightly tall, had dark curly hair, sky blue eyes and a fair complexion. He had a most pleasant smile for everybody. She was slightly tall, dark wavy hair, large blue eyes, and had a fair complexion. She had a most beautiful and pleasant personality."

In 1916, the year war against Germany was declared, the young couple decided to revive John's dream of making a life in Texas, where Lessie's family had already moved. They arrived in Mart, Tx. with $500 in his pocket and six children: Pearson, LaVerne, Wilson, Price, Edith, and Travis. [my grandfather, great-aunts and great-uncles]

John worked as a share-cropper for seven years, finally earning enough to buy a small farm down by the Navasota river above Fort Parker Lake, about five miles from the oil town of Mexia. [My daddy now owns this property.] John ran a fishing camp on his farm "the most famous and popular fishing camp in central Texas from Dallas to Houston. All fishermen, from Ennis to Palestine, Texas come and fish at Saltsman's fishing camp on the Navasota River."

[We now return you to Tori's account of events, as told to her by her dad]

The fishing camp was still going in 1957, when Dan wrote his memoirs of his big brother and father figure, John, and their ancestors. He makes mention at the end of the tragedies of the family, including the death of John's youngest son, Travis, although without many details.

It seems Travis and Price, ages 12 and 17, were hauling ice through the county, selling it as they could, when the truck stalled as it crossed the train tracks. As a train approached, Price, driving, leapt from the truck, but Travis did not. What happened exactly is lost to us, but Travis' death profoundly affected Price, who descended into alcoholism and mental illness. A story my Daddy tells is one of John going to visit his adult son Price who was a patient in the State Hospital. It was the middle of the sweltering summer. John wore a suit, of course, but the suit he owned was made of wool and by and by he decided to take off his pants that were itching and burning intolerably during that long and, of course, unairconditioned, drive. Of course, the car was speeding and was pulled over by an officer who discovered old John in nothing but his underwear.

Edith, the younger of John's girls, was born sickly and died of a heart ailment before she was 21. That left Pearson, LaVerne, and Wilson as the children who would marry. LaVerne devoted herself to taking caring of John in his old age, living in another house on the farm until nearly her 90th birthday. I have many fond memories of visiting her there myself, playing down by the river, of her old, blind German Shepherd Buddy who was my companion. Aunt Laverne let me fire her pearl handeled pistol and ride in the back of the pickup across the land. She didn't take crap from anybody and she's the only family member I can remember hearing cussing. I loved her. She married George Bozeman and they stayed on the farm. Their only child was stillborn and is buried in the Fort Parker cemetary next to them. John, Lessie, Travis, Price, and Edith are all buried alongside them as well.

Dan's memoirs make mention of a late-in-life second marriage by John to another woman. He very delicately suggests she decided soon after that farm life was not for her. The truth is, LaVerne spotted her for a gold-digger and ran her off. Dad also recounts the death of Lessie, his grandmother, was due in large part to John's refusal to allow her to get surgery for her ovarian cancer because he thought it would "ruin" her for him. I try to balance these facts with the glowing portrait Dan paints.

Pearson, the eldest son, is my grandfather, who married Lometa Hayes, and had my aunt, Dorothy, and then, some 12 years later, my father, Frederick Pearson. Wilson is the only other Saltsman from this clan who has descendents out there, although I know little about them, apart from his sons' names: John and Dan, and that they lived in Temple. My Aunt Dot has passed on, as has her son, Walt, which leaves me with one cousin, Christie, who has four beautiful sons and lives in Austin with her husband Thom.

I was the only child of Fred, and have thus ended the Saltsman name at marriage. The only remaining Saltsman names from this genealogy are now through Wilson's two sons.

It is humbling to look back, to know a bit about a family name that is quietly closing after such a long run.

I shall leave you with one last passage from the closing of Dan's memoirs. Apparently his 1955 visit to the family farm before returning to Alabama was capped with a family supper that was attended by all the clan. My father would have been 9 years old:

There was a huge platter of Southern brown fried chicken, at least four in number; a large bowl of brown gravy; a large bowl or boiler full of tender string beans cooked in a pool of hog fat; another large bowl of fresh Irish potatoes emerged [sic] in butterfat; a bowl of potato salad; bowls of green English peas and dried beans; every kind of pickles -- peach cucumbers, both sweet and sour. On top of all, there was a sugar pan of dewberry pie for dessert.

Mexia Blaylock House

This is a picture of my grandparents house in Mexia back in the 60s, probably on the only snow day they had the entire decade. Here is what I remember, all of it from age 4 or younger: Front right is the living room, walk towards the back and you pass through the dining room to the kitchen to the back porch. Left side front, sitting room where grandaddy did his reflexology treatments and behind it their bedroom. In the center was the hallway, kind of like a closed in dog run with doors opening left and right into the rooms I've mentioned. At the end of this hallway, a set of stairs that in my memory are incredibly steep and tall. At the top was a single room. Yes, all of those windows you see up there were on this one glorious, rather small, room. I remember all the windows and a toy chest. The room was white and filled with light.

That's me, 1970, in the kitchen at the back. The ceilings were so tall. The memories I have, even the cabinets towered over me.

Circa 1973, front living room. I'm digging both the fine decor (mustard carpet, brown patterned couch from the 60s) as well as our happening clothes. These are the only pictures I can find of the place. Those stairs and that light filled little room pops into my dreams and I so wish I had a picture of it.
Sunday, July 19, 2009

My favorite short hiking spot

Went out again today for a short hike. We've had lots of visitors from Texas up during most of July (gee -- wonder why??) and one of my favorite place to take folks who want to experience a nice walk (easy, mostly flat hike) is Bear Creek. It's about 20 minutes from the house and a world away from the suburbs.

To get this shot you have to wade out to the center of the creek, which is always lovely after a good walk. The melting snow that feeds it is always cold and crisp. Yes, crisp water. If you ever get a chance to step into it, you'll know what I mean.

The trick is negotiating the larger rocks along the edge. Once you get to the center, the rocks are large and smooth or tiny and feel like large sand. But getting in, you'd better walk gently and get your weight on each step. Sharp ones can land you butt first and then you're a lot cooler than you want to be for the rest of the hike.

I typically come back with one or two river rocks, often quartz with a good slimy green layer of moss. One of these days I'll have a fountain out on the deck that will feature my river treasures.

So here's a few favorite shots from Bear Creek.

Sammi took this one from the trail up towards the road. The tree has adapted to grow where it's protected from the harsh winds and snow banks.

Some of the rocks that have tumbled into the creek are house crushing size. But they make great climbing!

The lilies bloom in May and June. By July, their colors have disappeared. In another couple of months, though, the aspens will turn golden in their place. This coming fall Dad and I are trekking to some new Aspen places, so stay tuned ;)
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No Country for Old Men, echoes and reflections

Ok, I watched No Country for Old Men again, just to try and cement some things in my mind, but I think I need to read what I write to see what I think. So here's one of those rambling reviews that will only seem interesting to anyone else puzzled/fascinated by this film's blatant use of symbolism. (I've kept myself from reading other reviews while I let it bounce around in my head, but I think I'm ready to flesh out some thoughts and then see what others have to think.)

The first thing that strikes me is the opening/dawn of the film starting from darkness into dawn as Tommy Lee Jones' thick Texas accent narrates:

I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here. I think he's pretty proud of that. I know I was. Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough'd never carry one; that's the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn't wear one up in Camanche I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can't help but wonder how theyd've operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the 'lectric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killt a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. "Be there in about fifteen minutes". I don't know what to make of that. I sure don't. The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."

There's something going on here about the loss of a respect for history as well as the soul. They are tied together somehow. I just haven't quite worked it out.

The first death, as Anton Chigur rises as a shadow in the background, slips up, and slowly, agonizingly kills the deputy contrasts the very next scene with the quick but graphic death of the man he simply tell to "hold still" and drops like an animal. The intertwining of man and animal keeps popping up throughout the film. And the third scene is picks up the thread with the exact same phrase, "hold still" as Moss scopes his prey and then misses, only wounding the animal instead of dropping it. Chigur did have the advantage of being point blank with a man willing to hold still, but the juxtaposition of the two men's success/failure is a clear indication that evil holds all the cards. I'm not too sure I can put Moss in any kind of category close to "good" but he's clearly less bad than Chigur, and this is a movie that waffles between relativism and absolutism. Chigur seems to view himself as an agent of fate, amoral in some ways. But he is also a fan of absolutes: what the coin is called determines fate, irrevocably. Refusing to call it doesn't fit into his system.

Maybe there is something more to the question of distance and space to think about here, as well. Moss is shown high above his prey, far away with the advantage of a high powered scope that really doesn't help him at all. Chigur is on the same level as his prey, eye to eye.

That Moss is probably hunting illegally is indicated by the distance between him and his truck, and by his careful retrieval of the shall casing. That he does not seem particularly concerned about the dying man and that he steals the 2 million without so much as a twinge of conscience also aligns him on the side of a not quite as bad guy as the sociopathic killer, but clearly not good either.

A limping black dog leads him to his doom. His perspective of the scene is, at first, high above. But he quickly descends (by the very next shot) into the fray. He is down on their level. And the dogs and men are in exactly the same death positions. And storm clouds brew in the sky. And he remains impassive. Why DOESN'T he have any water in the middle of that godforsaken land?

And then there are the two trees. The two trees in the center of this twisted paradise? The tree of life (where the dead guy isn't, just shade) or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that he needs to stay away from. Of course he's going straight for the "knowledge."

And why the heck isn't that combination case locked????

The storm clouds (not seen in the two trees scene) returns with a vengence as he returns to his truck. It's followed by the first humorous scene of the film, between Moss and Carla Jean. That's a welcome relief.

Wide awake in the middle of the night, Moss' "alright" confuses me. The slightly smart thing to do is go back and make certain the only witness to his presence is dead, but why take the water along? Even if the guy IS still alive, isn't he going out there to hasten his death? And his flatness continues with his admission all of this is incredibly stupid and likely to result in his death. But it's been done. The coin has been called.

How they filmed complete darkness and made it believable is beyond me. The complete blackness swallows up the dead man in the truck and the approaching lights signal the turn of the tide. Moss is now the hunted, facing the far superior force of the truck. They too have a higher angle and good weapons and only manage to nick him. Killing this first relentless dog is only the prelude. And it will be the few evenly matched confrontations.

Quick cut to the far superior force eating peanuts at the Texaco and contemplating killing the overalled clerk. Everything Chigur says to him is designed to suggest he is operating on a very different plane:

Is there something wrong with anything?
Now is not a time.
You don't know what you're talking about, do you.
I don't have some way to put it. That's the way it is.
When he closes his eyes with that deep sigh and says "call it" it is with utter inevitability.
I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.
You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it. Now it's here.

Is life is "everything" in Chigur's philosophy? ("you stand to win everything")

Don't put it in your pocket. It'll get mixed in with all the others and become just a coin. Which it is. (with that knowing look) Now, here's my problem. This gets back to the problem of whether this film is verring towards relativism or absolutism. Is it suggesting random fate is at the root of our destiny? Or the choice to take a bite of the fruit and the consequences of the Fall?

We get this again in the very next scene when Moss tells Carla Jean, "anything you leave you ain't going to see again" (and she's leaving him) and his conclusion, "Things happen. I can't take 'em back."

back... to the darkness and the death scene, where the dogs and men are interchangable and Chigur leaves two more, one of whom had pointedly continued the dog language when he asked, "Mind riding bitch?" Then the light, where the real good guys survey the scene, mounted on horseback which probably means something, too... And the first thing Wendell says? "Oh, they even shot the dog." Ed's assertion that "age will flatten a man" is played out in Tommy Lee Jones performance here.

Once we get to more of the interior scenes, such as the next one where Chigur has arrived at Moss' trailer, the play of reflection moves to the forefront. He stares at his own reflection in the television and Ed Tom takes up the exact same position minutes later, same milk in hand, although he's a bit more civilized by using a glass (Chigur sees no need). "He's seen the same things I've seen" Ed Tom says, in regards to whether Moss has any notion what he's up against.

But clearly, Moss doesn't understand. He's made the choice and he thinks he's in control.

He gets to the motel and closes the blinds, plunging him back into the dark. The play of that blinding light on the bleak landscape against the black darkness doesn't quite match up to the characters, who are certainly bleak and dark, but none really fit the "light" mode. Ed Tom seems to squint against it, not embrace it.

Why are Moss' feet bloody? What did I miss? He's in the bathroom stripping off bloody socks, much like Chigur will be later that night. They keep coming back to the same scenes with these two. Is one just the logical conclusion of the other?

Why does Chigur shoot at the crow in the dark on the bridge and miss? (I rewound this to make sure: there's only one bird and it's shown flying off behind the car.)

And then we're back with poor old befuddled Ed Tom, who can't eat when he hears that there wasn't a bullet in the second victim's head. He just doesn't understand. It is, after all, no country for old men.

Chigur closes on his prey, the transponder lighting up and playing the game of "warmer, warmer, hot" with that constant beeping. He holds the map exactly as Moss has done in the scene before, same stance, same man?

He walks in sock(ing)/ stalking. Sound becomes a focus, between the beeps of the transponder, the silence of the walk, the sounds of the air popping, the silence of the dead... the mirror, broken, throws no reflection here. He realizes the Mexicans, too, had a transponder and he has been betrayed. He sits beside the upside down lamp (more light in darkness here, topsy turvy) throwing strange shadows all about him as he strips off his own bloody socks.

We're given a light moment by the dark man who tells Moss he shouldn't be hitchhiking. It's dangerous.

What to make of the reflective building where the businessman behind the drug deal sits? How dangerous is he? (a direct connection to the scene right before). Compared to what? The bubonic plague? Carson's (Harrelson) shrug that there's plenty of killers like Chigur around suggest the proliferation of Chigur's brand of violence is not something younger men concern themselves with too much.

And then we're back at another hotel, this one compressed somehow, everything is tall and thin, squeezed from both sides. Moss's second bed scene has him in the same position but instead of "alright" as his answer, it is "there just ain't no way." He's talking about how he's been found, but the viewer knows, like Chigur, there's always much more to the meaning. And there's not.

The showdown takes place, of course, in the dark instead of high noon, each man taking his turn to extinguish light by which the other might find him. (What's with all the panoramic paintings of landscapes in every motel shot? You know something's going on there, too.)

The violence spills into the dead night streets. The lone driver killed violently, wrong place, wrong time. Chance? or not? The dark shadow of Chigur against the white building throws him larger against the imagination. He is mortal, but still able to disappear into the darkness.

We're then left with two wounded animals: Moss is between countries, asked if he was "in a car accident" (foreshadowing) by stupid American kids who still manage to make a tidy profit off his troubles, and is somehow saved by mariachis at dawn on the steps of a church who take him to a hospital?? What?? Chigur, on the other hand, gets full light of day, a car bomb in the middle of the street, and can slip by everyone unseen to heal himself (using mirrors of course). Blood coming out of boots is clearly of interest to the Coens, too.

When Carson gets to delineate Chigur to the rather stupid Moss, the key of course is that he is NOT like either of them. He has principles. On the other hand, he'll kill you just for inconveniencing him. We really can't take Carson's assertion that "he doesn't have a sense of humor" seriously, can we? Some of the blackest funniest moments have been his wry humor.

How the hell does Carlson know to find the case where it's been thrown? HOW???

And then there's the conversation between Ed Tom and Carla Jean. "Tell him I can make him safe" Again I must ask, HOW? This man can't bring himself to even look it in the eye.

Chigur's sense of fate gets showcased in his exchange with Carson. "I know something better. I know where it's going to be." We aren't shown Carson's killing. This marks a turning point. The last victim was the truck driver, gruesomely shot through the throat. Here, we see nothing but Carson's hand up in a defensive posture and the sound of his last breath. And from this point forward, we will not see the deaths. The first death goes on for what feels like forever, with close ups. And each one successively gets shorter (though no less violent) until sight is removed. Well, no, not entirely. We still have the businessman's shot through the throat after this. Why his?

Chigur waxes philosophical right before killing Carson:

If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?
(Carson) Do you have any idea how crazy you are?
You mean the nature of this conversation?
(Carson) I mean the nature of you.

And then Carson is dead. Carson Wells is not here "in the sense that you mean." Not crazy, and completely funny.

Chigur tells Moss exactly what we've known all along: "You know how this is going to turn out. . . I won't tell you you can save yourself. Because you can't." So much for random fate, right?

Ed Tom gets to echo the "not here" sentiment in the following scene when Wendell changes the tense from "is" to "was" about the dead men and "there's the question. Whether they stopped being. And when." Mortality is not the only question at stake here.

I typed this out while watching it, because it seems to be the root of the thesis:

They died a natural death. Natural to the line of work they was in. It’s just all out war. Who are these people? Here last week they found this couple out in California. They rent out room to old people, kill ‘em, bury ‘em in the yard, cash their social security checks. They’d torture em first. I don’t know why. Maybe their television set was broken.And this went on until, here I quote, "Neighbors were altered when a man ran from the premises wearing only a dog collar." You can’t make up such a thing as that. I dare you to even try. But that’s what it took to get somebody’s attention. Digging graves in the backyard didn’t bring any. (Wendell laughs, then looks embarrassed) It’s alright I laugh myself sometimes. Ain't a whole lot else you can do.

The accountant does the same tense correction when Chigur kills the businessman: he feels...he felt...

Chigur kills the chicken farmer and we don't see a thing, just the washing out of chicken feathers. We already know. Why do we need to see?

Echoes: next scene: beer girl and Moss: "I'm looking for what's coming." "Yeah, but no one ever sees that." And then they are dead. She face down in the bloody pool, him in the door of his motel. What's coming never seen.

Ed Tom is nothing but a powerless witness to the dismal tide.

When he returns to the scene, his shadow casts long into the darkness, his palpable dread. The shadows are doubled and tripled in this scene, with only a small sliver of light across the face of Chigur. Alone in the room with this killer, he is spared. Why?

The darkness of that scene fades into the bright light of Emmitt's farm. Here we get Ed Tom's articulation of his loss of faith and of the self pity that Emmitt refuses. Ed Tom may be overmatched, but he "doesn't know what God thinks" and what's he's got "ain't nothing new. This country's hard on people. Can't stop what's coming. Ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity." It's got inevitability and morality and choice, determinism, absolutism, and relativism all rolled together here. I love it. But I can't make a lot of sense of it.

Carla Jean's refusal to call it doesn't stop it. His decision, the coin's, hers, all one. No death scene. Just the examination of his boots for blood and his business is concluded. So of course the jarring car accident, what he never saw coming, brings him back to echo Moss' scene of paying for a passers-by clothing, limping away, another black dog who got there the same way the coin did.

The dream interpretation doesn't take much, back to Ed Tom's loss and hope, light and darkness, dawn and waking. It's pretty, but it doesn't shed any more light on the intentions of Cormac McCarthy. But then again, I'm still thinking on it all.

Mountain Inhaler

I drive home facing west every day. Lynne asked me yesterday, "do you ever stop appreciating this view?" and I could honestly say, "Never." Even in the mornings, I wink at the rear view mirror view. I was thinking about my constant reaction to these mountains. It fills up my chest with joy, a kind of a spiritual inhaler. Breathe deep.
Sunday, July 12, 2009


I was directed to a new facebook group this morning called "People of Sagemont" to share memories and reminisce about a common place.

Susan Stewart's On Longing often comes to mind when I engage in these kinds of exercises. Her thesis (one of them) is that we are hardwired to seek out this process, although the results are often the creation of a place/time/childhood that did not really exist. We idealize and romanticize because it fulfills a deep need.

That said, I let myself close my eyes and sweet moments, places, and sights came rushing back. I'll let myself examine the neuroses and darkness of the place some other time.

One of my earliest memories of place in relation to Sagemont would have to be going with my mother to buy shoes at Foley's in Almeda Mall. This would be around 1975. There used to be great big peacock blue awnings on the mall then and Foley's still had their retro logo plastered on the side of the bricks. Inside, across from the toys, was the shoes and at the back, against the wall, was built a great big boat you could climb up and around on. I couldn't find a picture of it on the internet, but this is the toy department that faced it:

I'm now on a mission to see what old photographs might be lurking out there that bring those place markers rushing back.

Here's a couple I've discovered in just an hour:

The Woolworth Five and Dime in Almeda Mall had a separate entrance into the diner. I'm still searching for a picture of the big blue booths I recall and the exact lunch counter that was there, but the machines and the pie stand here really push the memory buttons.

The BEST store near the mall, famous for it's SITE (Sculpture In The Environment) design.

How prophetic, built in 1975, when the area was new and growing. The building sits empty and "fixed" now and all around it everything crumbles.

And lastly, I can't find a picture of it up on I-45 and 610 but I remember well the gigantic neon cockroach billboard! Here's the best I can do:

Just imagine this thing high in the air with neon lettering lighting up the night sky, with those hairy legs and you might get a sense of the monstrous delight. Ah, home sweet home...
Saturday, July 11, 2009


This is Katy. And, yes, this is going to be a dog blog. Last night about 9:00 o'clock I was tidying up and getting ready for bed. Lynne was settling in front of her computer to play RuneScape. I'm not sure what it was that alerted me, but I asked, "where's Katy?"

This set off one of those searches that begins rather slowly and quickly intensifies when you realize you've looked in every place imaginable at least twice. She's not that small. Or quiet.

When was the last time I'd seen her? I wracked my memory, then felt guilty I didn't immediately know. She's always curled up in the living room when we're on the couch. Had I seen her tonight? This was crowded out by the dawning realization that my dog was GONE. And Katy's never been GONE.

Add to this the lightening and thunderstorm with misty rain, that pit of the stomach sourness that something has gone horribly wrong, and only the echo of your frantic calls and whistles into the dark and you've pretty much set the scene.

Lynne grabs the flashlight and the first part of the fence she shines it on, at the gate next to the garage, is a Katy sized hole and, at the bottom, a little black tuft of unmistakable Katy fur.

We never leave her out for long, typically a few minutes and then she's right back at the back door looking at you with those big brown eyes. If she doesn't see you, she starts whining. Why hadn't I heard her?

We investigate from the back yard to discover the side gate closed. She must have wandered into the side area, had the gate blown shut by the wind, and not been able to return to the back yard.

We get in the car and drive slowly around the neighborhood, windows down, calling and whistling. Nothing but street lights punctuated by blackness. We leave the garage light on and the door part way down in hopes she might return. How often can a heart sink in the space of an hour?

I set out on foot, tracing the regular route we take on our walk to the dog park. I'm in my little slip dress, flip flops, and running jacket calling out her name, whistling, finding it absurd that I'm worried about disturbing anyone.

I start running through all the scenarios in my head: she's been found and taken in, they might call the vet number on her tag, they might not. She's lost and wandering in the dark and thunder (which scares her) and is curled up in a shivering little ball somewhere. She's wandered to the busier road and is lying there, dead or dying. Each scenario got worse as the hour wore on.

Lynne is sitting on the porch, now starting to worry about me, when I turned back around the corner. I had ached to see her sitting there with Katy, tail wagging. But no.

We get back in the car and make a bigger sweep, this time up to the high school and grocery store. The whole way I'm holding my breath for any dark thing on the road.

We crawl about, calling and whistling and squinting into the darkness for a black dog because there's nothing else we can do. The powerlessness is crushing. Both of us have been tearing up the prayers to God for her safe return. But prayers don't stop the imagination.

We get off the main road and taking a winding one back toward the house. I stop the car again at the spot where the open space trail leads down to the dog park. I've gotten all dry mouthed and hoarse, pitifully crying out "Kaaaaaatyyyyyyy". No answer.

We make the turn at the end of the road, the turn right behind our house, and the headlights illuminte two shiny eyes against black fur and white feet running towards us in the middle of the road. She's either gotten to the house and heard the car and come to find us, or she's just arriving as we're making the turn. Lynne and I are both so freaked out we don't remember how to use the door handles but we're talking to her out the open window like madwomen. I get my door open and in she jumps, wet as can be, her heart pounding against my legs and the relief just pours off of all three of us. We start laughing in that exhausted, crazy way. I'm driving with wet Katy splayed across my lap, trying to turn the wheel, one arm clutching her like she'll evaporate otherwise.

That was a very long hour. Thank you God. Thank you thank you thank you.

We wedged heavy stuff against the hole, tried to secure the inner gate, and agreed Katy doesn't step into the back yard without an escort. I dried her off and got her fresh food and water and then, after taking another hour to just unwind from the stress of it all, we climbed the stairs to bed. I shut the door, just in case.

My blog may be Greek for "wandering" but my dog is staying put.