Socks

The man walked inside my exhibit tent, wearing an old T-shirt, tattered cargo shorts, running shoes, and a pair of mismatched socks.  He was about 30 years old, average build, and quiet.  I said, “Good morning” to him and a few others who began congregating in the booth.  Everyone responded appropriately, except for the man who now stood close to one of my paintings, craning his neck and squinting his eyes as if undergoing an inspection.  I couldn’t help but notice his mismatched socks that had peculiar designs.  From where I stood it was hard to make them out, so I sat down in my chair and discreetly leaned forward to get a better look.  We were now two men simultaneously inspecting each other’s property—one possibly intrigued by the sweet fruits of creativity or just killing time, the other by socks.

Bicycles. Each sock had a different bicycle design repeated on them.  The athlete in me looked at his calves. They were developed, like they had endured plenty of pedaling. Having a past of eating up the miles racing road bikes, I asked him, “Excuse me, but road or trail?”

He looked down at his socks, “Road,” he said. “All road.”

“Do you race?” I asked.

“Hardly. I ride to work,” he said, then returned to his quiet self that I took as being rather uninviting.

Behind him was a small table displaying my children’s books.  A middle-aged woman stood nearby. “Would you sign one to my mother? She collects books like these.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to.” I personalized her book, and took care of a couple of print sales as well.

After everyone had left, the man turned his attention to the books, then walked over and began flipping through the pages of Unexpected Tails.  “Your work is really clever,” he said.  “It’s very New Yorker…cerebral. These situations in which you depict wildlife—unusual, yet conveyed so well. And the humor…I just love the humor.”

His demeanor seemed average, like the type of person at a party whom I might avoid because I knew there wasn’t going to be much to talk about.  But this man suddenly lit a spark. His word selection and literary reference just didn’t seem to match who I thought I was talking to. Yet who was I talking to? Who had I made him to be? Not that educated was perhaps my first judgement. But there was so much more to come. This man was not only about to shut down my shallow, all-knowing conclusions, but lead me down a path unfolding some telltale signs of his life that were…well…may I say, indicatively beautiful.

I was curious about his biking as well as intellect. Funny how quickly the tables turn. One moment you’ve passed him as an average Joe, and the next you don’t want Joe to leave.

“So, you bike to work,” I said. “Is that difficult in San Antonio? I mean so many cars.”

“Not at all. I take a scenic route. No better way to travel.”

“And good exercise,” I said.

“Oh, so much more than that.  I’m not encased in a car.  I’m outside and listening to all the birds.  Nothing like the sound of birds in the morning.”

I would have been completely content had this been the only person I’d encountered at the show. I could never have made a single sale, and I would’ve gone home a far wealthier man than when I began that day. Not a dime in my pocket to show for a single sale, yet my pocket would be stuffed.  This man was an observer who saw the pieces of the whole.  And it was the want of his curiosity that not only fulfilled him, but had drawn me in as his audience of one.

So we talked about birds.  He said he found it interesting how such a foreign language intrigues us.  “We have general ideas about their communication, but we don’t know if they speak with inflection.”  Now he had my mind going… Is there something going on between the chirps, like nuances of expression? Is there dialogue? Are there two birds out there arguing over who did a half-ass job constructing the nest?  Riding his bike into a cool breeze on his way to work was one thing.  Add an endless series of musical trees along his way, and it was all he could ask for.

“So, where do you ride to?” I asked. “Where do you work?”

“The zoo.”

“And what do you do there?”

Without hesitation, he smiled and said, “I clean up after the animals.  I clean up their poop.”

“That’s your job? Like that’s what you do?”

“Pretty much.”

I wasn’t getting the full story. And I wasn’t about to let his intellectual insight and mismatched socks just walk away from me to remember him as that guy who swept up poop.  I knew I was two questions away from tapping into what really made him tick.  It’s not easy getting personal with someone you’ve only known for ten minutes, but…what the hell…

“Okay,” I said. “I have to admit, you have me very intrigued.  You’re smart, you’re educated, and you see the world in a way that most people don’t.  You’re not just an observer, but rather someone who dives into what he’s seeing.  You get into it. But this zoo job of yours…I mean that’s what you do…I get that…but why?  I mean what about ambition?”

For the first time, there was a pause in his answer.  He lightly bounced his head as if conceding, Okay, you win.

“The job—it’s all about my mother,” he said. “She’s ill, and can’t really take care of herself.  So I looked for a job that was easy, outside, and close by with flexible hours.  No, it’s not a dream job, but it works. I’m able to give her a lot of attention.”

As if that wasn’t enough for me to praise the guy, he then went on to address my second question…

“Ambition?  I’m pretty familiar with it. I have a double-degree from Boston University in psychology and biology.  I plan to move up as a specialist animal caretaker.  This current job is just a stepping stone.  It generates just enough money to keep me afloat for tending to mom.”

He looked at one of my framed originals titled, Fear Of Heights, which depicts a lioness sheepishly looking upwards as she walks through the legs of a large group of giraffes.

“You know,” he said, “There’s so much behavior in animals.  And so I share a lot of my knowledge with the people visiting the zoo.  I see the caretakers in their uniforms, but I don’t see them engaging with the public and educating them, like going out of their way to talk to the folks.  You can only imagine what I must look like, walking up to them with a poop collector in one hand, a broom in the other, and then telling them about ostrich mating habits.  Understandably, they’re not quite sure what to make of me, but I think that all quickly fades as they can tell I know my shit.”

We both laughed as he concluded, “Well, you know.”

Soon after that, our conversation ended.  He purchased a few note cards, then we shook hands as I wished him well.  I told him I’d try to make a trip to the zoo so that he could give me his inside animal information tour.

And who knows, if I leave early enough, I just might find him on his bike commuting to work.  He certainly will be easy to spot—the man smiling as he pedals, and listening to the music in the trees.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Man In The Chair: Discovered

In my last story, The Man In The Chair, I described my observations of a man who appeared to be troubled by something, but it was something I couldn’t figure out.  In the end, it was a man I never talked to.  So I walked away, taking my assumptions with me.

It is now one week later, and, I must say, it’s a beautiful thing when opportunity knocks twice…

I talked to the man in the chair.

I had gone to the library, again, to write a story.  Much of my writing is done on my phone which makes it easy to write at any time or place.  I settled into the same chair in which I had sat across from the man the week before.  For ten minutes I paid no attention to my surroundings, but was simply immersed in writing.  That is, until I looked up.

There he sat, across from me—the man from my story. And there I sat, surprised, staring at him and wondering what to do as he read a newspaper.  I was reluctant to introduce myself. I knew nothing about this man. What if I tell him I wrote a story and he takes offense? What if he makes a scene?  What if he tells me to mind my own business? I was not going to let this be a missed opportunity.

 My focus had quickly slipped from my writing as I continued to take glances at the man. It was inevitable that I would say something. A few minutes passed before he got up to go to the magazine racks where he selected Guitar, then returned to his seat.  Hmmm…interesting…a musician. I mean who else looks at pages of musical notes? Good chance he plays the guitar, which means he enjoys the arts, which means there’s a greater chance he’ll like my story. I waited for him to close the magazine before I spoke.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” he replied.

“I’m a writer. I have a book coming out this year.” I paused. There were so many different angles from which to start the conversation.  “I really don’t know where to begin.” I paused a second time, then extended my hand.  “I’m Ros.”

“I’m John,” he said, leaning forward to accept the handshake.

“I write about people. You sat there this past weekend staring at the ceiling. You caught my attention. I couldn’t help but wonder what you were thinking. You seemed lost in thought. So I wrote this story.”

I showed him my phone which was opened up to my writing blog site displaying the title, The Man In The Chair. 

“That’s you. I wrote about you.”

Taken by surprise, he said, “You wrote about me?”

“Yes. It looked like you were dealing with something. Like a problem or a loss. I hope I’m not getting too personal, but something was obviously weighing on you.”

Where a week ago I had walked away, never to know what was burdening him, I now had put him in a position to divulge his anguish.

John looked at me for just a moment, then chuckled. He pointed up through a large window next to where we sat. “See that wasp nest up there, under the eave? I was studying that. Watching them build.”

Forget that I was in a library—a public sanctuary for silence. I just flat out laughed. “THAT!?” I said. “THAT was your problem? All the struggle I knew you were dealing with—something that was certainly wrenching deep inside you…and your ‘problem’ was that wasp nest!? This is just too funny.”

How was it possible I was that far off the mark? I was certain he had made a poor decision, said something he later regretted, or had possibly suffered some kind of a loss.  But, no. Far from it…

A wasp nest!

“Well, here it is if you’re interested,” I said, offering my phone to him so that he could read the story. “But please understand, it’s an observational story based on my assumptions.”

“No problem,” he said, putting on a pair of reading glasses. “I’d like to read it.”

For five minutes I watched John read—his expression changing from smiling to one of attentiveness.  I couldn’t help but wonder where his mind might be traveling. Here I was, a complete stranger, handing him a phone that contained a short story written specifically about him. He had every right to be weary of me—skeptical that I might have ulterior motives.

But when he finished reading and handed back my phone, it was clear he had cast aside whatever doubts he might have possessed regarding motives or just me in general.

As it turns out, there was something going on well beyond the wasp nest. John looked out the window toward the passing cars beyond the library’s property.  He began to reminisce and speak openly of his past and current state.

“Your story.” He paused, as if collecting himself. Continuing to look out the window, he pointed blindly back at my phone. “Your story…it hit me.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He spoke softly with a peaceful demeanor.  “You wrote that you wanted to tell me that things will get better, that happier days are ahead. You know, you could never have told me that one day I’d be homeless. That each night at the age of 65 I’d have to look for a patch of dirt or grass, or a slab of concrete to sleep on for the night.  It’s crazy. I mean I’ve had some incredible memories in my life.”

I had to interject, and said, “Such as being a guitarist?”

“Actually, no.” He said. “I was a drummer. Used to play with a group called ‘Ronnie and the Sonics’. We opened for Willie Nelson at his 4th of July picnic concert in Applebee, Texas. Those were great times. Hell, a couple of our songs made the top charts list in Sweden of all places. It was pretty cool.”

John paused, lightly shaking his head, then continued.

“You know, my mom always said that no matter what, things never stay the same. Everything changes. It doesn’t mean they’ll change for the better. Things can also change for the worse.  So here I am, homeless.  But I know one thing…you gotta believe in yourself to improve. Things don’t just come to you.”

The dynamics of John’s story unfolds as I learn he used to be a welder. But he says if he could do it all over again he’d have been a chef, as he loves to cook. He has a son that lives in San Marcos and a daughter that lives in Austin. Due to the complexities of their situations, neither is in a position to help him out. His homeless condition has been going on for four months now. It was a sudden and unexpected reality when his landlord nearly tripled the rent on his mobile home.  His only source of income is $900 from Social Security that is deposited into his bank account each month. All of his possessions are in a storage unit. I told him I’d keep my feelers out for any bargain rental spaces in town. But San Marcos being the fastest growing city in America, the likelihood of a “bargain” is slim.

At the end of our conversation, John said he wanted to go to Fredericksburg. “I hear there’s a huge bat colony that flies out from an old gypsum mine each night in the summer. I’d love to see that. There’s a $23 bus tour from here I can take. I’m gonna do it.”

The man in the chair, like all of us, has a story. And he also has a name. I think there’s a lot that John’s going to do. I think he has enough ambition to find a way to a simple, but comfortable place to live. It may be a little bumpy getting there, but eventually he’ll find his way.  And it doesn’t need to be much…just enough to be called Home.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Man In The Chair

He sat slumped in a cushioned chair in the library. One arm extended on the arm rest with the hand relaxed over the edge. The other hand, holding a tissue, was on his lap.  Neck arched back—his head rested on top of the back cushion. His watery eyes, which stared directly at the ceiling, were looking beyond the ceiling.  His physical being was in the library, but he was far removed.

I had come to work on a humorous story—to find a quiet, secluded spot to let my imagination run free.  Funny how within the confines of your head, just how far a thought can travel.  Most of the time you have complete control of its whereabouts, while other times a thought can wander off, but then reappear more inspiring than when it had left.  I guess what intrigues me most about imagination is the never knowing of how a thought ever arrived, and what creative path it will eventually take.  But on this particular day, my imagination hit a road block.  Humorous creativity wasn’t flowing.  Instead, I had found something else—a curiosity about the man in the chair.

At times he took deep breaths, followed by slow exhalations as he simultaneously closed his eyes.  These were the moments he would lightly rock his head side to side.  But for the majority of the time that I watched him, his eyes were open, fixated on something—something that only he could see.  Perhaps something that he wished wasn’t there—a regret, a mistake, or possibly a loss.

I wanted to lean towards him and say, “Whatever it is, it’ll get better.” I wanted to assure him that happier days lie ahead. I didn’t know this man, but I wanted to guide him in a better direction.

I also didn’t want to say a word.  I didn’t want to engage.  I didn’t want to make any eye contact.  I wanted him to save himself.  Don’t initiate. You know nothing about this man.  He carries baggage you have no knowledge of.  Write your humorous story, and stay distant.

But the tears—the moist tissue in his hand—I could not ignore them.  He was struggling.  Back and forth, I weighed the pros and cons of whether or not to talk with him.  There’s a story here. There’s emotion. And there’s a man in need.

I’ve always said that anyone’s deepest struggle is just one conversation away from being rescued.  All I needed to do was reach out and give him a listening ear or some helpful words of advice.  And if my advice might fall short of its intention, then at least I’d have given him some conversation, which, on its own, would be therapeutic.

For nearly an hour my mind traveled, running the gamut of just what possibly could be wrong.  Oddly, it was almost as if I was getting to know him—that I was beginning to understand whatever it was I didn’t know.  Look at someone long enough, and sometimes you begin to wonder if, in fact, you’ve met that person before.

My time was up.  I had to leave the library. I collected my belongings and made my way for the door.  I had come to write a humorous story, but had written nothing.  Instead, I walked away, only to be inspired by a thought a week later…

I wrote a story about a man I never talked to.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

A Nugget Of Wisdom

I was exhibiting my art at the Pecan Street Art Festival in Austin, Texas, when a boy about seven years old and his parents walked up to my booth. I always do a signing for my children’s books which I set on a table at the entrance.  The boy was enthralled with the books—his eyes grew larger each time he turned a page.  “Mom! Dad! Come see these!”

What could be more beautiful than the excited voice of a child calling his parents to join him in a moment of discovery? What could possibly deter the parents from giving him their attention? Perhaps a round of bickering between the mother and father…

“We should go,” he said. “It’s too hot anyway.”

“But we just got here.” she replied.

“I don’t like the heat.”

“It’s not too hot.”

“There’re too many people anyway.”

She looked him straight in the eyes. “This is ridiculous. Why’d we even come?”

He shot a stare directly back at her and said, “That’s what I’m sayin’.”

As they stood a few feet behind their son, the father ordered, “Put down the book.  We need to keep moving.”

Continuing to flip through the pages, the child was captivated by the book. “Look at this whale!”

The dad elevated his voice. “Let’s go!”

Shaking her head, the mother said, “Just great. So glad we came today.”

The father grabbed his son’s arm, and led him away.  That was the last time I would ever see them.

Just a parental dispute? Not quite.  There was more to it that caught my eye.

It was the father.  I could not stop looking at him.  And in doing so, I could not stop thinking about the boy.  What were his chances of growing up without being bombarded by negative influences?  In fact, I had wondered about that before the three had arrived at my booth.  In the distance I had spotted the father wearing a tank top.  On the front of it, and in large bold letters, it read:

SHUT

THE

F**K

UP!

I get it. Blatant.  In-your-face shock value.  A rebellious streak has been riding on your shoulders for quite some time, years in fact.  Say what you want and express it as you wish.  But, dude, you’re about 35 years of age, and you have a young, impressionable boy. I don’t care if you’re walking the streets at a crowded art fair or grilling burgers in the backyard…trash the shirt before it trashes your kid…if it’s not too late.  Lord knows what your language is like at home—walls thickly painted with profanity.

Seven years old.

The father was under my skin, quickly becoming rancid and septic.  And there they stood at my booth: the child lost in the imagery of my books, while the parents argued behind him with classy dad sporting the bold statement of the day.

I could not let this moment pass by without capturing it.  While I would certainly relay to my friends what I had seen, it would take more than words to convey the full impact. So I took out my phone and discretely took a photo of the three. The father’s shirt was clear as day.

*                 *               *

The art festival was on the weekend.  By noon the following Monday, I had shown the picture to nearly twenty people. “Want to see a photo of a kid who doesn’t have a chance? Oh, and that’s his dad behind him…”

Everyone’s reaction was no different than mine: appalled and sad.  For three days I continued to share the image and voice my opinion about the father.  I lost sleep over the photo. I could not erase the four bold words printed on his shirt.  I could not unsee it.

Then along came a conversation with a friend named Dianne…

“Ros, you know that photo you showed me earlier? It bothers you, doesn’t it?”

I don’t often admit to things that bother me, as I usually do a pretty good job of ignoring them.  “Well,” I said. “I wouldn’t say I’m bothered so much as I’m just intrigued by the scene I captured.”

“I understand that, “she said.  “But you’re showing it to everyone because it bothers you. Right?”

I hadn’t shown it to Dianne with the hopes that she’d turn therapist on me. But it sure felt that way.  “Okay, yes, it bothers me.” What was next? Hypnosis? Delve into my childhood? Interpret my dreams?

“I’m going to give you some advice,” she said. “Some Jim Pape wisdom.”

Jim Pape was her late husband. He had passed away five years prior. A defense lawyer, Jim was well known for not only delivering great story jokes, but had a gift for putting things in perspective that often contained a valuable nugget of enduring wisdom.

“Obviously,” she continued. “The child in that photo doesn’t have much of a role model as a father.  No doubt, the father’s shirt is disgraceful.  But think about this:

There is nothing you can do about the father.  You’ll never be able to change him.”

“And that’s the great wisdom you’re passing on to me?”

Dianne let out a slight chuckle. “No, Ros. The wisdom is this: Chances are you’ll never see him again. But as long as you keep showing that photo, and as long as you keep talking about it, well, that father will continue to live rent-free in your head.”

“But, it’s such a great photo. It captures everything.”

“I get it, Ros. I get the dynamics of the photo. But my suggestion is to delete it. Let it go.”

I couldn’t argue with her. Living rent-free in my head was exactly what was going on. It was as if I’d granted the dad total access to every virtual square inch of my brain. He had become a fixation that I could not turn away from: in the grocery store, at a gas station, on a group run, or throughout my work day. It got to the point that if I wasn’t showing the photo, then I was at least describing it.

Living rent-free, and the worst tenant possible. Dianne was right: there was nothing I could do to change a person who I’d never see again. I must admit though, he sure made for great conversation. Not one person sided with the dad. Nobody shared his choice for freedom of expression. It was unanimous: he was a jerk.

Still, how long did I want to continue parading the photo around town? How long would I lug this fixation around with me? By the end of the week, I made a decision to evict the tenant.

Heeding the wisdom of Jim Pape, I selected the photo from my phone one last time.  I gazed into the innocent child’s face mesmerized by my books. Such a pure and beautiful moment for him. I can only hope my books would be everlasting memories.

And right there, before I pressed DELETE, I wished the child farewell.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Zipper

Some people are indifferent about bugs. They don’t love them. They don’t hate them. Bugs are bugs. Oh, look…it’s a cricket on my shoulder! What an amazing little creature!

Not me.

A cricket lands on my shoulder, and I don’t even give it a chance to be identified. As I slap whatever it is far into the yard, I shudder and squirm while making a pitiful, crybaby-like face as if I just witnessed someone slowly chewing a mouthful of live worms.

I go through the same physical gyrations whenever I see a spider larger than a dime.  Especially if it’s within six inches of my face and closing fast, such as the time I was cursed with rotten luck while riding my lawn mower. I had been cutting the grass for about an hour—eyes down, focused on the pathway—when, by chance, I happened to look up, and spotted a zipper spider, known for the zipper-like design spun in the center of their webs. They are black and yellow, and make Death look more approachable. Websites will tell you zipper spiders can get up to 1.5 inches long. This is a lie. Their bodies alone are the size and volatility of a hand grenade, and legs like knitting needles.  Other unreliable sources will tell you the spiders are basically harmless, that they only deliver a bee-like sting. Another lie. Zipper spiders can devour goats, flocks of birds, and human heads in an hour. It is my personal belief that they can also hurl large stones over fifty feet.  It’s not a matter of whether or not you can escape their super glue-like webs, but rather how fast you can run.

I was all white knuckles on the mower as panic coursed through my brain. I took my foot off the accelerator, then began madly stomping the metal floor board where a small brake pedal was located…somewhere.  How many thousands of times had I stepped on that brake pedal without looking? And now, as I coasted closer to the spider, my size 13 shoe was failing me.

Six inches from nose-planting into arachnida vampirea, my foot finally found the brake pedal. I hit it hard, but that might not have been the best decision as the sudden change in direction lurched me forward…

*           *           *

Maybe this isn’t a story about my fear of spiders. Maybe it was never intended to be all about me. Maybe it’s about understanding and acceptance. Maybe that’s a stretch?

I don’t think so.

One more inch, and I would’ve touched the web. It would’ve been my end. The zipper spider would’ve consumed my head within the hour. But there was no chance as the miracle of the mower’s reverse pedal backed me safely away.

Twenty feet out, I stopped and shut off the engine. My heart pounding, I needed to cut the grass beneath the web and beyond. I had only one option…destroy the spider.

I went into the house and snatched a broom from the pantry. It’s always been my go-to weapon of destruction when dealing with domestic critters. I’ve shot many scorpions across the kitchen floor like they were hockey pucks. And spiders…oh, I’ve cleared countless pathways blocked by their annoying webs.

The spider hadn’t budged. It was positioned directly over its zipper webbing. Even standing six feet away, I felt extremely vulnerable. Ok, I might have exaggerated a little. So it didn’t eat goats or flocks of birds. So it really was about 1.5 inches in length. So what. It still had the ability to mess with my mind.

I turned with my left side facing the spider, then took a batter’s stance, holding the broom like a bat. Eye on the target. One mighty swing and I’d smash it out of the yard.  But then came the memory of my Little League baseball coach from decades ago. He was always reminding me of the basic fundamental tenets of the game. “Don’t just swing at any pitch,” he’d say. “Make sure it’s the right pitch.” How many times had I swung at pitches too high or too low and, in the process, struck out? How many times had I walked back to the dugout feeling dejected because I knew I had made a poor decision? Too many.

The zipper spider’s web—what an incredible architectural construction of innate ability. Despite how much I detest spiders, I could not deny its impressive geometrical design. The spider’s survival was dependent upon the strength and placement of its web, which had been spun between a vegetable garden’s fence post and a bush. Outside of violent weather and brush fires, the web’s integrity was vulnerable to one major threat: man.

Knees bent and feet slightly more than shoulder width apart, I settled into an athletic position. To generate the most power, I shifted my weight to the back leg. Like golf, the most effective swing comes from a relaxed grip, but the mere presence of the spider forced my hands to choke the broom.

Make sure it’s the right pitch. 

What could possibly be wrong with this pitch? I hated spiders, and this particular one was right in the strike zone. But in the moment of giving myself the green light to swing, I was interrupted by a moth that had carelessly flown into the web, and with no hope of escaping. There it would perish, destined to be a meal for one.

Sure enough, I watched the spider quickly react to the vibrations of its web, before spreading its legs over the moth and silencing it.

I found myself not favoring the spider’s predatory mastery, nor seeking to interfere and save the moth (how I would have accomplished that, I have no idea). I relaxed my grip on the broom and brought it down to my side.  Watching and accepting the scene as a whole, I let the spider be. Even though my annihilation of the spider could have been defined as “natural” since I am part of nature, I chose to isolate myself from such destruction, and admire the mechanical engineering required to stabilize the web. I was embarking on an understanding of just how mathematical spiders are. Their innate knowledge of trigonometry in relation to angular tensions is unmatched within the animal kingdom.  As much as I hated this spider, I decided not to swat it to smithereens, but basically gave it freedom to move about my yard. For a moment—well, several moments—I wondered if I had simply lost my mind.

*        *        *

Some people are indifferent about bugs. They don’t love them. They don’t hate them. Bugs are bugs. Oh, look…it’s a cricket on my shoulder!  What an amazing little creature!

 Yep, that’s me.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Expect The Unexpected

Whenever we ran by Jupiter, we had no choice but to pick up our pace.  After all, Jupiter’s gravity was never to be taken lightly.  And when your running partner was Moe Johnson, well…all you really cared about was self-preservation.  In fact, if the forces of Jupiter’s gravity were to somehow sneak up on Moe and annihilate him, then so be it.  Sure, an unfortunate ending for Moe, but at least you got your ten-mile run in.

Let’s rewind the scene if I may…

Fulton Ranch Road, just on the outskirts of San Marcos.  Moe and I had decided to do a long out-and-back run on a road that was entirely caliche. There were no fences, just rugged countryside where longhorn cattle roamed.  Jupiter was the largest steer on the ranch. He was massive with a horn span that could easily skewer Moe from head to toe.  One quick, swift flick of the head, and Jupiter could send Moe sailing into the air like a rag doll.

It reminds me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey when early man discovers tools, and with tools he discovers power.  The scene transitions into the future of the space odyssey as early man, in his discovery of using a bone as a weapon, throws the bone high up into the air.  In slow-motion, we watch the bone flip end-over-end up into space.  That trajectory—that endless flight of bone—is how I perceived Moe would have travelled, had Jupiter had his way with him.  And there I would stand, looking upwards, thinking, Wow, look at you Moe!  Not only are you in the movies, but you’re headed into the future! Farewell, my friend!

Of course, Moe never did make it into the movies nor did he ever travel into the future.  But he did take flight, thanks to all sixteen-hundred pounds of Jupiter who had decided to charge him. The memory of Moe is still quite clear as I watched him evade Jupiter’s attempted manslaughter, and sail over a large cactus. In his moment of airborne grace, he flew with the look of confidence, as if exclaiming to the world, “I GOT THIS!!!”

If you’re curious where I was this entire time…well, I was a few strides ahead of Moe, having foreseen this inevitable moment, and sped off the caliche road to hide like a coward behind a large stone water trough.  I would have fought off Jupiter, but elected not to as I was quite familiar with Moe’s powerlifting records.  Besides, he was older and wiser than I, and it would have been premature of me to suggest any plan of escape other than whatever Moe already had in mind.

And then he hit dirt—hands and knees first, like four twenty-pound kettle bells simultaneously thudding to the earth.  You would have thought from the sound of his fall that Moe was just going to park his body right there and surrender his fate to Jupiter. But giving up was not an option. Moe had grown up on hockey rinks and had basically lived out of weight rooms. If he wasn’t living in a state of pushing his limits, then by his standards, he wasn’t living at all. One hard crash to the earth was nothing more than a paper cut to Moe. Adrenalized, he was up and running towards my cowardly hiding place in no time. “Can you believe Jupiter!?” he shouted, short of breath. “He tried to kill me!”

And there Jupiter stood on the far side of the cactus, staring at us as he swung his head back and forth in disgust. And there we stood, looking at each other, our heads swinging back and forth as well, and wondering, Now what?

*                    *                    *

We plan our runs. We know where we’re going. We know our pace. We know if the route will be hilly or flat, long or short. We know that if our hamstrings are sore, we’d better monitor them a little more closely than usual. We know if our legs feel heavy or fresh. We know a lot going into a run.

But what we don’t know are the unexpected moments that lie ahead. The unforeseen encounters. No different than everyday life, that’s true. But running has a way of heightening our awareness. A way of seeing the world with a bit more clarity. Whether it’s contemplating a thought or seeing something out of the ordinary, when we run our focus becomes sharper. We are, without a doubt, in tune with our surroundings.

I once ran alongside a butterfly that stayed even with me for nearly 200 meters.  In its bouncy, erratic flight, it held my pace three feet apart from me. Everything—I mean everything became secondary. Even the fact that I was running seemed to blur.  I once had a similar experience with a deer that ran parallel with me for over a quarter of a mile before disappearing into the woods.  It was truly as if it knew we were moving together—as if some sort of communication was transpiring.  I could not ignore the magic of that moment.  Unable to write it off as mere coincidence, I soaked up every second we shared between us, and acknowledged the deer as a momentary gift of the uncommon. But an insect?  Was it even possible that the butterfly was acting upon some form of a thought, or a recognition that I wasn’t a threat? Was it possible that amongst all of its natural innate instincts, that something as miraculous as a chemistry between us was at hand?  Or was it just pure luck that I got to run, undisturbed, with a butterfly for an eighth of a mile?  Either way I looked at it, one thing was for certain: running had amplified an experience that gave a whole new meaning to the term, “the butterfly effect.”

*                    *                    *

But not all unexpected moments while running are uplifting. Some stop you in your tracks and wrench the emotions straight out of you. These are the moments when you wished you had taken a different route. When it would have been better to have woken up with a slight fever to keep you in bed for the day. But run you did, and the events leading up to that unexpected moment could never be reversed…

Everything was fine as I ran on the sidewalk along 15th Street in Austin. It was a typical busy Friday afternoon with traffic having arrived in full force. The term “rush hour” seemed a slight understatement.  Perhaps “mad rush hour” was more apropos.  I had just crested a hill when I heard the screech of tires, and a sharp, loud cry of a dog.  No…no, no, no. Don’t look. Don’t get involved in this. Just keep running. This is someone else’s business. There is nothing here for you. But I did look, and that was the moment I immersed myself in the unexpected and unfortunate scene.

The driver who had hit the dog failed to stop, and continued on, leaving behind a line of cars that crept by with curiosity.  I ran out into the street and knelt before the dog. It was a mutt—a male, maybe 15 pounds with brown shaggy hair. His eyes were closed as his head lay in a small puddle of blood. I picked him up, and set him on a patch of grass where I checked for signs of life, but his life was gone. He had a collar with a license tag.  I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know where he lived.  I didn’t know what to do, except let the sadness overcome me and honor his presence with my sudden grief.  He was somebody’s companion.  He had gotten loose, and this was his last day.  A car pulled up next to me and stopped by the curb.  It was a couple in their twenties.  The girl was in the passenger seat, her window rolled down, and her eyes red from crying.

“Oh my god,” she sobbed, “Is that your dog?”

“No,” I said, “I was on a run just now when he got hit.”

“This is so sad. Is there anything we can do?”

“Could you take him to the nearest vet clinic? Maybe they could find out who the owner is.”

“Certainly,” she said, “We can do that.”

Her boyfriend got out of the car and opened up the trunk, where there were some old blankets.  Before we wrapped the dog up and gently set him inside, I petted him several times before telling him goodbye. It was the first and last time I would ever see the dog.

Life is fragile.  It can snap in an instant.  It can be taken from you when you least expect it.  I ran in mourning for three miles back to my apartment. I couldn’t shake the thought of the owners who would eventually receive the phone call.  To this day, over thirty years later, whenever I run in Austin, the memory of that dog always finds me. I didn’t want to get involved with its death.  I wanted to stay clear and move forward.  But once the couple drove away, I remember feeling like I had done the right thing—that instead of ignoring or abandoning him, I had taken care of the dog right after his final parting moment.  It was the least that I could do. After all, he was somebody’s best friend.

*                    *                    *

Unexpected surprises while running can not only awaken you to your surroundings, but can stir a sense of discovery within yourself.

Years ago I once finished a run at Sewell Park on a quiet Sunday morning. I was going to take a post-run dip in the river when I noticed a teenage boy shooting a basketball at the outdoor court. It had been years since I had touched a basketball, let alone shoot one.  Though I played the game for most of my life up to age 20, there came a point where distance running became my fitness addiction.  But on that Sunday morning, something in me said, “Shoot the ball.”

I walked over to the boy and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I shot a few.  He passed me the ball and pointed to the rim.

Running had consumed me.  I was training for the Houston Marathon, logging up to 80 miles a week.  Weight lifting, swimming, biking—any form of cross-training was non-existent.  I was 6’4” and weighed 165 pounds.  Friends said I was too thin, that I looked weak.  I dismissed their comments as ridiculous.

Standing just inside the 3-point line, I spun the ball backwards in the air and let it ricochet off the court, before bouncing back to me.  As I held it loosely, I could tell that the rhythm of the game hadn’t left me.  But as I looked at the basket and prepared to shoot, an unexpected thought occurred:  Damn, that basket looks far away.

The instant the ball left my hands, was the instant I changed my life.  There was no denying what I had just felt—the shocking discovery of the absence of strength.  All my friends were right…my shoulders were bony, my arms were rails, and I was unable to shoot a basketball three-quarters of the way to the rim.  It was more than an awareness of my weakened condition.  It was an outright disaster.

One shot was all it took.  I turned my back to the boy, and walked away.  I must have done 200 push-ups later that day.  From that point on, my entire outlook changed regarding overall fitness. And I must say, I owe it all to that basketball.  Funny how things play out.

 *                    *                   *

Here’s my advice to anyone who runs:

Take it beyond running, and take in your surroundings.  You might surprise yourself as to what you’ll discover. If something piques your interest, stop and look at it.  Oh, don’t worry, your guilty conscience will get over the cardinal sin of stopping during a run. Become familiar with running in unfamiliar places, and, in doing so, expect the unexpected.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

I’ll Be Giving Birth To A Book Soon

If you’ve been wondering why my stories have not been appearing as frequently as usual over the past few months, it’s for a good reason:  I’m working on a book that will be published this year, titled, Taking Out the Trash: Everyday Stories of Life, Loss, and Laughter. It’s a collection of 50-55 of my stories.  My artwork will also be included, as I am creating small illustrations to hint as to what each story is about. (Below, see low-quality photo examples done by clueless author himself. But good enough to get the ideas across…or at least he thinks so.)

Gathering everything that is needed to be sent off to the publisher is nearing completion.  It won’t be long before I’m posting more stories about such critical topics as cereal boxes, dental appointment freebies, and bug people.

Until then, it’s—literally—back to the drawing board.  And, not to forget, it’s Wednesday night…time to take out the trash.

 

Ros

“Super Tiny Little Bags of Peanuts”

“The Bathtub”

“Fixing Monday”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tree

I was getting ready to swim at the city pool, when I noticed a little girl in a stroller. She was parked next to her grandmother who was sitting on a bench. The girl’s sister was in the pool practicing with a swim team. It was a perfectly normal setting, with one exception—what she was doing with her hands. She was tapping, scrolling, swiping, and expanding the screen of an iPad.

Or perhaps this was normal—the new normal. I can remember when cell phones first hit the market, and how astonished we were when learning someone had bought an iPhone for their 8th grader. Seriously!!!?? And now, twelve years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a 6th grader who doesn’t have one.

I was amazed by this little girl in the stroller—her fingers nimbly operating the iPad.

“How old is she?” I said to the grandmother.

“She’s—”

The girl beat her to the answer by quickly punching two fingers into the air. I had to chuckle at this inaudible interjection, as I was fascinated by the immediacy of her emphatic sign language. There was almost something mature about her action.

“You’re two years old?”

She looked up at me with a smile and said, “Yep!” Not just a two-year-old yep, but a confident yep—a confidence that showed in the way she adeptly worked the iPad. And as unbelievable as it may seem, she displayed something that comes with the air of confidence: the telltale signs of impatience when the iPad’s internet connection responded slowly to her touch.

Two years old. How quickly they learn. How quickly they master. And so easily distracted. She should be watching their sisters swim. There was an engagement that was missing. The well-crafted lure of technology had stolen her attention. The spray of water from the swimmers’ flip turns that occasionally hit her bare feet, and the coach’s raised voice giving instructions to the busy swim lanes did not grab her attention in the least. At two years of age, she made me wonder about the future….

*        *        *

“Mommy…what’s wrong with it?” said the five-year-old girl, pointing upwards at a large tree. “It doesn’t do anything.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t do anything?” Replied the mother, kneeling next to her.

“I swiped it. Nothing happened.”

“Oh, that’s because this is a real tree. Out here in the park things are different. This tree not only provides shade, but it’s a place for animals and insects to live.”

“The trees in our backyard don’t have bugs or animals?”

“No,” said the mother, putting her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Our trees are iTrees. They’re different. They’re interactive smart trees. You can learn everything about nature from an iTree’s trunk touch screens.”

“But no bugs or animals?”

“On the trunk screens, yes.”

The girl looked at her mom with a perplexed face. “But no real ones, right?”

The mother paused for just a moment, then said, “Yes, that’s right.”

“But why?”

Turning her daughter so they were face to face, the mother put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, then said, “Because iTrees use the latest technology. Nothing provides as much information. And nothing entertains you like an iTree.”

She went on to tell her daughter about the iTree’s Labyrinth Limb System, a technological breakthrough that bore edible, imitation hybrid fruits. LLS did this through a conversion process whereby 3D imagery became 3D Sculpt—the quantum next step beyond virtual reality. “In fact,” said the mother, “we’ll have our first non-pollinated fruit soon, after ArborTech installs our apple iTree next week.”

As her mom continued, speaking far beyond her daughter’s grasp, the girl’s attention waned when she spotted a blue jay flying overhead, then disappearing inside the tree’s canopy. “Our iTrees don’t have birds,” she said.

“That’s true,” replied her mother. “But they’re working on that. It’s only a matter of time until they figure out the necessary technology to attract them. Let’s be thankful the trunk touch screens can tell us anything and everything about birds.”

The mother stood up and took her daughter’s hand, telling her it was time they headed back home. But there was a slight resistance as the daughter pulled back. “Look, mommy! Look!” A second blue jay flew into the canopy, and moments later the two birds could be seen, appearing to dance in flight as they sprang in and out of the tree.

“They’re playing. Possibly courting,” said the mother.

“Courting?”

“Yes, like they’ve found each other. Like love.”

“Ha!” The girl laughed. “Like love birds!”

The girl slipped from her mother’s grasp, and walked up to the tree, where she reached out and let her small fingers travel along the rugged crevices of the tree’s bark. Her nails skimmed through and collected fragments of small patches of soft, verdant moss protruding from the wood. Traveling up along the trunk, she saw two ants, a beetle, and three ladybugs. “Mom, where are these bugs going?”

Her mom walked up next to her. “I’m not sure. I suppose looking for food. Let’s go home and ask the iTree.”

She grabbed her daughter’s hand, but she resisted again, then slipped free. “Honey, we should really be getting home. It’ll be dark soon. And you know how pretty the iTrees glow at night.”

“Mom, do you think they’ll marry?”

“Will who marry?”

“Them.” Her daughter pointed at the two blue jays continuing their flight dance.

“Silly. You know birds don’t marry.”

“Do the iTrees know it?”

“I seriously doubt there’s any information about birds getting married.”

“So iTrees don’t know everything. They don’t tell you about birds in love either, do they?”

“Well….no, you’re right.” The mother looked up into the tree’s canopy, as a small cluster of leaves fell towards her. She extended her arms, then cupping her hands in hopes to catch one, and caught two. She sandwiched the leaves together and gently massaged them between her thumb and index finger. They were textured and firm; fresh off the vine, so to speak. Above her, the blue jays chirped in their playful chase.

Her daughter took her other hand and placed it on the tree’s trunk. “Mommy, feel how rough the tree is.” The girl pressed her nose against the bark and took a deep whiff. “Smell it, mommy…it smells nice.”

Her mother did just that, closing her eyes as she inhaled—the aroma of a moist forest. When was the last time she had smelled this? When was the last time she had roamed in the woods? Years? Decades? Yet how quickly her memory recalled the tree’s scent. Experience, she thought. It was everything. The iTree was smart, but could not relate to experience. It couldn’t evoke the feeling a child gets watching two birds dancing in love. It couldn’t capture the essence of this moment.

She looked down at her daughter who was watching a ladybug crawl on the tip of her finger, her eyes full of fascination. “Honey,” she said, “my mother once told me about a time when I was a little girl. She said I was about two years old when I was at my sister’s swim practice.”

“Aunt Jessie was a swimmer?”

“Yes she was. And a good one at that.”

“That must’ve been neat watching her swim.”

“Well that’s the point of my story. For so long, I really never watched her much. My mother said I was always playing games on my iPad, which was a big clunky computer-like device they had back then. Anyway, she said one day she took it out of my hands and said ‘No more!’ She said I needed to watch my sister swim, and that I wasn’t the one to blame, but rather it was she who gave me the iPad to keep me occupied. She said it was a big mistake on her part, that I wasn’t noticing what matters.”

With slightly squinted eyes, her daughter tilted her head and asked, “What matters?”

There was a brief pause as she looked at her daughter whose attention was back on the ladybug, watching it now crawl up her arm. Her mother cracked a smile and said, “What matters…is this tree.”

“But mom, you said it’s getting late. Shouldn’t we go now?”

Her mother’s smile widened a bit more. “No,” she said. “I think we’re perfectly fine right here.”

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Living in the Moment

So that you don’t get your hopes up, let it be known that my daughter did not get the puppy.

Now, let’s begin…

Bailey is a sophomore at St. Edwards University, where she’s a shooting guard on the basketball team.  She was recruited for various reasons: ball handling, a high basketball IQ, game swagger, and she can drain 3s from downtown.

It’s a sweet sight watching your daughter’s 3-point shot sail through the air with such accuracy that you can predict the oncoming swish solely based on its trajectory.  But even sweeter is when she plays for Division II St. Edwards and her opponent is Division I Texas State University, and that 3-point shot rains down with victorious redemption.  After all, she didn’t return to Texas State’s home court just to put on another 0-11 shooting performance like she did the year before.  Besides, this was her hometown, and she was determined to not let people walk away with another memory like that one.  After she made the game’s opening basket, she began positioning herself beyond the arc and sank three 3s.  One shot in particular was a quick release that she nailed after a stare-down into the eyes of her defender. The ball appeared to cradle itself in the net—a perfect swish that silenced the home crowd.

After St. Edwards’ opening 10-0 lead, the closest Texas State would come was nine points. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Hilltoppers led the Bobcats by 20.  In the end, it was St. Edwards upsetting Texas State for the first time in school history, 65-51.

The stars were lined up for Bailey. So many parts of the game were markers of success, and would solidify themselves as everlasting memories for her. As a parent, and being someone who had played basketball for a large part of my life, I lived vicariously through the game. I felt just as much a part of the victory as she did.  Of course, her team could have lost to Texas State, and I would still be the proud father as I am at all of her games. Pride isn’t easily removed after you’ve coached your daughter since she was a 5-year-old.

I envisioned her riding on the bus back to Austin—celebrating the defeat of a Division I opponent. Bodies bouncing in their seats to the catchy rhythms of hip-hop. These kind of victories don’t come often. What else could possibly be on her mind? I texted her to say congratulations.

Me: What a game! You played great!

Bailey: Thanks.

Me: Your three ball was on.  That must have felt so good, especially on Texas State’s home court.

Bailey:  It was pretty awesome.

She sent another text directly after that one. It was accompanied with the photo of a puppy.

Bailey: Will you get him for me for Christmas?

Me: The puppy’s for sale?

Bailey: Yeah! My friend’s mom is selling him. Isn’t he cuuuuuute!!!?

Was I missing something here?  Was there a gap in time that I had skipped over? Was Einstein’s theory of general relativity at work? Could this be the first ever “telephonic wormhole” whereby our conversation entered a shortcut in a space-time continuum, and all permanent basketball dialogue had been sucked into oblivion? Thirty minutes ago she had quite possibly experienced the biggest victory of her collegiate career, but now she was asking about a puppy?  I wanted to talk about the two steals she made, the offensive charge she took, and her invaluable shooting contributions. It was time for a phone call. She answered with instant enthusiasm.

“Can we get the puppy? Isn’t he cuuuuuute!!? Pleeease, Dad, can we?”

“Bailey, you’re in college.”

“Isn’t he cuuuuuute!!?”

“Bailey, you’re—”

“He’s adooorrrable!!”

I had to speak quickly or I was neeeeeever going to get a word in.

“You’re a college student. You’d see the puppy only on the weekends. We’d be the ones raising it.”

“The puppy’s a he, not an it,” she said assertively.

“Okay, a he.  You wouldn’t see him much.”

“But he’s adooorrrable!!”

“Yes, he is. I can’t deny that. But, Bay, if you’re going to get a dog, then that dog needs to bond with you. Seeing him only on the weekends isn’t going to cut it. Wait till after college before you get one.”

It was the first quiet of our conversation.  I imagined our local newspaper’s game coverage headline:  ST. EDWARDS UPSETS STATE. BUT PUPPY HAS NO CHANCE. FATHER KILLS MOMENT. “There he is!!!!!!!” the townsfolk would angrily yell, brandishing battle axes and torches to guide them into the night. “The puppy hater!!! Do not let him flee!!! Off with his head!!! He is no father!!! He is but evil’s rot!!!”

“Bay, am I making any sense?”

The excitement had drained from her voice.  She had conceded to my suggestion. “Okay,” she said. “I guess I see your point.”

Before we hung up, a curiosity loomed in my mind.  “I got a question. This game that you just played, this incredible win—are you excited about it?”

“Of course I am, why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Guess I’m just a little surprised about the puppy.”

“What about the puppy?”

“Well, that you’re mentioning him like the game didn’t even happen.”

“Dad, it was a great game, but it’s over. I mean, yeah it was a huge win, but…isn’t he soooo adooorrrable!!?”

Our conversation ended soon after.  I couldn’t help but smile as I now understood the simplicity of her mindset. The game was over. She had given it her full attention. There was no puppy out there on the court, nor part of any discussion on the bench or in the locker room. But on the bus ride home, as they shared the highlights of the game, the normalcy of their lives returned. Snapchat, Twitter, music, homework, life’s dramas, what to eat, and a puppy all surfaced amongst their discussions.

Here I was though, talking to my daughter whom I had coached in basketball leagues and tournaments for so many years. My mind was cemented in a vicarious state.  I wanted to talk at length about nothing more than the memorable details of the upset over Texas State.  This kind of victory doesn’t come often.

And neither did those moments with your daughter, when—little did she know—she inadvertently taught you that there’s really only one thing sweeter than victory…

Living in the moment.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Common Ground

I looked straight into the eye of an elk today. He was grazing on some tall grass just thirty feet down a slope from where I stood.  That big, dark, glassy eye stayed on me like a great conversation.  Never blinking and fully engaged. It’s always been about the eyes. They tell so much, and how quickly they connect.

I had been creeping up on him in the woods for a closer look.  Thick, matted clumps of dark brown fur dangled from his throat.  His mid-section was embedded with what appeared to be abrasions where the fur had been rutted from some sort of encounter.  A predator? The hard strike of another bull’s antlers during a fight? Or he might have been entangled in a cluster of stubborn tree branches. It was hard to say.

As he tugged and chewed on the grass, I slowly positioned myself behind the one pine tree that stood between us.  Perhaps I had come too close.  My curiosity had completely ignored the possibility that this elk might charge me if his instincts deemed necessary.  He lifted his head at my movement, so that two eyes instead of one were now fixated on me. His thick, woolly neck stretched tall and unbending like a soldier at attention. He was on high alert, studying me.  The ten points of his antlers, if I were caught in the open, would slice and gouge me to an inevitable death. The sharp, explosive kicks of his hooves would crack my bones and sever my tendons, disabling any attempt for me to crawl and claw myself back to life.

But we continued to stare at each other—neither of us moving.  I wasn’t sure what to anticipate.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  I only knew that his mass was at least four times that of mine.  What was the purpose of me coming this close?  Why couldn’t curiosity have been satisfied to stay a hundred yards back? His eyes, however—there was something going on.  Perhaps we were each seeing the same thing.

Perhaps that is why he then relaxed.  This soldier stood at ease.  As if some part of his instincts had told him I was as harmless as the pine tree or the breeze that swept through it. As if our eyes had discovered a mutual understanding that this was common ground. Could it be that he did not run, because he trusted me? Could it be that I did not flee either, because I trusted him?  I would like to say yes.  I would like to believe that something wonderful did, in fact, occur.  Perhaps indescribable, but, still, wonderful.  Because of an elk, I was fully alive.

For fifteen minutes I watched him feed on the tall grass, shifting his weight in the pine needles and sandy ground as he ate.  For fifteen minutes I admired his presence with all that I could, because I knew that the moment of our final separation was approaching.  The grass was sparse here.  He would have to move further into the woods to appease his appetite.  For fifteen minutes I watched him, until he disappeared.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2016