Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 1 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight


This is The Lie:

Back in my hitchhiking adventure days, I stood one night under a streetlight on a deserted highway outside a city in West Texas, waiting for a car to stop and give me a ride. Waiting, actually, even for a car to come along. Eventually there in the dark, I hadn’t seen one for more than an hour.

An overcast sky and the dirty air of civilization killed even the stars overhead. Surrounded by an ocean of blackness, I stood in a tiny lifeboat of luminance. A tepid breeze wafted over the dried landscape, rattling papery leaves and litter across the road in front of me. As I stood in the weak, orange puddle of light, something about the dead-feeling air created an ominous absence of sound in the surrounding dark.

After a while, I stood riveted there in the lengthening night, listening with the first beginnings of dread to that threatening silence. My backpack lay leaning against the base of the streetlight, a bright friendly yellow which should have been comforting somehow, but which I knew it contained no weapon, no shield from what I was coming to imagine waited out there.

Whether it was a noise or a smell too subtle to consciously notice, suddenly, somehow, I knew that there was something there, lurking just beyond the sharp circle of light. I caught odd musky whiffs on the breeze – maybe I was smelling its predator’s breath, or the rank odor of its fur as it circled around me and passed momentarily upwind. Masked by the chitter-chatter of leaves on the pavement, I fancied I could hear its claws clicking on rocks as it circled and stalked in the dead zone just out of my sight.

The safety of the nearest trees was easily 30 yards away, in the dark, and the streetlight pole was smooth and featureless, impossible to climb. I huddled against the pole, circled it, peering out into the night, wishing for a rock to throw, or even a flashlight to blind whatever might be out there.

Yet the instant I turned my back on the blackness that lined the road, I heard a pebble click a dozen yards away, then another closer by a third, and another closer still, so rapid they were almost a single sound: tickticktick. Gripped by sheer terror, I crouched and whirled in place to see whatever scary thing might be coming at me out of the night – yet I still had time for only the first gasping intake of breath before the creature drove its razored talons clear into my lungs and heart, and its needle-lined jaws bit my face completely off.


Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Earth Day 2014: Thoughts Like Falling Leaves

[This is a repost of a piece I did several years ago, slightly edited for 2014. This essay is also part of the conceptual force driving my thoughts on the need for Beta Culture.]

Leaf One

Con games and sleight-of-hand magic work because, one, we humans only have so much attention to spare at any one moment, and two, they direct that attention deliberately in one direction. If you look at where the finger points, you miss … well, everything else.

Like the movie teen backing through a darkened doorway in the serial killer’s lair, we focus intently on one thing while something more important takes place just outside the sphere of our focus.

I’ll give you a real-life example that has bugged me for a long time.

I met Timothy Treadwell some years back in Flagstaff, when he came to give a talk about grizzlies. Tim’s the guy who got killed and partially eaten by a bear in 2003 in Alaska, and was immortalized in the 2005 film “Grizzly Man” a “documentary” by filmmaker Werner Herzog.

I hated the film (and I think Herzog is a pandering jackass for making it as he did) because it projected exactly two messages into the minds of viewers: 1) Tim Treadwell was crazy. 2) Grizzlies are deadly killers.

The finger pointed in those directions, and most of the viewers looked that way. Treadwell was in fact killed by a grizzly. But off-screen, what the finger didn’t point at, and what most of us failed to notice, was that he lived within spitting distance of these huge bears for 12 summers.




Out of all the things we might want to know about grizzlies, we already know “Any sane person knows them goldurned bears’ll kill yuh!” What we don’t know is “There’s a way to live right in among grizzlies for 12 years without getting hurt.”

I can tell you in one second which of those things I’d like to see in a film. Herzog, sleight-of-hand documentarian, wasn’t interested in it. Today we have one more titillating, somewhat stupid film pointing a finger at something we already “know,” and most of us still view bears as unpredictable, inevitable killing machines.

So here we are on Earth Day 2014, equally awash in sleight-of-hand: Oh my gosh, are we ever jumping on the “green” bandwagon. You can’t watch TV for half an hour without seeing five commercials about companies going green. Corporations are going green, politicians are going green, builders are going green, banks are going green, cities are going green, for all I know states are going green. Green green GREEN — Yowzah!!

TV, billboards, radio messages, magazine ads, newspaper stories, websites — everywhere you look, clean, well-fed mommies and daddies and happy children are pitching in to cut water consumption! Save energy! Produce less trash! Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Man, I already feel better about it, don’t you? We’re DOING SOMETHING, at last, to Save the Earth. Let’s all heave a deep sigh of relief. Yessssss.

Meanwhile, in all those places where the finger doesn’t point …

Leaf Two

Was it just a dozen years or so ago I was writing an article about Baby Six Billion? She was born on or about October 11, 1999. I wrote about the world of progressive scarcity she would be born into, and I wished her well.

But we’re already talking about Baby Seven Billion, who arrived on Earth — as estimated, anyway — on October 31, 2011.

Halloween was the SECOND scariest event on that date. Even though you’d expect Baby Seven Billion to be a daughter or granddaughter of Baby Six Billion, she’s not. (Unless Baby Six Billion got pregnant at the age of 12, that is.)

Instead, Baby Seven Billion was born, give or take a few years, to the same generation that produced Baby Six Billion. The SAME generation.

Jeezus holy jacked-up shit.

Knowing that, I have to ask: What exactly is the point of going green?

I mean, if you and I conserve and recycle and stop eating endangered fish and refuse to support companies that log the Amazon, and do everything we can possibly do to keep the Earth green and growing …

And we each of us cut in half our annual environmental footprint on the Earth …

Where’s the net gain if, during that same period, our neighbors produce more than 205,000 more kids EVERY DAY?

That’s 75 million a year, in case you wondered — roughly equal to the combined populations of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah,Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Or more than the individual populations of Turkey, Thailand, France, United Kingdom, Italy or South Africa.

Or, if you prefer, more than twice the population of Canada. Each and every YEAR.

Your piddly-ass half-person conservation effort vanishes in the noise.

Leaf Three

I saw a beautifully designed book on the environment a few years back, a thick, well-researched tome about all the possible things you can do to Save the Earth. (Wish I could remember the name, but I seem to have put it out of my mind.) I was so excited, I ordered it immediately. And man, when it came, I unwrapped it lovingly, admiring its heft, its colors, its stunning cardboard slip cover. I dove into it with excitement — it was like a whole weighty library of greenitude.

But I made the mistake, within an hour of getting it, of delving into the index for articles on population control.


Huh? I couldn’t believe it. I tried different words, different combinations. In the end, I discovered the entire book seemed to contain only two PHRASES related to the subject. I mean, there weren’t three whole sentences about it. Amid stories of fish farming and water conservation and energy from wind and sun and recycling plastic and improved strains of rice, there was virtually nothing about human numbers.

It was like going through a million-word book of instructions on how to save a sinking ship, reading a thousand different formulations of “Bail faster and better,” but finding no mention at all of “Hey, stupid, plug the fucking hole in the hull!”

I instantly lost interest in the damned thing. I mailed it to a friend who’s into green stuff, and have since then entertained several brief imaginings of punching the authors in the face if I ever get to meet them.

But … can I really blame them? I haven’t had the chance to read every book ever written on saving the earth, but I’ve found few recent ones that deal with population as the real core of the problem.

Is the subject taboo? Is it simple despair that puts it off-limits?

Maybe it’s the inevitable over-reaction. The instant you start talking about encouraging people to use condoms and contraceptives, to pursue various avenues of family planning, etc., to limit human population, the shriekers slam down on you like a rain of neutron bombs — blam, blam blam! “You want to murder babies!! You want to commit genocide!! Oh my God, why do you hate human beings so much!!?”


Leaf Four

I had a cowboy friend, Tom Wood, who was an eternal optimist. I noticed the day I met him that he had this small purpley bump on the side of his face, and I asked him about it not long after, when we’d had a chance to get to know each other.

“Ah. That ain’t nothing.” Big smile, dismissive gesture with can of beer. “Been there for years! You gotta go sometime!”

Two years later, the purpley bump was bigger, but the gesture and optimistic dismissal was the same. Every time the subject came up: “Hey, you gotta go sometime!”

Except for the day he found out he had malignant melanoma, and the three or four months he lasted after.

Turns out optimism, like anything, is misusable. If you have a problem, but you refuse to grapple with it because you’d rather be optimistic and hopeful about the future … well, there are side effects.

To get well, you first have to admit you’re sick. To climb out of a financial hole, you first have to admit you’re not handling your money well. To stanch the bleeding of a gaping wound, you first have to notice the gushing blood.

Sometimes, for a while, optimism has to slide over into the passenger seat, keep its smirking mouth shut, and let pessimism take the wheel.

In the midst of an emergency, in the face of a deadly threat, you have to think more about the worst that can happen, rather than the best.

The population of Planet Earth has yet to realize this.

Leaf Five

I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t use the word “retarded.” And I get the point — it can be a callous insult to people with mental handicaps.

But like the shock value of carefully-applied profanity, it can also serve to slap people awake.

Here’s retarded: The smug idiot who laughs “Hey, we can’t hurt the Earth! Ha-ha! It’ll be here and fine long after we’re gone!”

Here’s retarded: “Even IF we were capable of wrecking the environment, God could fix it with a wave of his hand.”

Here’s retarded: Buying into all those corporate messages that if we recycle and reuse (with their corporate help, of course), everything will be just fine.

Here’s retarded: Every environmentalist and green advocate who ever lived who failed to recognize that the foundation of EVERY environmental problem is too many people.

Here’s retarded: The guy who repeats the vague reassurance that “Educated women tend to have fewer children. All we have to do is raise the level of education and social welfare in the world, and world population will level off at some sustainable level.”

Problem is, we’re out of time on hopeful reassurances. The planet is already over the load limit on humans — there’s nothing left, no excess capacity to hold us until that optimistically hoped-for population leveling begins to kick in.

If ever there was a moment to be pessimistic, to attempt to be thoughtful and worried and to imagine the worst, this would be that moment.

We’re killing the Earth NOW.

Leaf Six

I don’t see it getting better in my lifetime.

Don’t think I don’t hate to say it.

I hate to even think it. Hey, I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was about 11 years old and first read Zip-Zip Goes to Venus.

As an SF fan, I’m a devoted futurist. For years I thought about the possibility of cloning my dog, the Best Dog I Ever Even Met, but I held off on doing anything about it. Then one day he got sick, and it hit me that I could either 1) read about all the possible technological innovations but do nothing to make ready for them, or 2) I could live and act as if these imagined futures would be real.

I picked the second option. The future is a real place, a real time, and many things will become possible. I set the wheels in motion for collecting tissue samples when Tito died. Today those samples are frozen in liquid nitrogen, providing me a doorway into one of those possible futures. When (if) cloning gets to be reliable and cheap, I’ll be ready to have them build a puppy for me, the latter-day twin of the Best Dog I Ever Even Met.

But futurist or not, no matter how much technological progress we make — on gene-engineered crops, fish farming, pollution-free energy — none of that can fix the hole in the boat, the hole of more and more people, more and more mouths, arriving daily like unstoppable civilization-smashing dreadnoughts of unthinking hunger.

Leaf Seven

The truth is — brace yourself for some carefully-applied profanity —

We’re fucked.

Seriously. We’re raping ourselves to death with our own appetites. We are bent over, grabbing our metaphorical ankles, while a dick the size of Montgomery, Alabama — population 205,764 — rams repeatedly, daily, up our collective butts.

And it looks like we don’t have the brains to stop it.

For instance: Even the idea of conservation has enemies. And not quiet enemies, but active, loud, wealthy enemies. Enemies with TV and radio shows. Enemies with audiences of admiring millions. Enemies with the backing of huge, globe-spanning churches. Save the environment? Do something about global warming? It’s un-American, it’s crazy, it’s EVILLLL!!

But even those who aren’t active enemies of possible solutions are still thinking we can do pretty much all the same stuff we’ve always done. Everybody can drive cars and live in big houses, and buy everything we buy wrapped in a disposable plastic sheath, and have two or three or four kids. As long as we all pitch in and conscientiously — voluntarily! — conserve, everything will be fine.

Even those of us who are active champions of the environment, as long as we fail to bring the subject of human population into every single discussion, are little more than enablers, co-dependents who help wreck things by failing to admit the real problem.

Taken together, we’re the battered wife who won’t admit she needs help. “I know he loves me. He only does it when he’s drinking.” Wham! “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t provoke him.” Wham! “He doesn’t really mean to do it. I just can’t leave him.” Wham! Wham!

Out here in the real world, we’re already dying. We’re already killing everything else we care about. It’s just that it’s been happening in slo-mo.

Like the stupid pigeon that stands still while the cat sneaks up on him in broad daylight — “Yeah it DOES look like a great big predator, but hey, it’s barely moving, and nothing bad’s happened SO far, right?” — we’ve sat mired in calm complacency in the midst of a slow motion crash.

But things are speeding up.

The Earth is bleeding to death under us, faster and faster, and the best we’ve managed so far is a string of very small Band-Aids.

When the real way to stop the blood loss, the only workable treatment, is the tourniquet of Everybody Stop Having Children. For a while, anyway.

Leaf Eight

Nothing I’ve said here is meant to imply that I have absolutely no hope. Even the statement “we’re fucked” is not something I feel in any final way.

But I’m not optimistic. The only hope I DO see is if we admit the problem, the real problem, and deal with that. Plug the hole in the hull first.

Stop human population growth. Now. Reverse it. Get our numbers down to four billion, two billion, whatever number really IS sustainable in the real world.

Because this is it, kids. The photo finish where humanity as a group crosses the line a split-second ahead of Mr. Death and lives as the better selves we could be, the ones who become rational adults and enter the next Age of life on earth.

Or the photo finish where Mr. Death beats us across, and stands mocking as we murder each other attempting to claw our individual selves out of the sucking pit of our own sewage and malignant runaway growth … and kill everything else we care about — all the whales and wolves, the polar bears and eagles, and even the cats and dogs and horses — along the way.

There is a possible future, maybe even a probable future, where quite a lot of us will live to see the squalid, dehumanizing background-world of Blade Runner, or Mad Max, or Idiocracy, as the depiction of an enviable Golden Age.

(Just FYI, all you uber-rich people thinking you might survive inside some kind of walled compound, I’d bet real money that the zombie hordes will be eating you FIRST. After all, you’re the fat, juicy ones. Besides, do you really want to live in a world without toilet paper? Without coffee? Without chocolate? )

You, or your kids if you have any, will face this fact: A decidedly unpretty future of death, death and more death is coming soon to a planet near you.

Leaf Nine

And now — deep sigh — cue the shriekers. I obviously want to murder babies, and commit genocide on poor people, right? I’m crazy, I have no proof for my silly dark fantasies and I should probably just shut up — Why do you hate people so much, Mr. Gloomy? — and try not to kill other people’s optimism.

Anyway, things aren’t really that bad, and Science Will Find A Way. Like, you know, mining asteroids and colonizing the Moon, sending our surplus population into space. Stuff like that.

Besides, somewhere out there somebody smarter and better informed than you and I has the problem in hand and will fix things up.

After all, those wise strangers, wherever they are, whoever they are — you know, like government people and corporations and such — care SO MUCH about you and I and our families, right?



Pain As a Monument to Life

The question always comes up: What do you say to someone who’s lost a loved one to death? How do you comfort them? Maybe the only useful answer is that there is no real comfort, and that that’s a good thing.

A few days ago I found a microcassette tape of my Cowboy Dad talking to me. The tape is nothing special, it’s just him sitting there in his living room talking. Teaching me something … and that was so HIM.

I wish I had more such tapes. I wish I had video. Jeez, I want HIM back. But I know I’m not going to get that. The rotten realization hits me yet again: I’ll go the whole rest of my life without him in it.

But I’m also thinking, you know, he had his moment in the sun. And this moment, THIS one, is mine. This is the moment in the sun of all of us, all we living people. And yeah, sadness is a part of it. We’ll always have that, those of us who feel real love, and lose it.

But this brief Moment, our moment, is also the only time we get for creating joy, for living our lives as our own selves, and discovering how much we can do with that.

That’s what we’re really about, isn’t it? Not just getting through the day, not just slinking through our lives making as little fuss as possible, not just dragging ourselves from one place to another and back over and over, but creating joy. DOING something joyous and big, and sharing it.

I suppose it’s irony that each next generation most strongly feels the sadness of losing us when we have created an environment of love, of the joys of life, for them to live inside. The sadness we feel at the loss of a loved one is the monument to a life well and lovingly lived.

In my view, nothing should be allowed to diminish that sadness, that monument. Not drugs, not religion, not well-meaning fantasies about better places and rainbow bridges.

When you lose someone you love, it should damned well HURT, and keep on hurting … until you rediscover the joys of life in your own time, hear the music of life again and find your feet dancing to it.

Every generation carries within it the darkness and pain of death, and yet manages to dance in the music and the sunshine of life.

It will happen for you.

Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 8 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]

The Final Doorway

The payoff of going through the transition from the House of the Tribe to the House of Humanity is very large. If we can make it across the painful threshold from our small but formerly comfortable dwelling space into this new and grander place, we gain an entire fascinating WORLD of people.

People to learn from, to visit, to photograph, to love, to sing to, to listen to, to argue with, to trade with, even to combine talents and efforts with, so as to accomplish great and noble tasks. The United Nations, the International Space Station and the Olympics are all House of Humanity works – absolutely impossible to accomplish in any smaller House.

Part of stepping across these metaphorical thresholds is the simple fact of outgrowing our present abode. We grow through all the available rooms of our self-absorbed childhood house until we are forced by the limited space to look for something better.

Another factor, though, is the supply of friendly guides who are already there, who convince us of the benefits and serve as role models or mentors.

Still another part of it, though, can be exterior forces that push us through. This type of transition can be decidedly un-smooth. In all too many places on our planet, we engage in dreadful activities – wars and genocide – which, because of their universality, appear to be House of Humanity works. Instead, they are the expressions of a determination not to step through a door into the next larger House. Think of a war as a defensive attempt to stay in your own tribal House. To do it by subjugating others to your way of life if you have the strength or, if you don’t, to convince them to leave you alone.

Moving out into the House of Family, we look back and discover that the House of Self is a tiny dollhouse. The House of the Tribe sheds the same sort of light on the House of Family. As we continue to grow, taking each transition in turn through these one-way doors, we look back and always find another dollhouse – a place too small for us to live in anymore.

Once we get to the House of Humanity, though, it’s hard to imagine it as a just another dollhouse. Learning to live in it is the job of lifetimes. The place is simply too big, too changeable, for us to ever really absorb it all. Surely this House must be the final one, the ultimate possibility we were born to experience. How could there be anything beyond a bustling, turbulent, creative seven-billion-member brotherhood?

I have reason to believe there is at least one more door, though.

There’s a great deal missing, even in this grandest of Houses. Having lived for all my adult years with the enormous mass of mankind around me, I’ve come to see that we in the House of Humanity are just as self-involved and self-absorbed as any of the occupants of those smaller houses. We are inward-looking and largely ignorant of what might lie outside.

More than that, nothing in the House of Humanity can account for the connection that clicked into place with Molly.

Molly was my key to this next door, but it took me more than a decade to figure out how to step through it. Even with plenty of people gone before me – through portals of compassion or ecological concern – making the transition was no small chore.

In the midst of all the wonderful things I’m discovering here in this new House, I look back and see, to my dismay, that the apparently boundless dwelling place of most of the people on the planet really is just another dollhouse. Busily engaged in the inbred affairs of the House of Humanity, most of us are unaware there is a larger space in which to adventure and learn, a place wider and more interesting than anything we’ve had – a place that will welcome us as the larger selves we could become, a place that has a real need for our human talents.

This is a House that can’t be complete without us, but that needs an “us” as we’ve never been.

The discomforts of this particular transition are stronger than any before, and the main one, as ever, is leaving behind the old. Old toys, old culture, old ways of thought. But as we take our place AMONG the other creatures of Earth rather than over them or apart from them, one of the many payoffs is a kinship, a sense of belonging, off the scale of anything we’ve ever known.

Someday I WILL write that book I spoke of earlier. I’ll tell what I’ve learned about the Big Picture, and lay out clear directions for how to get to this bigger place beyond that final door.

It will be a collection of conceptual highlights, the way-points and directional signs  that facilitated my own escape from the last dollhouse, and out into the House of Earth.

Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 7 of 8

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The Houses of Man (cont.)

As you’ve probably already figured out, there are other steps in this bigger-house progression. At some point we discover the door to yet another Outside, and find that our original family home is only a small part of a bigger place – our neighborhood or culture. For want of a better name, call this dwelling place the House of the Tribe.

Again, there’s an uncomfortable period of adaptation in settling-in to this larger space. To become a full member of our tribe, we have to learn to say the right things at the right times, to sing the right songs and make the right pledges. We have to wear the right clothes – the right boots, pants, shirts, hats and belt buckles. We have to learn the right secret handshake – and so many more things. We may even have to have the right parts of our bodies ritually scarred, or tattooed, or cut off.

Historically speaking, this is about as far as most of us get. Throughout history, this tribal house, the house of our people, was almost always plenty big enough, providing us with friends, family, jobs, pleasant recreations (such as badminton, or hunting the heads of the tribesmen in the next valley) and challenges (all the Scouting merit badges, a Phi Beta Kappa pin, a lion skin of our very own), and a ceiling high enough to fulfill all our aspirations.

Every transition out of our currently-familiar place is attended by severe discomfort. That next door always opens out into a much, much larger place, and we have to learn a bunch of new things – the serious and difficult and sometimes frightening work of which can be forced on us long before the advantages become obvious. And again, we have to unlearn some things – we have to go against some of our earlier training.

One of the stumbling blocks to growth beyond the House of the Tribe is the nature of culture itself. Your culture buoys you up in many ways, providing the comfortable support of predictability. On the other hand, it also chops off your wild flights of fancy and drags you back from uncommon insights. Cultures endure because they actively oppose their members growing beyond them, from coming up with anything new. I remember showing up at a friend’s spread in Texas one time, wearing some loose comfortable shoes instead of the cowboy boots we all usually wore. In less than ten seconds, he’d fixed me with an incredulous eye and asked “Where’d yew git them pimpy shoes?”

Our culture also actively discourages the “us” from mixing in any way with the  “them.” To move beyond our Tribal House, we have to unlearn the “us-them” lesson. We have to learn that other people, the ones who have before now been the not-Us, are somehow related to us and worthy of equal treatment.

Talk about culture shock! They speak the wrong language, they eat weird, smelly foods, they’re different colors … and as far as we can tell, they don’t know a darned thing about the appropriate way to act. Even worse, they act as if they have a RIGHT to be all different. They don’t seem to have any desire to learn the correct ways to act and talk and eat. They sometimes even treat us as if WE are supposed to learn THEIR ways.

They have no idea that their women should be covered head to toe, or that there is a specific little hat to wear on Saturday, or that you eat hot dogs and beer (and not noodles, for chrissake!) at baseball games, or that you have to read this book and not that one, and you have to believe in this mystical superbeing – the real one – and not all those silly others.

The process holds an uncomfortable mirror up to our own lives. It can never be easy to learn, in stepping out into this next larger house, that our clothes are no better than theirs. To discover that our secret handshake, which gave us the intense inner feeling of belonging, is no better or worse than any other secret handshake; it is simply ours. The cosmetic and surgical alterations that we so laboriously prepared for and painfully endured – the nose-bone, the ivory ear plugs, the giant stainless steel earrings, the circumcision, the Harley tattoos, the nipple-rings – are (at best) simple curiosities or (at worst) objects of disgusted fascination to most of those other people. Worst of all, the universe seems to falter in its course as we learn that the God of Everything is only a garden-variety myth, one among many, and completely unknown just over the hill.

If we’re lucky enough, though, and persistent enough, and perhaps if we live in a society where enough adventurous rogues have found the next door and learned the advantages of stepping through it, we can move out into what has to be the biggest house of all – the House of Humanity.



Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 6 of 8

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The Houses of Man

Picture a house. Not a real house, but a kind of metaphor-house, the place where your inner life takes place. The rooms inside are furnished with your everyday thoughts, feelings and understandings.

In this particular house, there are secret doors. People can tell you that they’re there, but you never believe them, because you can’t see the doors, or any hint of them. Picture every little boy who has stoutly declared that he would never, ever want to eww, yuck, kiss a little girl. But then one day, maybe you step on certain metaphorical boards in just the right combination, or you lean against a place you never leaned against before — or maybe you just get old enough to finally see it — and a door pops open in a wall that you darned well never suspected of having a door.

Through that door is something new – a spacious and surprising new place. Suddenly there’s more to your life than you ever thought there could be.

My cowboy friend Jay, who invited me to this branding, related one of his own surprise door-openings, triggered by the birth of his son. This tough western fellow, who spent his long, long days riding horses, working cattle, fixing fence, hauling hay, moving sluice gates to and fro in grazing pasture irrigation ditches, and the ten thousand other body-wearying chores that real cowboying entails, woke up on just another morning as one person, but went to bed that night as somebody very different. On this day, a delivery-room nurse handed him his new son… and one of those doors popped open.

An actress in a soapy chick-flick would’ve had better dialogue for describing the tenderness, the protectiveness, the expanded sense of responsibility, the completely new kind of love that my friend told me blossomed within him, but the meaning was the same, and as clearly understood, in the words that he did manage.

How far back must these surprise door-openings go? What do you find if you travel back to the earliest part of your life? Somewhere back there is the little place where lived the original you, the newborn which was your start. Self-interested, self-absorbed, that first-of-all you existed within an abode which contained nothing but you and the things that served your needs and desires.

Born with an all-encompassing selfishness, this original You could have imagined nothing else but the importance of MY dry diaper, MY hunger, MY toys, MY party.

Call this origin-place the House of Self.

Some manage to get through life without growing very far beyond it. For most of us, though, the growing-beyond is one of our first major life steps. We come to see the totally self-absorbed people, the ones who don’t make it out, as tragically arrested, cut off from many of life’s joys.

For most of us, though, there comes a time when living entirely within the confines of that one house, however many rooms we have found in it, no longer fills our needs. The door we one day find opens not to a new room, but out of the house entirely. We step outside and discover that our former dwelling place is, rather than the center of everything, a mere dollhouse resting within a much bigger structure. In this bigger house are other people – our mother and father, brothers and sisters – and some of the stuff here is theirs.

We have to take notice of their rooms – THEIR possessions, THEIR needs, THEIR schedules – and it can be a costly and dismaying experience. In this new, bigger house we have to learn many new things – and unlearn many others. The payoff, though, is the gaining of mutual closeness and interconnected caring that greatly enlarges our lives. And a much more interesting world to live in.

Over time, we learn to live in this, the House of Family.


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 5 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]

Molly (cont.)

This kind of thought wasn’t completely new for me – I confess I’d dwelt many times on the fortunes of other men, wistful and envious of the assets they enjoyed.

“What would it be like to be him?” I had asked myself, him way up there with all that money, with a daddy who provides private airplanes and the family’s own airport, with new trucks and horses and jet skis and scuba diving lessons there for the asking.

“What would it be like to be him?” … riding high, the life of the party, the totally unselfconscious, self-assured fellow who plays pool like a master, drives cars like a professional racer, rides horses and ropes calves like a rodeo champion.

“What would it be like to be him?” … towering above toads like me, with that tall muscular body, with such good looks and so many women hot after him that he callously brushes the discards out of his life every few months.

This, though, was the first time the question had ever been aimed in the other direction, asking “What would it be like to be her?” … not UP there above me, but DOWN there, below me. Down there with all that loneliness.

I shifted in that illuminated second from my one-down perspective, that blunt yearning known so well by the poor, the uncool, the disadvantaged, to a one-up view, the sudden knowledge that I had unintended power over this small creature. It was the same type of thought, but painted now in the colors of sympathy rather than those of envy.

I stood and considered the consequences of this new idea. How would it feel, I wondered from this new perspective, to care about what her life was like? How would it feel to do something about it?

I called her back over, and she came, very reluctantly. Suspiciously. Worriedly.

I stroked her head and neck tentatively and she cringed under my hand. I petted her some more, telling her what a good dog she was. She relaxed a fraction. I scratched behind her ears, and stroked along the length of her back. She leaned against me, snuggling up close. I dug my fingers gently into her fur, roughing it up and scratching down her side. She flopped down in the grass. I slapped her shoulder a couple of times, stroked the side of her face. She rolled over onto her back. I patted her chest and scratched her belly. She closed her eyes and sighed blissfully.

As I rested there on my knees gently stroking the fur under her chin, reflecting on how little this cost me and yet how it had never occurred to me to do it, she lay there absorbing the touch as if she was a sponge as big as a house, a desert a thousand miles square, and I was the first drop of water she’d felt in a year.

Yet rather than happy I had made the discovery of this new way to look at Molly, I was deeply bothered that I had only now noticed.

I was doubly bothered that this lesson was not in any of my schoolbooks, not in anything my parents had ever told me, not in anything I learned from my friends. In fact, it was just about 180 degrees opposite of anything I got from any of those sources.

To us, animals could be disposable entertainment devices or rare meat walking around on four legs, but they were never anything more. I myself had treated animals as targets, and even found pleasure in it.

I was a hunter once, sort of. My Wicked Stepfather took me up into deer blinds for East Texas’ frigid fall deer season in my teens. I grew up with coon-hunting friends and a peer group of friendly killers to whom hunting of any sort was a threshold of manhood. Later there was an adopted Dad in California who took me out on pack trips into the wilderness and infused me with his deep love of the mountains, and who regaled me with great stories from a lifetime of hunting exploits – of bringing down bear and deer and other difficult and worthwhile game. I had a Ruger .30-06 rifle that I was so proud of – though I no longer own it, I can still picture the matte beauty of its walnut stock, and the shiny perfection of its barrel.

It only happened to me once, but I can tell you what’s it like to see a big muley buck on a hillside across a canyon, and to raise such a rifle to a position firm against your shoulder and cool against your cheek. I can tell you that there is a feral joy in getting that animal in your sights, and I can describe the leap that a hunter’s heart makes at the thought of having that deer. Of owning its life, bringing it down with a shot through the chest. I can tell you what it’s like to visualize bringing it home bloody and gutted, hunter triumphant, full grown Man.

We humans really do have such things in us. A cat readying to pounce on a mouse, all feral intent, teeth and claws ready for the kill, could feel nothing more intense.

But fortunately or unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s like to actually do those things, because I missed the shot. I never got my deer. I never got my bear. Instead, in this luminous moment with Molly, I found this doorway…


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 4 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]


For eight years in my 20s and 30s, I was a draft horse teamster at a resort-town ranch, driving a two-up hitch of massive blond Belgians or coal-black Percherons, on a huge hay wagon for mid-summer meadow rides, or on big sleighs that would glide over the high-mountain snow on moonlit winter nights.

Molly was one of the ranch dogs. She was no particular color – a little black, a little brown, a little gray, all mixed up in a dark grizzle. Like most cowdog breeds, she was a sturdy little thing, weighing forty pounds at most and standing about 18 inches high.

She was no great spark in the personality field. Poor Molly was a bit of a slinker – one of those quiet, careful dogs who skirts around the edges of action, waiting to see if it’s safe to be noticed.

And it seemed that “notice,” for Molly, frequently came in the negative form.

Let me say right here that the people who owned the place took very good care of their animals. They were about as good as they could be to their livestock without actually inviting them into the house. Even that rule was suspended for their numerous bobcat-sized Siamese and Manx cats, and a succession of lucky dogs.

But businesses mean employees, and they were not always as enlightened. Molly probably heard “Molly, get out!” and “Molly, get away!” a thousand times. There may even have been a clod of dirt pegged her way at times.

I didn’t have a lot of patience for her myself. She’d seldom come out to meet me in the morning. Never wanted to go along on an adventure. Never wanted to come play, like some of the other dogs. Molly just wasn’t much fun.

But late one day, as I was coming up to the main ranch house from the bunkhouse, Molly somehow connected with me.

She happened to be lying across the trail as I came down it. She nervously thumped her tail on the ground at my approach, but I was in too much of a hurry to bother with her and I said “Look out, dog!” She instantly jumped up and skittered off to the side.

I glanced back at her, though, and saw her trudging slowly away with her whole body a message of dejection. I stopped, suddenly struck by the thought, “What must it be like for her?”

Left out. Never played with. Seldom petted.

Mixed in with all the random moments of your life that pass unremarked and unremembered, there are those sometimes-surprising few that stick with you for a long, long time. Through accident of time and life and human nature, these moments of happiness, or tragedy, or sudden understanding, become the axles around which the rest of your life turns.

Perspectives shift. Things change. Doors open.

Though I had a close friendship with my own canine buddy, Ranger, I was completely unimpressed with Molly. If I had ever cared to think about it, I might have known that there was something missing in her life. I might have said well, from her point of view, if there was such a thing, it would seem that she gets only occasional crumbs of affection. Tiny tag ends of attention, second thoughts, unconscious pats. Half-loves.

But I didn’t care enough to think of that. She was just another… well, dog.

Now, though, slow-motion flashbulbs went off in my head and freeze-framed me where I stood. For the first time ever, I wondered “What would it be like to be Molly?”


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 3 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]


After seasons of proving myself at many of the other chores of branding, on this day, I’m in charge of castrations. After the calf slides to a stop and both the heel rope and the top man are firmly in place, I step forward and kneel down by the calf’s belly. I stretch out the scrotum and slice across the lower third of it with a sharp knife. The testicles usually pop out on their own, but sometimes you have to fish around, pressing here and there, to get them to come free. Pulled out several inches, they’re still connected by silvery-blue cords that have to be either carefully scraped through with a knife or cut through with a pliers-like tool that simultaneously severs and crushes them. Skill comes into play here to prevent excessive bleeding. The scraping technique causes the arteries to spasm and close down and takes considerable care to do right; on the other hand the cutting-crushing tool, an emasculatome, is more foolproof, sealing the arteries by intense pressure, and can be used in full confidence by just about anyone with a bit of grip strength.

The bags are sometimes tossed into a pile for counting, sometimes simply thrown away. The testicles go into a separate bucket of water. Depending on whether somebody wants to go the trouble, they’ll be cleaned and frozen later – and yep, people really do eat them.

Needless to say, your hands get bloody right off in this kind of work. The blood dries and sticks to your hands, coats your pantlegs. The testicles are sticky, sometimes adhering to your fingers so that you have to sling your hand vigorously to get them to drop into the collection bucket. Keeping the knife sharp is a constant battle, but as about half the calves are heifers, there’s usually time to keep up with it.

Castration and ear marking is skilled work for two reasons. One is that you want to do the work accurately, and get the calf through it with a minimum of blood and stress. Second is that you are holding a naked razor-sharp blade and a lot of people with other matters taking their full attention want someone they can trust.

The hot hours pass. A dozen or so at a time, we work our way through half the calves.

We break for lunch, shutting down the noisy blast of the propane branding iron furnace, and trooping out to sit on a grassy spot next to a loading chute. Roping horses have their girths loosened, and stand hipshot in the shade of a long trailer. Ranch dogs show up and beg for pieces of our sandwiches, or prospect for edible bits out in the branding corral. We talk horses and heifers (the two-legged kind), old friends and old dogs.

Finally we pry ourselves up from our resting places and go back to the corral, where we rope, drag, tussle, stick, slice, burn. The calves match us move for move with panicked determination – they struggle, buck, squirm, kick, quiver and bawl. We respond by overcoming, enduring or ignoring them.

At the end of the day, all of them are turned out to their still-waiting mothers, and the lot of them are herded off to a distant pasture to rest, graze and recuperate. The rest of us mosey up to the ranch house where dinner’s ready.

I sit down with my plate in a low, loose chair, and am so bone-deep tired that when I discover I don’t have a fork, it’s a good five minutes before I manage to muster the energy to heave myself up and get one.

As I break bread with my friends, again the feeling of kinship – of shared work, of difficult tasks done well, of eating and talking and joking together – washes over me. After a childhood of divorce and moving, a series of different schools and strange new faces, and an eternity with the Stepfather from Hell, here I am in the company of the people who took me in, who allowed me to prove myself. These are people who like and respect me, who value me for my contributions and my company, and who put up with my peccadilloes. Surely no Bar Mitzvah, no tribal rite of manhood in New Guinea or Africa or South America, could do any better job of making a boy feel accepted, validated, even loved.

I am exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. I rest in the comfort of knowing that these are my People, and this is where I belong.

Except …

I have wrestled with more than calves today.

Something has nagged at me off and on for many hours. Time after time throughout the waning day, the picture of a little dog named Molly has come into my mind. I’ve drifted back, over and over, to something I learned from her recently, and I’m no longer sure I can justify enjoying the things I’ve done today.

Thanks to Molly, I’m seeing today in a different light. Something has changed in me, some new channel has opened up, and in through it are trickling new thoughts, things I never knew I never knew.


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 2 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]


The early end of the beef industry involves a lot of labor at identifying and altering young bovines from their original, mint-condition wholeness to something more in line with human designs, as they make their first transition from free beasties to hamburger-on-the-hoof. The work can be done in sheer industrial efficiency, with metal chutes and shock prods and unconcerned hourly workers, or it can be done by working cowboys, in tune with a romantic but very real vision of the American West.

On this day, with this herd of calves, I’m one of those cowboys. And though I don’t know it quite yet, I myself am undergoing a transition: I’m on the threshold of a new and grander phase of my life. My hand is on the doorknob and here and now is the moment in which I begin to turn it.

As I start the day, I feel deep western pride on the one hand, the heartfelt assertion that the people around me – the men and women in cowboy hats and spurs and chaps, working shoulder to shoulder with me and joking with each other in the solid, friendly voices of the west – are my people, and the things we do are a part of my native culture, a  culture of Texas and points west.

The men and women I work with are close friends, and we’re teamed up in a difficult, dirty and physically demanding job. We work side by side in blood and the smell of burning hair, and every hour of such work under the beating western sun is a rite of passage, a bringing-together as profound as any formal ceremony of brotherhood. This is a job, yes, but it is also a way to become one with each other.

Along with that pride, though, is another feeling, something darker. I have yet to identify it, but it ebbs and flows within me throughout the day, the beginning of a quiet guilt, a murky disturbance at doing what I’m doing.

The cattle, by contrast with the many-become-one social consolidation we humans experience on this day, journey in the opposite direction – from oneness to separation. Forcibly parted from the safety and comfort of their herd, a couple of hundred calves are trapped at one end of a large wire holding pen. With their four-legged moms just outside the corral making continuous loud protests, they mill around in confusion.


The kid in the blue cap? Me.

A cowboy on a horse cuts small groups of them out, to drive a dozen or so at a time into the main corral. Separated now at two removes from the main herd, this small group huddles together even more closely.

Two ropers on horseback work the branding corral. They take turns tossing ropes at calf heels, hopefully snagging both back feet of one specific calf, then instantly dallying up and spurring away to trip the calf onto its side and drag it through the soft arena dirt to the branding fire. There one cowboy jumps on top to hold it down, while several others come forward with syringes, knives and branding iron to inject, inoculate, earmark, de-horn, castrate and brand the little beast.

Every pen of calves has a different pair of ropers working it. Horses and cowboys tire and have to rotate out, to have their places taken by a new team.

It’s not the epitome of efficiency, operating this way. Not every cowpoke on horseback is at the peak of western form. For most of them, this is practice as much as it is work. They only get to do it a couple of times a year, some of them, and it takes a while to work through each pen of calves. The ground helpers spend a certain amount of their time just standing around, waiting patiently as the ropers miss repeatedly. Still, there’s a quiet recognition that everybody has to learn sometime, and a certain amount of friendly joshing helps to pass the time.

Here are the various jobs that must be done and the qualifications it takes to be accepted to do them:

Roping is the most demanding. You’re usually expected to have at least some experience in the sport. Since the object of all this is to get the calves processed with the least stress on them and the least strain on the crew, the quicker the better is the plan. The ideal is a quick toss just in front of a moving calf’s hind legs, so the little critter more or less steps into the open loop himself, then a snapping tug that snugs the rope around both ankles, with a simultaneous dally around the saddlehorn so the roper can spur his horse away with a captured calf dragging at the end of the rope.

Ropers can be older hands who are experts, second- or third-generation youngsters who grew up in the culture but are just learning the craft, western wives or girlfriends who want to try their hand, or rodeo-cowboy friends there to keep in touch with the roots of their arena skills. On days short of manpower it can be friendly neighbors who are drawn by the camaraderie, romance and dust.

Wrasslin’ and pokin’

Wrestling calves is the least demanding of skill, the most demanding of muscle, and kids and neighbors and wanna-bes all get their turn at this. It’s a kind of unspoken testing ground for the newcomers. This is where I got my own start, “throwing” roping calves in practice pens with cowboy buddies back in Texas.

If a dragged calf comes right to you already on its side, all you really have to do is put one knee on its neck, grab the uppermost foreleg and pull it back and up, and hope that the heel rope holds so that flailing back hooves don’t come slashing up at you. A bit of weight helps here, but if you have the technique down, a lightweight like me can do just fine.

If the calf is still on its feet – maybe the rope only caught one back leg – there’s a little cowboy judo thing you can do: snatch the near foreleg below the knee as the calf passes by, whirl the leg back backward and outward, and the calf falls almost magically onto its far side, allowing you to step over its body with the leg still in hand and proceed to the same knee-on-neck posture. Otherwise, there’s a more difficult reach you have to do, more or less enveloping the calf with your arms and body from the top, then picking it up and rotating it in the air so it falls onto its side.

Once you get it on the ground and secured, inoculations come next. A spritz of biological armor goes into both the calf’s nostrils, a human-engineered defense against various respiratory ailments. The spritzer has to have a fresh plastic nozzle for every calf, to keep from inadvertently spreading bugs from one animal to another, so if two efficient ropers are working the pen, the guy doing it can be kept hopping. Still, it’s not very tough work. Getting the plastic nozzle into a struggling calf’s nose is the only tricky part, and an agile young’un can do it.

A complex of bio-active goop – several different kinds of protective and growth-enhancing antibiotics – goes into another shot, this one into muscle on the calf’s shoulder or rump. Yet another shot will contain vitamins, or trace elements missing in the range on which the calf will spend most of his growing time, to be injected under loose skin such as that between the elbow and chest.

Shots take a bit more skill, as the person wielding the needle-gun has to be careful to poke it into the calf at the correct angle and the right place, making sure the full measured dose of medicine goes in, and at the same time missing the rumps and elbows of the four or five other people busily working the calf over. The syringes also have to be kept full of the appropriate stuff. A solid cowpoke or dependable ranch wife usually takes charge of the needlework.

Burnin’ and cuttin’

Branding is another task only allowed to experts. The iron, heated either electrically or in a propane furnace, has to be the right temperature – hot enough to scorch down to the skin, not so hot it burns holes in it, exposing the flesh underneath. It has to be applied at the right angle, to get the whole brand image onto the calf, and held for the right length of time to do the job right. The brander wears heavy leather gloves, and takes care to warn everybody “Hot iron!” before stepping up to the calf. The sharp, thick odor of burning hair coats everything and everybody by the end of the day, but the first choking stench of it disappears into the background after only a short while.

Dehorning takes a tubular tool that fits down over the horn buds one at a time, providing a circular cutting edge for scooping the buds right off the calf’s skull, leaving a little pit that will heal in time into a hornless scar. Dehorning can take up to three people working together to get it done quickly and right. The cowboy on the neck of the prone calf leans out of the way while the top horn bud is popped out, then grabs under the calf’s nose and bends its head back so the dehorner can get to the bottom one. The third person is usually standing by with a spray can of disinfectant for the dehorning wounds.

The last chore, knifework, also falls only to trusted hands. There are a variety of cuts that can be made on a calf’s front end, but the ones most often used on ranches where I worked were either ear-marking, which requires a large triangular slice to be taken out of a calf’s ear, or ear-tagging, which is basically ear-piercing scaled up to cattle-size: a bright plastic tag is slotted onto an instrument that cuts a slit in the ear and inserts it, the big tag on one surface of the ear, a round plug on the other.

As for cuts on the back end, heifer calves (females) will grow up to be breeding or milking stock and need no trimming of any kind. In one of the many ouchy realities of both beef and dairy cattle commerce, however, only a tiny percentage of purebred males are saved for breeding. Since most bull calves will grow up to be meat, they do not need the essential tackle of reproduction.