Archive for May, 2009

Hey, Norma, almost 14 years have passed

I am living. I remember you. —Marie Howe

Almost 14 years ago, the water pinned you and flooded your lungs and put you to sleep forever. I dreamed about you then, that summer you died and that fall, my grief an anvil, your ghost slogging around inside my head.

Almost 14 years ago, mariachis played, and I slouched—stupid, hungover, and pissed off—as they buried you in the hot El Paso ground. Not you, Norma Irene, I thought over and again. It shouldn’t be you.

Almost 14 years ago, leaves fell and winter came and I moved to New Mexico and your face blurred and I moved back to Texas and the sadness lifted. I had school to finish, bikes to race, Sally to marry, sons to meet, weeds to pull, a life to live.

And your ghost abandoned me.

But last night, for the first time in years, your ghost returned.

I dreamed about you, and when I awoke—the bedroom black and still, Sally asleep, the clock radio showing 3:15—I couldn’t piece together what the dream had been about, only that it’d been you, that you’d visited me.

So lying there awake in the middle of the night, I tried to bring you back.

You stomping and spinning when you danced at the Mesa Inn.

You ditching school with me to picnic among the ocotillo and the prickly pear.

You crashing your bicycle into a tree.

You laughing, calling yourself the easiest laugh on campus, which makes you laugh harder.

You forgiving me when you shouldn’t have, when you should have chugged wine and made out with my best friend and thrown a rock through my window.

Your daisies and your turtles.

Your tiny fingers.

All of you.

But your ghost didn’t stir.

And then I remembered 1990, you standing in my dorm room handing me a short story called “My Life with the Wave.”

You say, “You’ll like it. It’s nifty.” Your eyes dart away then back at me as you crack a slanted smile.

“Did you just say ‘nifty’?” I ask.

You look away and then back again. “Indeed I did. You’ll like it. It’s keen,” you reply, chuckling at your own dorky words.

“I don’t know,” I complain. “This kind of feels like homework.”

“You’re right. This is homework,” you say, raising an eyebrow. “And you can bet your pants I’ll be administering a pop quiz.”

And for a white second last night, you stood there in my bedroom. Nerdy. Awkward. Beautiful. Alive.

And then my mind moved ahead, to timing diagrams I need to finish for work, to my parents dozing in the guest bedroom down the hall, to the frogs belching in the creek outside the open window, to this life I’ve cut for myself.

And your ghost slinked back into the shadows, all the way back to almost 14 years ago.


Motor oil lake

I’m standing waist-deep in the lake. “One minute, males 35 to 39,” says a voice through speakers on the edge of the water. The lake smells like sulfur, the visibility is maybe six inches, and I’m pretty sure I see oil floating on the water’s surface.

“30 seconds,” says the voice.

I woke up at 4:15 AM and paid 65 bucks for this—to swim in this gunk, to run barefoot across asphalt, to ride my bike as hard as a I can. I’m obviously not right in the head.

“8, 7, 6, 5,” counts down the voice from the speakers. I realize I haven’t reset my stop watch. Hell. I fiddle with it for a few seconds and can’t get it working.

“3, 2, 1.”

I look up. The race has begun, and I’m in dead last place. Damn. And I’m still standing in motor oil. Hell.

So begins my first triathlon of the year, dubbed the Rookie, the inaugural race in the Texas Tri Series.


Calling this race the Rookie is really a misnomer. Sure, I see a scattering of mountain bikes on the racks and a few out of shape dudes wearing baggy swimming suits.

But they’re the exception. The majority of the racers are serious about this stuff. Their bodies are skin and muscle and vein, their bikes are alien and aerodynamic and expensive. I suspect there aren’t many first timers out here.

The swim is Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short. My goggles fog up almost immediately, and as I swim, I bump into people and get kicked in the head and actually swim on top of one dude. I lift my eyes out of the water every few strokes to sight, but with 86 guys in my wave and the goggle fog and my right lens filling with water, I mainly see arms, legs, buoys, and lots of flying water.

I also eyeball a goat. I’m swimming next to a grassy island, and I look up, and there’s a goat chewing his cud, indifferent to all the splashing a few feet away. It’s a peaceful, bucolic picture, and it’s out of whack with the fist fight in the water here at motor oil lake.

After less than 10 minutes, I’m out of the water, out of last place, and running across pavement without shoes.

People cheer.

Part of me is smirking, thinking about how ridiculous I must look. But part of me is really into the race. A kid sticks his hand out, and I give him a high five as I jog past. Playing athlete is fun, even if I look silly.

The bike portion zips by. I crank by racer after racer going up the hills. They zoom back past me on the descents.

As I transition from the bike to the run, my calves cramp. The muscles suck in, forming knotty fists that make running tough and painful. But I keep going, slowly and awkwardly, more on my heels than toes. I get passed and passed and passed again.

About a half a mile in, the cramps weaken and then disappear all together. I’m able to pick up the pace, but I’m still not fast, puttering along at somewhere around eight minutes a mile.

And then, just like that, I make a hard left and cross the finish line and the race is over.

Standing around after, I chat with my friend Angela, who competed as well. We talk about the race and the crowds and our splits and the black sludge from the lake that stained her jersey.

She tells me she had fun. I tell her I had fun, too.

I load up my bike and my gear. I’m stinky. I’m hungry. I’m electric. I’m creaky. I drive home.

How we almost poisoned our cat

Our cat Snurp, who is probably mentally retarded, received his first bath yesterday after Sally unintentionally dosed him with the Frontline for 88-pound dogs, instead of the cat stuff for wormy 10-pound Snurps. As you might imagine, applying that much flea medication to a cat’s skin is bad.

Like causing-seizures bad.

Like going-into-cardiac-arrest bad.

Like finding-a-dead-cat-on-your-bathroom-floor bad.

Fortunately, Sally realized her mistake almost immediately and knew from her vet tech days what to do: Scrub Snurp raw. If we cleaned him well, she informed me, Snurp would likely not go into shock and die, which is, you know, nice. The cat living, that is.

Anyway, Snurp’s first bath.

Sally, after realizing her mistake, told me we needed to wash Snurp immediately. She picked him up, and Snurp purred. Snurp loves to be held.

Sally carried Snurp to the garage. Snurp continued to purr. He could handle this, being held, being petted. This is the life.

Sally stuck Snurp in the garage sink. Wait a second. The floor is wet! What in the hell. . . Snurp stopped purring.

I turned on the water.

Snurp moaned and tried to escape and descended into cat hell.

But there was no getting out. We held him down, soaked him, and worked a half a bottle of oatmeal dog shampoo into his fur and scalp. And to his credit, he didn’t bite or claw or bound for freedom. Snurp just stood in the water—his back arched, his ears down—and took it, miserable, defeated, and now howling.

snurp bathing himself When we finished, we put Snurp outside on the deck. After a few minutes, I looked out the window and noticed Snurp was cleaning himself. When I looked out half an hour later, Snurp was still slurping away. In all, he probably spent an hour licking himself.

Eventually, Sally noticed Snurp had stopped the cleaning. “Snurp just raced up the big oak tree,” she noted. “Looks like he’s going to be okay.”

“Okay?” I asked. “I’m not sure Snurp has ever really, truly been okay.”

Snurp came tearing back down the tree. “Good point,” said Sally.

That night Snurp sauntered into our bed, curled up in my armpit, and purred noisily. He’d already forgiven us for the bath. Considering all the vacant space in his brain, he’d probably already forgotten, too.

This is better

It’s Monday evening, Sally’s last night of maternity leave, and she’s sitting in the living room staring flatly out a window.

“Dreading going back?” I ask.

“Going back to work? No. Leaving Slade? Yes,” she replies, turning to look at me.

“My mom is here,” I remind her. “The baby is in very capable hands.”

“But they’re not my hands,” she says. “Mine are better.”

She turns and gazes outside again.


Before our firstborn, Eli, arrived, I asked other parents about their experiences raising children. They told me about how their newborn didn’t sleep for more than two hours at a stretch, about how they’d been to one movie since the child was born, about how much the blankity blank blank kid was sick, and about how much the little turd cost the family.

The stories were downers. Every single one of them.

I also asked the parents if it was worth it, and they responded that it was and then plunged into platitudes about love and other drippy stuff that didn’t really tell me anything.

The best response came from a gal at work. She said, “I’m not sure that I really like being a parent, but it’s worth it. It’s worth every brutal second.”


Sally wakes up at 5 AM on Tuesday to shower, nurse Slade, and eat breakfast. She’s on her way to work for the first time in months, and Slade is still sacked out on the bed next to me. When I get up, Slade’s awake, his blue eyes following the ceiling fan going around and around.

“Hey, littlest dude,” I say.

He smiles, all gums and puffy cheeks and drool. He kicks his legs and laughs.

Lying there in the gray light, with the fan turning and the boy giggling, I get it, just like I get it when Eli falls down in soccer and gets back up without a tear, just like I get it when I see Eli asleep on his side with his favorite blanket. I get being a parent.

And I get why it’s worth it. It’s these tiny moments, these fleeting instants that make me laugh and mist up and feel happy and proud deep inside.

We humans pretend as if we’re rational beings. We’re not. We’re jerked around by emotions like leashed animals, subjectivity guiding every action, every decision, every belief.

And parenthood, especially what makes it worthwhile, is all emotion and mainly ineffable. You can quantify the bad—the expense and the time away from work. You can’t quantify the feeling—that infant with your eyes and your spouse’s nose, that first bike ride without training wheels.


It’s Tuesday evening, and I ask Sally about her first day back at the job.

She tells me it was fine. “But this is better,” she adds, looking at Slade who’s squirming and starting to fuss.

And it is. Holding this baby who’s about to cry. Watching these kids grow into themselves. Being a parent. This is better.

Remind me, again, why we keep feeding the Snurp

Snurp might be the worst cat we’ve ever owned. His latest? Leaping onto Chuck’s neck, digging his claws in, and chomping down.

Snurp does this at least once a day.

Sometimes Chuck, 100 pounds of canine who wants to be everyone’s buddy, yelps. But most of time, he just takes it, panting, suffering without a whimper, pleading with his eyes for the cat to be removed from his neck.

There’s more to Snurp than just being terrible, of course. He’s also fearless and stupid.

Take garage door chicken. When the garage door closes, Snurp waits till the door is inches from the ground before blasting under. It’s a fun game, unless Snurp doesn’t make it, which has happened, Snurp howling, me frantically pushing the button to make the door go up, me impressing the neighbors with the creative ways I take the Lord’s name in vain.

You’d think the cat would learn. You’d think that a garage door slamming into his back would make a lasting impression.

But it doesn’t. Time and again, the door inches down, and Snurp flicks his tail, and we know another last-second dash is imminent.

When we first brought Snurp home, I often fantasized about tying him to a tree next to the road with a sign that advertised, “Free Cat.” Sally, who was often attacked on the chin and nose in the dead of night, had her own dreams: “Can we feed Snurp to a coyote?” she asked.

But we didn’t give him up. We kept filling him up with kitten food and cleaning up the Tootsie Rolls he dropped in the dining room and tolerating him drinking toilet water.

I’m not sure why.

But I have to admit that we’ve kind of, sort of come around on ol’ Snurp. He’s affectionate for one, curling up with us every night and purring when he’s held.

Plus, he no longer attacks the humans, saving his aggression for his stuffed mouse, his dog Chuck, and his other dog—Wiley Bucket—who was chased across the yard with Snurp whacking at his tail just yesterday.

Plus, Eli loves Snurp. He proudly tells his friends: “This is Snurpy. He’s feisty.”

Our infant Slade is oblivious to the cat. Slade’s thing is ceiling fans. He lies on his back and coos and smiles while staring at those magical, whirling machines. The littlest dude just can’t get enough of them.

And here’s something else. Slade rolled over twice this very morning. Given his premature arrival, we know he’s at an elevated risk for all kinds of stuff. So I can’t help but exhale when the boy does what he’s supposed to do.

It’s what I want for Slade, for him to be healthy, to develop as he should, to find mystery in this world, even if that mystery right now is a fan turning in circles.

Addendum: Snurp just peed on the floor. Those nice things I wrote about him? I take them all back. Anybody want a cat? We have one with lots of personality.