That’s Not It

by Steve, October 2nd, 2011

Nancy’s book is now available for Kindle, and soon for other e-readers and in hard copy.

The Oracle

by Steve, January 30th, 2009

I was a lesser incarnation of myself when I stumbled upon the Oracle. But this was not clear at the time, obviously.

We were in a labyrinth, we being me and some other, whose identity also was not clear at the time, when we came across him.

“You could have left when you were fifteen,” said the Oracle to me.

My companion gave me a puzzled look. “Left?” he said.

“Died. I could have died,” I said, knowing what he meant, but not recalling any particularly harrowing incidents from my youth.

“But you did something to the control panel,” continued the Oracle. “We have photographic evidence.”

“When did I do this?” I asked.

“When you were 42.”

My companion was even more confused. “But he’s 41 now. How could he be 42 when he changed something for when he was 15?”

I looked at him and explained: “I changed the time stream. It’s infinitely variable, you know.”

“But how does he know all this?”

“He is me, he is us,” I explained somehow. Maybe I didn’t say it. Maybe I just thought it. My companion couldn’t understand. I understood myself, but just barely.

I tried to puzzle through it as my companion was addressing the Oracle. “When can I see you?” he asked. “Can I see you in my dreams? Am I dreaming now?”

The Oracle ignored him, and kept his gaze fixed on mine. I was thinking of why I would have chosen to stay on this level of existence, evidently 27 years longer than I needed to.

Suddenly I spoke, without forethought. “I’m addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, ” I said, as if to justify having overstayed my time. Images of women flashed through my head.

“Of course,” scoffed the Oracle. He turned and faded from view.

Soon all that was left of him was a hazy, flickering mist, which suddenly compressed on itself with a pop and disappeared completely.

My companion eyed me suspiciously. “Who are we?” He asked. “What was that? What the hell was he talking about?”

I smiled as the line of an old song went through my head: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

He’d understand sometime, but not today. I turned and left.

The Very Important Problem: Three Parables

by Steve, October 17th, 2007

In the spirit of “Remember: we’re here for the children,” I thought I’d present three parables about Portland Public Schools’ transfer policy and the Very Important Problem that it solves. Here goes.

Little LuLu and the Very Important Problem

Little LuLu lived with her Mommie and Grammie in her Grammie’s house. She had lived there since she was a baby. She went to kindergarten at the school two blocks away. She liked her teachers, especially her music teacher.

That’s why little LuLu was so sad when she started first grade and found out that her music teacher didn’t work there any more. Her music teacher was working at the coffee shop on the corner now, along with the former gym teacher. The art teacher got a job at Fred Meyer, and LuLu saw her there sometimes. She never did find out what happened to Mr. Miller, the friendly custodian who had kept her school clean.

LuLu asked her mommie, “Why don’t we have music and art and gym anymore?” and her mommie answered “Because too many people transferred out of your school, and the school board says we can’t afford those special things at such a small school.”

“But Mommie,” asked little LuLu, “Why did the school board let all those people transfer out?”

“Because,” answered her mommie, “They’re solving a Very Important Problem.”

In second grade, little LuLu noticed that some of her friends didn’t go to her school anymore. She also noticed that more and more of her classmates were being taken out of class for special help every day.

By third grade, little LuLu noticed that her teacher was spending most of her time telling her how to take tests. At the end of third grade, the school board announced that little LuLu’s school was closing, and she would have to go to a different school with more kids.

“Why are they closing my school?” LuLu asked her mommie.

“Because so many kids transferred out, and the school board can’t afford to keep such a small school open,” answered her mommie.

“But Mommie,” asked little LuLu, “Why did the school board let all those people transfer out?”

“Because,” answered her mommie, “They’re solving a Very Important Problem.”

When she started fourth grade at her new school, LuLu was very sad. Some of the same teachers were at her new school, but she didn’t feel right. All of her friends from her neighborhood had transferred to different schools, and she didn’t have any friends at this new school.

“Mommie,” she asked, “Can we transfer to a different school?”

“No,” replied her mommie, “Mommie has to work two jobs and can’t drive you across town for school. And you know Grammie is sick and can’t drive.”

Several years later, little LuLu went to register for high school. She had to choose between academies. One was for girls only, and it was miles away from the rest of the school. She liked some of the classes there, but she wanted to take some of the classes at the main high school. She also wanted to be a journalist, but her neighborhood high school didn’t have a newspaper or yearbook. One of the classes she wanted to take was only offered in the boys’ academy. She played the flute, but her neighborhood high school didn’t have a band.

Little LuLu’s adviser told her she would have to transfer to a different high school if she wanted all of these things. But her mommie didn’t think it would be safe for her to take the city bus across town into an unfamiliar neighborhood.

“Why can’t my high school have the same things high schools in other parts of town have?” little LuLu asked her mommie.

“Because so many kids transferred out, and the school board can’t afford to keep so many programs at such a small school,” answered her mommie.

“But Mommie,” asked little LuLu, “Why did the school board let all those people transfer out?”

“Because,” answered her mommie, “They’re solving a Very Important Problem.”

“I guess that must be a very, very, Very Important Problem,” said LuLu.

“It must be,” said her mommie. “Besides,” she added, “the principal of our school says we’re different, and we need different kinds of programs than kids at those other schools.”

So little LuLu went to the great big high school with a very small student body, and felt very small and unimportant compared to the kids taking French and Band and Journalism and College Prep English at the schools across town. But she knew she was helping the school board solve a Very Important Problem, so she felt better.

Mike Mackelhoody and the Very Important Problem

Mike Mackelhoody lived with his mom and dad and baby sister in a big old house in a part of town his parents called “transitional.” He always heard his dad telling relatives and family friends about what a great deal he got on the house.

There was a school three blocks away, but Mike Mackelhoody didn’t go there. His mom drove him several miles every morning to a bigger school. Mike Mackelhoody didn’t like getting up in the morning, and when he was eight, he realized that he would be able to sleep longer if he went to the school three blocks away.

So he worked up his courage and asked his mom and dad about it one day.

“Mom, Dad,” he said, “Why don’t I go to the school that’s just three blocks away? That way I could walk to school and sleep later in the morning.”

“Because,” answered his dad, “that school doesn’t meet AYP!”

Mike Mackelhoody wasn’t sure what that meant, but his dad and mom didn’t want to talk much about it.

Every day after school, Mike Mackelhoody noticed the neighborhood kids playing in the street. He didn’t know any of them, since they went to different schools. He asked his parents about this.

“Why do all the kids go to different schools?” he asked.

“Because,” said his father, “the school board is solving a Very Important Problem.”

When Mike Mackelhoody was old enough to go to high school, his parents made sure to get him transferred to a “good” school across town, one that had Advanced Placement classes and foreign languages and an instrumental music program. But his mom told him she couldn’t drive him to school anymore, since it was too far out of her way.

Instead, she got him a bus pass from the school board, and he had to take three different buses to get to school every morning. He had to get up very, very early, and he had to wait in the rain at two different bus stops along the way. If he missed one bus, he might have to wait an extra fifteen minutes. If he missed two buses, he might be very, very late to class.

“Why,” Mike Mackelhoody asked his parents, “don’t we have a ‘good’ high school in our neighborhood?”

“Because,” answered his father, “the school board is solving a Very Important Problem.”

So Mike Mackelhoody took three buses to his “good” school every day, and he took three buses home every afternoon. He never did learn the names of the neighbor kids, but he wouldn’t have had any time to hang out with them anyway, since he was always riding the bus. But at least he was helping the school board solve their Very Important Problem.

Caitlin Kurzweil and the Very Important Problem

Caitlin Kurzweil lived in a very large house in a very nice part of town. She lived there with her mummy and her daddy, her two Weimaraner dogs, and her big brothers who often Didn’t Play Nice with her.

She went to the very nice little school down the street with a very involved PTA. Her mummy told her that the school board once talked about closing her very nice little school, but the very involved PTA stopped them. So she got to stay at her very nice little school, and she learned music from Mrs. Melnaker, art from Mr. Josephson and P.E. from Mr. Jakes.

The yard of her very nice little school was always well cared for, thanks to the very involved PTA. There was a very nice playground, with a very nice play structure, built with money from the very involved PTA’s annual auction.

Everything about Caitlin Kurzweil’s school was very nice indeed, and Caitlin enjoyed playing with her friends after school.

Caitlin Kurzweil was very good at soccer. Her daddy coached her team when she was five, and as she grew older, her coaches always told her how very good at soccer she was.

When Caitlin Kurzweil was old enough to go to high school, she was excited to be on the soccer team. But when she went to try-out, she found there were one hundred girls who also wanted to be on the soccer team. Some of them were also very good at soccer. So good, in fact, that Caitlin Kurzweil didn’t make the team.

So Caitlin Kurzweil went home crying to her mummy, who called her daddy on the phone right away. “How can this be!” Caitlin Kurzweil heard her mummy say to her daddy on the phone, “Caitlin’s always been the best player on the team!”

Caitlin Kurzweil’s father called the soccer coach that evening to find out why she didn’t make the team. He was amazed to hear that there were so many girls at the school who where very good at soccer, and he tried as best he could to explain it to his dear daughter.

“But why are there so many kids at my school?” asked Caitlin Kurzweil.

“Because,” answered her daddy, “so many kids have transferred in from other neighborhoods.”

“But why does the school board let them transfer in?” asked Caitlin Kurzweil.

“Because,” answered her daddy, “the school board is solving a Very Important Problem.”

Eventually Caitlin Kurzweil got over her disappointment at not playing soccer, and focused on her classes. But many of her classes had so many students in them that kids had to sit on window ledges or the floor, and there weren’t enough text books to go around. So she asked her parents about this.

“Why are my classes so crowded?” asked Caitlin Kurzweil.

“Because,” answered her daddy, “so many kids have transferred in from other neighborhoods.”

“But why does the school board let them transfer in?” asked Caitlin Kurzweil.

“Because,” answered her daddy, “the school board is solving a Very Important Problem.”

So Caitlin Kurzweil went to her very full school, and attended her very full classes, and took pride in knowing she was helping the school board solve their Very Important Problem.

So it Goes.

by Steve, May 8th, 2007

You’d be hard-pressed to find a eulogy of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. that doesn’t include that phrase, so I thought I’d get it out of the way in the title. Considering the body of work he leaves behind, I think it is appropriate.

Growing up in Iowa City, you pretty much have to be a fan. Vonnegut taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965-1967, and left an indelible imprint both on the Writers’ Workshop and the community. He lived in a big old farm house at the cobble-stoned end of Van Buren Street, just off Brown Street. Later, after he’d left to go teach at Harvard, the house was turned into a rental. I don’t know when it started, but an institution took hold that was beyond anyone’s control.

Each May Day, the grounds of the house became the scene of the biggest party in town. The “Vonnegut House” became legendary, not for the kind of party that once drew the likes of Saul Bellow and Jose Donoso, but for all-night, beer- and psychedelic-fueled, shout at the moon craziness. I was surprised by how well organized the thing was, despite having a life of its own. Bands played, including mine in 1988 and 1989. There was a beer trailer. A giant bonfire. Somehow, the huge old barn that served as stage never caught fire.

The cops would just block off the cul de sac and let the party run its course. Some time in the ’80s, the house was sold, and the tradition ended. The new owners wanted nothing to do with the tradition.

A tradition which, of course, had nothing to do with Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I came to love Vonnegut when I was working as a waiter at a steak house in Coralville, housed in an old power plant along the Iowa River. Between shifts, I devoured his novels in chronological order. Even though many of them were written before I was born, they seemed to fit the zeitgeist in Iowa City at the time. They probably still do (I wouldn’t know; I moved away in 1989).

I only knew the man through his work and his imprint on my home town. I have enjoyed reading all the eulogies on the Web. Salon has a nice compilation of remembrances from some who encountered him in real life, capturing a hint of who he was as a human. The L.A. Times published an excellent obituary. (There are many more out there; too many to list here.)

When Vonnegut came back to Iowa City in 1989 to speak, he would only speak to students at the Workshop. This annoyed the hipsters in town to no end. The light his legacy cast across Iowa City was ultimately larger than he could have known. His influence on my writing and world view is immense, and the world is a poorer place with his passing.

So it goes.

13 Trips to Mexico

by Steve, December 20th, 2006

And now for something completely different: A short story for Thursday Thirteen.

Thirteen Trips to Mexico

The first time Mark went to Mexico was as a tourist, Lonely Planet style. He carried a wilderness backpack full of enough gear and food to survive 2 weeks. He saw Guadalajara, Mexico City, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Merida, the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan. He encountered 72 Iowans at a remote Caribbean beach. He wore his beard and hair long, and wore Ray-Ban sunglasses. Children pointed at him and cried “Dios! Dios!”

The second time was on a lark, with a spur of the moment flight to San Diego and then trolley, foot and bus to Ensenada for a few days of oddity, including an inadvertant stay in a brothel.

The third time was to see Rory, an ex-patriate friend in Puebla, who lived in a squat concrete home clinging to an unstable cliff above a small river below. Though it seemed like the trucks on the road that curved above would surely lose their traction crash into Mark’s bed, none did. But the place did flood that night in a down-pour and soak his passport and return ticket.

The fourth trip was again to Puebla, and also to Acapulco on ilicit business, and finally Mexico City to tour the treasures of murals and ruins and history. It was in Acapulco, of all places, that the strange things began to happen. The light in the sky at first appeared as a bright shooting star, then abruptly changed direction, flew south at a steady rate and stopped dead. It hung in the sky for at least an hour while Mark bullshited with his companions on the roof of a half-finished house, then it moved steadily across the sky to the northeast, where it stopped again. Felipe, Rory’s brother-in-law, got nervous. “I think they’re watching us,” he said, half joking, half serious. They all laughed, then made their way down the shaky ladder into the darkness of the unfinished house.

All that was nearly forgotten by Mark’s fifth trip south, when he met Rory in Mexico City. Rory had phoned Mark urgently the day before, insisting he catch the next flight out of Portland to Mexico City. They met at the Hotel Monte Carlo, where D.H. Lawrence is said to have lived. Rory continued to be circumspect about the nature of his urgency until they passed a magazine vendor at Alameda Park and he bought a tabloid with a headline screaming “UFOs Over Tepoztlán”. “We’re going here,” said Rory. They boarded a bus, and fewer than 24 hours after leaving Portland, Mark found himself lying on his back in the courtyard of a centuries-old church, watching points of light bob and weave over-head. When he left Mexico City two days later, it was an unusually clear day, affording stunning views of the towering volcanoes Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl. Between them lay the Paso de Cortés, the high passage from which Hernan Cortes first beheld the glorious Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, then among the largest cities in the world. From the air, it was clear to see how the causeways of the Aztecs are still main thoroughfares of Mexico City, dividing the old city into four quadrants.

Again, the memory of the lights in the sky, though they were surely unexplainable, faded into the routine of life back in Portland. Then five years later, a sixth trip became necessary. Rory sent urgent e-mail, explaining that his mother-in-law had died unexpectedly, and he needed help moving her belongings out of her house before the squatter in the upstairs apartment pilfered them. This seemed completely implausible, but, it being December in Portland, a trip to Mexico sounded pretty good. Rory insisted on meeting him at the airport this time, and they took a cab to a bus station, and then a bus to Acapulco. Mark was confused, knowing Rory’s mother-in-law lived in Puebla. “Felipe has something you have to see,” was all he would say, as the first class bus hushed into the chill of the mountain evening.

Felipe was agitated when they showed up at his apartment on the southern outskirts of Acapulco. His wife and daughters suddenly left when the two gringo travelers showed up. Felipe was sweating in the night, though it wasn’t hot by Acapulco standards, and he produced a small plastic box. In it was a small white rock, that seemed to pulse with a gentle glow. “What is it?” Mark asked, looking at Felipe and Rory. “We don’t know,” said Rory, “but it showed up right after we saw that light in the sky.” Felipe hadn’t thought anything of it, though the judicial police had showed up the next day asking questions of Felipe’s mistress. Did she see anything? Was there anybody in her house that she didn’t know last night? Being accustomed to lying about her relationship to Felipe, she had simply told them no, and they went away. Felipe then found the rock on the roof a few days later. Now, seven years later, the rock had begun glowing and humming, and Felipe was convinced the feds were going to come back for it. He was further convinced that he couldn’t let them, but he couldn’t express why. Mark was still trying to figure out what this had to do with him, when Felipe pressed the rock into his hand. It felt warm, and it sent a tingle down his spine when he closed his hand around it. “You have to take it out of Mexico. They won’t look for it in the north,” said Felipe. A calm descended on Mark. For a moment everything dropped away, and he stood alone in empty space. In that moment, he saw his own birth, his own death, and his ascendancy into an all-encompassing light, and he knew he was taking that small stone back to Portland. “He’s going,” said Rory to Felipe. “Put it in your pants,” said Felipe. “There are sometimes checkpoints between here and Mexico City.” “He means your shorts,” said Rory, “Put it in your skivvies.”

The seventh time Mark went to Mexico was in his dream as he jetted from Mexico City to Portland, a small, glowing stone tucked awkwardly next to his genitals. In his dream, he was visited in his bedroom by two small gray creatures, who took him aboard their space ship. On board the ship, they flew instantaneously to Mexico City, but it was quickly clear that they had not only skipped across a great deal of space, they had also skipped across time. For from their vantage point above the Paso de Cortés, the little gray travelers gestured for Mark to see the great city of Tenochtitlan, built on an island in lake Texcoco. As they gestured, it was as if they were summoning the vision forward, and Mark could suddenly clearly see a great churning of humanitiy at the main temple, people running, Spanish soldiers swinging swords, and suddenly the sound came to his ears: the shrieks of terror and then, finally, the smell of blood, rich and pungent in his nostrils as the stewardess abruptly woke him to tell him he had to put his seat back into the full upright position.

The eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh trips were also like this, in dreams, in the four nights after Mark returned to Portland. On each subsequent night, he was shown historical events of central Mexico. On the fourth night, the gray men in their space ship took him to Acapulco, and showed him three men standing on a roof top. “What was that?” asked one of them. “I thought it was a shooting star, until it changed direction like that.” “Look it’s still there. It’s got to be a machine. It is flying under control, not falling.” Mark watched himself and Felipe and Rory on the roof from seven years ago, and listened to them puzzling over the light. When the perspective shifted again, and the three of them laughed nervously and left the rooftop, Mark found himself descending bodily, the small white stone glowing in his outstretched hand. He placed the rock where his own past self had just stood, then woke up suddenly, his heart racing. On the fifth night, he couldn’t sleep, but it didn’t matter. The phone rang. It was Rory. “They’ve arrested Felipe,” said Rory. “I think they’re looking for me. Is the…” Rory paused. “Yes,” said Mark. He took the stone off his night stand. “Yes, everything’s fine.” The phone line went dead, and the neighbor’s dog started barking. Another dog across the street was barking, too. Mark went to the window and peaked around the curtain. A car was idling in front of the neighbor’s house with its lights off. A police car was down at the end of the block on the cross street, and another one at the other end of the street. Suddenly, there was total darkness. The power went out all up and down the street, including the streetlights. Mark stood at the window, trying to figure out whether to make a run for it, or to just hide the rock and act dumb. Before he could decide, he was blinded by an intense beam of light from the sky. A voice came to him: “Freeze! Don’t move! We have the house surrounded!”

The twelfth trip to Mexico was in the custody of two US Marshals. They bypassed security at Portland International Airport and flew first class to Mexico City via Houston. They encouraged him to drink on the flights, and bought him drinks at the Houston airport, where two Mexican agents dressed in black suits joined them. “We need to speak with you about your recent travels,” said one of the Mexican agents, by way of introduction. “We think you might have some information we need about Felipe Cordoza and Rory Peterson.” Mark thought about the trip, several years previous, when he accompanied Rory on a trek from Puebla to Acapulco to buy a half kilo of pot from Felipe. This was the same trip when they’d seen the light in the sky, and Rory had made the return trip to Puebla with a large parcel of marijuana in his shorts, just as Mark would do with the small stone on the later trip.

The thirteenth trip was in Mark’s dream as he slept, handcuffed to a bench at a judicial police office in Mexico City. In his dream, he returned to Mexico in 2012 as Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, first as a light in the Eastern sky, then descending into view of all humanity in multi-colored glory. “I return,” he said, “to take away time. Behold the All, the Everlasting, the One.” He held forth the stone, which began to glow more brightly and grow and grow, until it completely obscured him in the view of all humanity. It was like a sun in the night sky, but it did not hurt to look at. All of the people of Earth gazed upon the light and fell down before it and they all cried out as one: “Behold, the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning. The circle is complete and we are as One.” Mark woke up in his own bed in Portland and squinted at the clock. 8:30. Fuck. He was going to be late for work again.