Chisel Chips

All the really good ideas die in the e-mail ‘Trash’ bucket

(Editor’s note: Despite the proliferation of social media, e-mail is still the killer app. It fosters business, and healthy, creative personal interaction. This is a transcript of an actual exchange, conducted between the very talented David Hanson and yours truly. I’ve changed the e-mail addresses to prevent invasion of our privacy by Da Bots. Context: David and his wife invited me and my wife for dinner. He made a lot of pulled pork. Way more than four people could eat. He offered some to us before we left, but we had to decline, albeit reluctantly. We already had a pile of leftover pork of our own at home. That said, is there ever such a thing as too much pork? ‘Dinerguy’ is me. ‘Messopork’ is him.)

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:09 AM, <dinerguy@gmail.com> wrote:

Hey,
Wanted to thank you both again for a lovely evening — good smarts, good talk, good laughs.
Have fun with the ‘yardening.’

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:33 AM, <messopork@gmail.com> wrote:

Yessir. Great to have y’all over. I might install a small pork reflecting pond in the backyard. We have enough leftovers.

See y’all around!

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:36 AM, <dinerguy@gmail.com> wrote:

I like that. It would be a one-of-a-kind oddity features. People would come from all over the country — even Pendleton — to see it. Maybe they’d toss stuff in, for good luck. Coins. Pigs. Garbage. You would eventually have to expand it. And move your house, because the pond would grow a bit, to take over the Heights. It would become a superfund site, and get a slot on “Real Wasteponds of the West” (Travel Channel).

Out of small ideas, big things come. I see possibilities.

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:42 AM, <messopork@gmail.com> wrote:

You’re a true Idea Man, and I can appreciate that. I see you going places, big places, in the #PorkPoolScapes empire. Let’s get your people with my people soon and get you on board.

First order of business: rigging a face of the Virgin Mary to **very occasionally** appear in the pool…

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:52 AM, <dinerguy@gmail.com> wrote:

I’ve still got a photo sent out by the AP years ago of a Hispanic woman down in N.M., standing next to a framed tortilla chip. On the chip is a burnt image that someone decided looked like the Virgin Mary. People DID come to her house, to the Shrine of the Holy Tortilla (I am NOT making this up, although I wish I had), to visit it and pray. I’m not sure where I’ve got the thing stashed, but it’s priceless.

BTW, I also have file folders of photos showing dignitaries reviewing the troops. And newspaper stories all talking about various earthquakes in the U.S., but noting that they’re still not “The Big One.” Ahhh, the Big One. That will be an American earthquake, truly epic, unlike any of those measly earthquakes that his Tajikistan or China or Indonesia, where only thousands die, routinely. When American ingenuity gets around to it, we’re gonna rock the world of earthquakes. You will never have seen such destruction, even in movies. It will be awesome. And we’ll all be walking around with our smart phones out, taking selfies and texting them to Boston.

BTW_2.0, I also wish I could say Shrine of the Holy Tortilla spawned a whole economic development boom in that small town, with attractions and amusements like the Guacamole Coaster and the Refritos Banditos and the Queso Cathedral, and musical acts playing Tejano tunes and such, and busloads of blue-haired Mexicans coming in to stay several nights and bask in the whole sordid shit.

But I can’t (say all that, that is).

I wonder if all this would go away if I started smoking weed? Hmm.

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 11:07 AM, <messopork@gmail.com> wrote:

If God truly was Good, Jesus would come in the form of a lard-laden tortilla cooked by a nice hispanic woman in NM rather than a dry, tasteless wafer shipped in vacuum-sealed packages, and our boom towns would be hawking holy edibles instead of fracking gas and water out of the earth. But, you’re right, it’s about time we brought The Big One to America, even if it means drilling til we make one of our own ingenuity. Soon enough India and China’ll beimporting their goddamn earthquakes from US!

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 11:25 AM, <dinerguy@gmail.com> wrote:

YES! Earthquakes as the new, hot thing — an export product to beat all. As good as military invasion, maybe even better. Lower cost — packaging is the problem — but not as much need for military personnel or mechanical things, except one really big low-boy to haul the sucker into place (“REALLY REALLY OVERSIZE LOAD” sign on the back).

But Bechtel and such would still get all the rebuilding contracts.

I like it. You’re a thinker after my own heart. Good to keep an eye on Oklahoma as they refine the technology.

Last thoughts of persons victimized by the charitable impulse to share some scraps

Innocence with a purr, or stealth curettage for the soul?
Innocence with a purr, or stealth curettage for the soul?

On the off-chance that this document survives what now appears inevitable, I want you to know that it all occurred not out of malice, nor with any indifference to the slippery slope that begins with simple charity, but simply because we couldn’t resist feeding the little kitty.

It’s not fashionable for a guy – a non-gay guy, that is – to admit having a soft spot for cats. It’s why I’ve had dogs for years. I know, the cynics among you will say, “Soft spot? Yeah, right on the instep of your right foot.”

But stick with me. I’ve had cats. They can be quite endearing, the way they rub against your leg (OK, a little hair on black slacks isn’t very professional, but it works on casual Fridays), or the way they look up at you and meow. It’s their sweet, innocent way of saying, “Hey, buster, better feed me and feed me NOW, or the next time you touch me I’ll leave your forearm looking like a bad suicide attempt.”

Anyway, my cats all died (not at my hand, I should note), and my wife and I found ourselves in a small house in the Mexican city of Oaxaca when the cutest little Siamese mix showed up on the porch one day. We were hanging laundry and heard him first. He had a bit of a weird white patch on his head, but otherwise looked pretty close to pure-bred. I later came to attribute the white patch to a parental contribution – I’m not sure which side would contribute “white head hair patch gene” – that, until that fateful act of copulation, had kept mainly to a knife-wielding clan of mountain lions.

We called him “Gato,” figuring it would help us with our Spanish, and would be something both he and we could remember. I wasn’t sure if he was eating, and didn’t want to step onto that codependent handshake, but my wife (and the mother of our imminent heirs) gently suggested I give him some tortilla strips and scrambled egg scented with cinnamon and vanilla.

“Cinnamon and vanilla?” I asked. “Seriously? What self-respecting cat eats eggs like that? You ever see Whiska-Lickins with cinnamon and vanilla?”

“Just do it,” she said.

I just did it. I put the food out on a piece of foil, and the cat nosed it a bit, turned and glared at me, then went back to the food. He licked it, bit it, gobbled it.

Then he ate the foil.

I’m not kidding. I didn’t see it, but when we came back from our daily walk, he was sitting on the porch, leaning against the wall, with what looked like electrical wire hanging from his mouth.

I was curious. Wouldn’t you be? So I bent closer to look, and saw that it was more like tinsel. It was two days before Christmas, so I figured he was just getting in the spirit, and didn’t think much of it.

After dinner that night, we had some chicken skin and joint crunchies (OK, what do YOU call those chunks of cartilage that come off the drumsticks and remind you of chewing the cap from your toothpaste?)

I gathered up all the scraps, opened the door to the porch, and found myself staring at the cat. Same cat, same white spot on his head, but he was a little larger than when we first met him. Back then, he came to ankle height. Now he was staring at my knees, and drooling.

I quickly dropped half the chicken skins onto a paper plate, and while the cat lunged at the food, I dropped the rest beyond the chain link fence so some of the local curs could share in the snack.

While the cat was busy – as he ate, he emitted a sound that was a little bit purr, a little bit siren, and a little bit wood-chipper – I stepped back inside and bolted the door behind me.

I could hear the cat through the door, and then he went silent. I looked outside, where he was descending into our yard through the barbed wire at the top of the chain link fence, a ragged hank of dog fur dangling from his lips. It looked like Yorkie or Bichon Frisee, but who can tell, at moments like that?

This was the point when I thought, “Uh-oh.”

I didn’t share my concern with my wife. I thought, he’s cute, and hungry. Cats will be cats, right?

Later that night, I was woken by a sound outside our second-floor bedroom. I thought maybe it was one of the neighbors, trying to start their car, or get it up the nearly vertical incline of our dirt street.

Nope. Outside, the cat was slowly grabbing pieces of scrap lumber in his jaws and maneuvering them so they leaned against the house. Just below the window to our bedroom.

He was trying to get into the house. And, although it may have been the sleep in my eyes, or because I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but the cat seemed to have put on a few pounds. I’m not sure how many, but let’s just say he looked to have scaled up, by maybe a factor of, gosh, twenty?

I could be wrong, of course, but the impression I got was that he didn’t really need the wood to get into our bedroom. A cat the size of the cat that now sat below our window, looking balefully our way, would be able to stretch upward enough to grasp the steel security cage cemented into the side of the house with its claws.

And rip it out of the house.

But it chose instead to climb slowly up the wood, until it reached the window, where it stared in at me with a somewhat accusing demeanor.

“What’s going on?” my wife asked, sleepy in the bed, just below where I stared out the window.

“It’s the cat,” I said. “I think he’s hungry.”

“The cat? At our window? We’re on the second floor?”

“I know. That’s why I think he wants something to eat. Why else would he be here?”

“We’ve got a roast chicken, some chorizo, a loaf of bread, and some papaya.”

I went downstairs and came back with a bag of food for our little friend. I shoved it through the bars and he whipped it out of the air before it could fall to the ground. He turned and leaped to the ground, the bag in his mouth, a guttural growl expressing his appreciation.

The sound that followed was the most hideous thing I have ever heard. Cold sweat erupted from my skin. I remember thinking, so that’s what it sounds like when you eat a plastic bag – full of chicken, chorizo, bread and papaya.

I didn’t know cats even liked plastic, but we were in Mexico, and this cat was clearly a survivor. Living the feral lifestyle – what the locals call “la loca vida” – teaches a cat to broaden his dietary preferences to include items with a chemical profile a tad more complex than kibble.

I didn’t sleep very well after that. When the sun came up, I looked out the window again. The cat lay in the shade against the back wall, sleeping off his gordito. But I have to be honest, my wife and I weren’t sure if we should leave the house to replenish our larder.

“Hey, let’s just go,” I said. “He’s sleeping. Look how cute he looks down there.”

She looked, then looked back at me. “He’s as big as a Volkswagen!” she said.

We tiptoed through the gate and downhill toward the market. By the time we returned, however, the cat had awakened. We saw him as we approached the gate.

And he saw us.

“Look at the house,” my wife wailed. “Oh my God!”

He had been busy. The side of the house looked like a scratching post. All the electrical wires were down, like a huge hairball in the yard.

I fumbled for the keys to open the lock on the gate.

The cat stirred his now massive girth toward an upright posture.

I got the lock open, and we scurried toward the door.

The cat started slowly toward us. His head hung low, eyes intent on the bags in our hands.

I slipped the key into the door and turned the lock.

The cat quickened its pace.

We dove through the entry and slammed the door behind us, throwing the bolt just as the door absorbed the impact of a huge weight, like a wrecking ball.

The shock sent my wife stumbling across the room. I felt like my back had been dislocated, and that I would need disc surgery soon, or even a laminectomy, if my insurance covered it, and if I could afford the deductible.

“You OK?” I said to my wife.

She nodded, slowly picking herself up.

As we both tried to catch our panicked breath, we stared at each other, in shock, really, except I was also wondering what brand of door could withstand that much brute force, and whether we could get one for our house at Home Depot.

After a second, I went to the window, and pulled back the drapes.

A huge eye, the size of a semi-elliptical glass-topped coffee table with a grossly dilated pupil, stared in at me.

At the second I made eye contact with the cat, we heard it, like an oil-drill bit cracking basalt. It was oddly seductive, similar to a purr only different, as if a lynx larynx had been appropriated by a T-Rex, in its own primal way suggesting we should come outside and play, or at least scratch its chin, and while we were at it, drop off that freshly slain wildebeest that it thought we surely had lying somewhere inside this concrete cat box.

Or else.

“MeowRRRRR!”

What comes next? We’re waiting. If the cat doesn’t eat this document too, it is our hope that the foregoing account may give you some idea as to our whereabouts.

Please don’t come looking for us. And whatever you do, don’t feed the cat.

Start walking, keep walking and don’t stop walking until you are full

One of Oaxaca's many murals.
One of Oaxaca’s many murals.

How can anyone experience anything of a place at the speed of auto-motion? Cars and buses are great for moving us from Point A to Point F and quickly past Points B, C, D and E. What do we know of the in-betweens after we arrive at F? “Who cares; we were going to F.”

Sometimes, if we have a broken wrist and F is he hospital, we don’t give a rat’s ass about B, C, D and E. Just get me to the doc.

That said, driving is no way to see anything much beyond the bumper of the car in front. In the place where I live (Oregon’s Columbia Gorge), I am generally so focused on the road, signage and other drivers that I seldom take in much of the scenery on either side.

On rare occasion — I’ve tried to do this more often — I will divert my gaze, left or right, and see something I have never seen before — in 15 years of regular passage. Sad.

That’s why, in explorer mode, I believe that we need to reject speed in favor of the pedestrian. Often used as a diminutive adjective, “pedestrian” needs rescue. Like “slow food,” “pedestrian travel” implies opportunity to meet the world at an engaging pace, eye to eye, by and by.

As my wife and I planned our two-month stay in Oaxaca, the largest city in the Mexican state of the same name, we committed to learning the city by walking. OK, I’ll admit that we read a guide book. But we promptly forgot almost everything we read of any particularity that would serve to get us from A to B.

A "hidden" (off the tourist map) mercado.
A “hidden” (off the tourist map) mercado.

As we approached our place, we started at the center, or by walking to the center first, then looping our way back out, as if describing the geometry of a clover leaf.

Occasionally, map in hand, we would pick a destination and move in its direction. Along the way, discovery, as well as at the destination, and along a different path home.

The other day, seven weeks into our stay, we rose to a blank slate. “Let’s just go to a place we haven’t been before,” my wife said.

“There’s nothing you want to see in particular?” I asked.

“Nope. Let’s just go>”

I picked a neighborhood through which we hadn’t yet walked.

Church under repair.
Church under repair.

As we left known territory and entered a part of the city beyond the edge of our free turista map, we worked around a crush of cars assembled to gather children leaving school, across a street from a huge panteon (essentially, a graveyard).

That’s when we heard the thwacking sound. No, not zombies escaping. A bit farther on, we came to the source — an older man and a youngish woman, behind chain link, alternately whaling the tar out of a rubber ball with what looked like tennis rackets, on a court that reminded me of a racketball court with only three sides.

We clung to the chain link fourth wall, and watched them play, smashing the ball maybe 30 yards to the front wall, waiting as the opponent chased the carom and returned it. Back and forth, consistently hitting it, consistently hitting the wall.

When they finished, I verbally applauded their energy and grace. I asked the man what the game was called. “Fon-ton,” he said.

magna_muralI Googled it later, and found a Wikipedia description of a sport called “Frontenis,” invented in Mexico in 1900, and played now in 18 countries. The description matched what we witnessed. It looked way cool, like a ton of fun, and I didn’t know it existed before we stumbled on it.

Into the adjoining neighborhood, we came across a public market we hadn’t yet explored. Similar to several others, it was bright, neat, clean and compact. Great for locals.

We next found a church, not that unusual in Oaxaca, but a bit dowdy, and new to us.

Across the street, an explosion of color, at a store selling cartoon character figurines (Snow White, anyone?) and pinatas.

A store full of fanciful figurines and pinatas -- a visual treat.
A store full of fanciful figurines and pinatas — a visual treat.

Down the road, another Chinese buffet (the town has tons of these places, but nowhere that we have discovered where you can sit down and scan a menu of a thousand items and select something other than modest variants on veggie stir-fry).

Working our way south, we came across what looked like a walkway but also might have been a road, which paralleled a drainage canal draining … well, let’s just call it dirty water.

Floral abundance.
Floral abundance.

The walls of the homes facing the canal, like many elsewhere in town, had been appropriated by artists of varying talent, for bright and engaging murals, at one end of the scale more graphic than good, and at the other, more indicative of talent deserving an audience greater than the few who strayed down this back alley.

As a car surprised us and proved the flexible use of the corridor, we came to a tree blooming with bright yellow flowers. It was one of many scattered around town. I have no idea the variety, but they are spectacular when you find them, a glorious cloud rising just above the concrete jumble and litter that mars a city of marvelous art, architecture, energy and warm spirit.

The footpath-street-canal led to a boulevard down the middle of which a bike path had replaced a trolley line (Avenida Ferrocarril). We took that route as a welcome alternative to sidewalks. In Oaxaca, sidewalks are an unruly affair, sometimes wide, sometimes missing, often tipped topsy by roots and free-form design additions, or interrupted by utility installations or driveway ramps.

Business buddies.
Business buddies.

They pass an often-discordant mix of tire repair shops, paint supply stores, beauty salons, office buildings and gymnasiums.

So the old rail bed, which was little used, put us beneath a canopy of trees and in between the traffic heading east and west.

After crossing a major boulevard, I realized that we had returned from the “great beyond (the part of the city on the tourist maps)” and back to the “centro.” A man stepped out from his repair shop when he saw us consulting our map, to ask if we needed help. We thanked him, but declined the offer.

“We’re fine,” we said. “Lost, but found.”

Even though we again knew our location, what lay ahead was still new, scrolling up more churches, crazy architecture, free-form integration of parks and parking, and more.

Playground with parking.
Playground with parking.

We kept walking, seeing, stopping, talking, absorbing the magical ordinariness of it all.

Slowly.

Very, very slowly, never once tempted to leave the sidewalk and join the people inside the cars, out in the congested streets, jostling to protect their fenders while missing abundance uncelebrated, wonders unimagined, revelations uninvited.

‘Doing nothing’ involves a whole lot of ‘something’

Is reading the paper while waiting for a customer considered "work," or doing nothing?
Is reading the paper while waiting for a customer considered “work,” or doing nothing?

Of all the tasks I’ve added to my plate in the last year, none has caused me more psychic disruption than the simple act of doing nothing. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by “doing nothing.” The whole idea is oxymoronic. If I’m doing nothing — if I have turned it into a task — then I am doing something, that is, nothing.

Even when I find myself in a place where I feel as if I have stepped over the line into a state of nothingness, I know it’s not really what it seems. It’s just that I have created a space where I can do that which I seldom allow myself the time or luxury of doing in my normal life.

Context is everything. Exploring this notion (which, ironically, drove me to this keyboard and the act of composition, thereby turning nothing into something) became possible only through the complex process of planning and embarking on a two-month winter break to Oaxaca, Mexico.

In the run-up to this event, my wife, Kathy, would tell people, “No, it’s not a vacation. It’s just a relocation of our life.”

My wife is a bit of a work-a-holic type. It’s so much easier to see this trait in others, but standing back from the mirror, I realized that I have a lot of that in me, as well. It just plays out in different ways.

Kathy likes a good project. Meetings, phone calls, objectives, Gantt charts and deadlines. Like me, she welcomes the “ask,” and has little ability to say “no.” As a result, we find ourselves running from one thing to another, many of them volunteer commitments, doing research, shooting off e-mails, meeting with vendors, exploring funding sources for a new culinary school project, juggling pet-care duties and calls to daughters and siblings, taking overnight trips to meet and talk about travel information at freeway rest stops, and on, and on, and on.

Where did this come from? Nature, or nurture? Our work histories suggest the power of patterning. We both worked for years in journalism, with deadlines and the frenetic cross-currents of sources and editors and readers. Then, to acknowledge my wife’s lifelong passion, we side-shifted – upshifting wasn’t humanly possible, and downshifting it definitely wasn’t – into the restaurant business for 10 years.

Deadlines and vendors and customers, oh, my.

Selling the restaurant might well have opened a time of leisure and quiet contemplation. Nope, not in our natures, nor in our nurture.

At a time when most people are contemplating retirement, we found ourselves so looking forward to time away, in southern Mexico, with a chance to disconnect from all we had heaped on our lives.

“What are you going to do in Mexico?” people would ask.

“Nothing,” I found myself saying.

And then I would contradict myself. I would talk about how I never give myself time to just sit down with a good book and read, diving in and swimming across the lake until I hit the other shore.

Or I would talk about exploring the art and architecture, the cuisine in the land of the seven moles, the source and substance of tequila’s mysterious cousin, mezcal.
I realized that I was not describing a time of nothing. I was describing a lot of something, but not the same things that occupied our domestic (that is, U.S.) lives.

In college, my good friend Dan and my brother Pete and I developed a shorthand to describe our pot smoking. We thought ourselves so clever, hanging out with my parents, chortling incessantly, probably reeking like ripe bongwater and speaking in code about “doing something different.”

Inhaling the fumes from a bag of bad weed would have been different for my parents, but not for us. For us, it was the usual, normal, what we did at 19 and 20.

When I read about Americans’ reluctance to use their full allotment of vacation time — Project Time Off reports that 41 percent would not use their full vacation allotment in 2014 — I wonder how many of them could qualify for membership in the “cult of busy.”

Many of them tell researchers that they fear losing their jobs, or appearing non-essential in their absence. Others talk about the pile of work that demands their constant engagement or a belief that the pile will only grow if they take a break.
And two-thirds say they hear “nothing, negative or mixed messages” from their bosses when it comes to taking a vacation.

I’ve got my doubts. I worked busy, stressful, demanding jobs my entire life, but I always relished and took my vacation time. It made me a better person, even if it allowed me only the luxury of falling asleep on a beach.

I suspect too many Americans drink from the same fountain, the one that pumps out a constant stream of applause for those who are “most busy.”

Ask any American casually how it’s going, and note how many times they answer, “Oh, really busy.”

“Crazy.”

“It’s insane.”

“Can’t keep up.”

Then watch them. Often times, the people who effect this image of overload appear, even at work, as if they are sedated. Moving in slow motion, they struggle to move through a world of puddling molasses. It takes them forever to do anything, and not that well.

My wife and I constantly find ourselves noting how so-and-so takes forever to do what either of us can — and do — accomplish in minutes or hours.

We think they are deficient, or crippled by some genetic lassitude.

We seldom stop to think that perhaps we are the broken ones, afflicted by the rigid grid of deadlines that overlay our lives’ work hours.

Take a break like ours to Mexico, and we tend, then, to approach unscheduled time with a near pathological rigor.

“What are we doing today?”

It seems a betrayal of the unwritten rule of travel productivity to even contemplate answering, “Nothing.”

Yes, on one hand, we want to relax and downshift, so why are we charging out the door again with packs and maps and guidebooks to tick off another list of “must-see” monuments, “must-eat” diners, “must-get” trinket markets?

I say I hate the congested 12-countries-in-a-week, hop-off-the-bus approach to travel. Then I find myself creating my own sanctimonious variant.

This morning, three weeks into our stay, I found myself relaxing into yet another online news journal, going to a literary magazine’s web site and reading a great story by Maile Meloy, putting it all away for some time with a Carl Hiaasen novel, wandering outside to shop from the back of the battered VW van driven by the gentle veggie vendor, improvising a workout device from buckets and a broom handle, and returning to my reads.

And, all the while, fighting to ignore the voice in the back of my head that wants me to believe it’s all a huge waste of time that could be better spent …

Doing what? Perhaps, as in the Seinfeld sitcom, joining friends at a coffee shop for a good session of active nothingness. The show, famously celebrated as “about nothing,” was really a show about small things, in short, the acts and irritants of daily life.

Getting lost in a parking garage.

Resisting the allure of masturbation.

Inventing a product that, on one level, makes so much sense, but on another makes no sense at all (the “Bro,” aka Mansierre, a bra for men with gynecomastia).

Take the minutiae of daily life, ponder and debate and recast them into scale much greater than their true import, and you, too, might create something from nothing.

Frankly, the process of pondering the essence of nothingness is driving me a bit nuts. Even so, it has taken several hours, much thought, and a lot of typing to reach this point, so nothing could be finer.

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