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I Haven't Given Up On This Story

Dear Readers,

I discontinued this blog, as I began to see the entries as part of a larger story.
They will appear in revised form as part of world. Publication of this memoir is set for the summer of 2017 in celebration of Henry Thoreau's 200th birthday on July 12, 2017.



By the end of the four-day Tillamook County Fair, I’d made some friends from our dairy-farm community who seeming pleased, if not amused, by my fascination with cows and were happy to introduce me to their Holsteins.

Cow Stomach
My first adventure was with Helen, a large and compact woman, easy going and with the most cheerful smile and disposition I’d ever seen. I was dressed like her in faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and Wellies. But while Helen filled her boots, I clunked along the twenty yards from her old blue pickup to the pasture gate. On the way, I recited what I’d learned about the four parts of a cow’s stomach, and Helen, chuckling at my enthusiasm, confirmed what I’d learned: 

The Rumen holds 150 to 200 liters of partly digested food and is full of good bacteria that softens the food and ferments the carbs to produce energy.
The Reticulum forms the softened food into small lumps of cud which is returned to the cow’s mouth and chewed 40 to 60 times before being swallowed again.
The Omasum processes the cud by breaking it up and also regulates fluid absorption in the intestine.
The Abomasum works somewhat like the human stomach to digest the useful nutrients which are gradually absorbed into the blood.
Helen opened the pasture gate. “Wow,” I exclaimed as we stepped into the vast grassy land where cows—she’d said about a 150—were grazing and ruminating. As we walked, I soaked in the sweet smell of grass, the blue sky, and the feeling that the world of the sacred cows had been opened to me. 
“I think I could turn and live with the animals,” Walt Whitman had written and I began to recite, my eyes closed as I spun around in the wide open space, “they are so placid and self-contained…” Opening my eyes to look, I saw Helen laughing as over her shoulder…cows, a whole pack of them…were running, no, stampeding toward us. And fast. Oh holy shit…not just those cows…but all of the cows were coming at us from every direction. 150 of them bounding like 1500-pound gazelles across the pasture and closing in….

45—Manure aka B.S.

I listened as the dairy wife on my third farm tour described the demands on family dairies now competing with those agribusiness facilities with thousands of cows. After recalling the hard but simpler world of her grandfather’s fifty-cow dairy farm, she said a family friend in Wisconsin had just sold his sixty-cow dairy rather than take on the pressures of expansion and subject his cows to less personalized treatment. 

And as I listened, I watched her hundred-plus cows lumbering along the narrow cement walkway into the milking parlor. The milker was efficient and quick, mechanically wiping off the teats, hooking them up to the milking machines, and when each cow had given her three gallons moving the animal on.

Rotary Milker in and Industrial Dairy
There was no abuse here, only the impersonality of process. 

This was exactly what I’d experienced as a teacher in a system that herded children through overcrowded classrooms on their way to graduation. 
As the years passed and the system became mired in problems, the impersonality grew into a subjugation to process.
(For an introductory contrast between the family and corporate dairies, click here.)

Schools in this culture became like businesses committed to increasing production at the lowest possible cost. In the case of schools, the product is the children themselves, also known as test scores and the graduation rate. 

As some forty years of school reforms were based more on political, financial, and administrative expediency than sound teaching methods, achievement declined. Image in corporate cultures being everything, officials maintained graduation rates by dumbing down the curriculum. The obsession with testing was a bureaucratic solution that was no solution at all but rather a diversion from admitting and reforming failed policies. As student populations increased, budgets for expanding facilities did not keep pace. All this had turned many schools into arid learning environments, not much different than grassless feedlots.

Cows, of course, were not children or pets. For thinking of them as such, one would be charged with anthropomorphizing or, even worse, sentimentality. But the books I’d read celebrating bovines did just that. They portrayed cows as the sentient and personable Holsteins I’d encountered in the roadside field. However, the reality of their life on the farm was not the homey barns and happy pasture pictured in the books.

Nothing in those books even hinted at the problems inherent in those two little facts, presented as aside in John Pukite’s, A Field Guide to Cows: 
“An average cow drinks about 30 gallons of water and eats 95 pounds of feed per day.” (p. 85)
A 1,000 pound cow produces on average 10 tons of manure a year.” (p. 73)

44—Setting Off Down the Cow Path

By the end of June 1999, I was swept up in learning about cows. Never once did it even occur to me that the infatuation sparked by that first roadside encounter with the Holstein ladies had crossed the border into obsession. 

The first two farm tours had hinted at the fact that I might be entering a world of shadows. But that was part of the excitement. I was going to write something that would reinvigorate an understanding of the sacred and delightful nature of the cow. I went racing down the cow path into a fascinating array of facts from About Cows by Sara Rath (citation at end):
1874   The ice cream soda  was created by Robert M. Green for the semi-centennial celebration of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

1881   The ice cream sundae was created when a guy named George asked for chocolate sauce on his ice cream. Prior to this, chocolate sauce was reserved for ice cream sodas. Served only on Sundays, the new treat cost five cents.

1883  Cream cheese was first made.

1884  The glass milk bottle was invented.

1885  Dr. De Laval invented the steam-turbine separator making it possible to pay producers according to the richness of butterfat in their milk or cream.

1890  Dr. S. M. Babcock’s test for measuring the fat content of milk eliminated the possibility of adulterating the milk with water and became the foundation for the rapid development of the dairy industry in America.

1893  Russian scientist M. F. Ivanov performed the first artificial insemination of cattle.

1894  Dr. De Laval patented the first mechanically operated milking machine.    

1904   The ice cream cone was first served at the St. Louis World’s Fair when an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes and a Syrian vendor stepped in with a sugar waffle, which he rolled into a cone.

1911  The first rotary-type milk bottle filler was perfected.

1914  The California Central Creamery was among the first to transport milk in a tank on a truck.

1919  Chocolate milk was introduced. Homogenized milk was first sold in Connecticut.

1924  Adda Howie was the first woman added to the Wisconsin Agricultural Hall of Fame. Each week she cleaned her stables with soap and boiling water. Her barn had windows with screens and curtains, and milkers washed their hands before moving from one cow to the other.

1925 Delivery trucks replaced horse-drawn milk wagons.

1932  Milk with Vitamin D was first available in Detroit.

1933  Four hundred farmers were arrested in a protest against falling milk prices.

43—MOOving Toward the Millennium

The June Dairy Parade is an annual event that winds through the main streets of Tillamook to celebrate June Dairy Month. It lasts all Saturday morning and is full of music and color. You never forget your first dairy parade because, at least from my experience over the last fifteen years, they’re all pretty much the same. Except for the theme. And the horsepower.
1962 Dairy Parade Princess and Court
The theme of my first parade back in 1999 was Moving Toward The Millennium. It was the best parade I’d ever seen and continues to be—even better than the Rose Parade and Macy’s. Not because the floats are flashier and the marchers more glamorous. Just the opposite. It’s a parade of the people, by the people, and for the people.

The parade goes on rain or shine. Hey, if you can milk cows twice a day, no matter if it’s flooding, or below zero, or Christmas, you can show up to celebrate the month honoring what you do. As it turned out, the day of my first parade was blue and sunny. 

A boy scout carrying the American flag led the parade, followed by more boy scouts on their bicycles with crepe paper wound through the spokes. 

Then came Tillamook Dairy Band, crisply brass and decked out in green T-shirts, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Well actually, there was also one pair of chinos and a pair of white denims, a teal T-shirt, a flowered Hawaiian shirt, and four pairs of work boots. The cymbal player was a middle-aged housewife happily crashing up the rear.  

When the flag passed, everyone rose. Except for a moody teenager in grunge. His mother ordered him up, and the crowd cheered her.

The Dairy Princess and her court rode regally by in a Y2K CowPliant Float. All peachy in their youth, gowns, and enthusiasm for milk, these girls did not seem to be the usual pedestal divas but robust young women who already knew how to shovel away the shit to get where they wanted to go.
Mayor Bob McPheeters came through, high on the back of a convertible seat, waving a carton of—yep—Tillamook milk. 
The Mayor’s Award went to a big white cloud of a float built by Tillamook County churches and sponsored by Genesis Computer Services.  

An exterminator company turned its cardboard guns on a big jiggly millennium bug, followed by a flatbed carrying the Coast Swingers in full square-dance regalia, the men promenading their partners home to the sound of fiddle and caller.  

42—Fellini At the Honor Dairy

On the morning of my second farm tour, The Complete Cow by Sara Rath arrived. On the first page, this quote from Frank Lloyd Wright: “Has anyone sung the song of the patient, calf-bearing, milk-flowing, cud-chewing, tail-switching cow?” 
Wishing to be a singer, I boarded the little yellow cheese bus that afternoon with great enthusiasm.

In short order, our tour group was disembarking in front of the no-frills farmhouse—me in my cow socks followed by a young Phoenix couple with two boistrous and chatty children. . . a small nerdy hunchback dressed in white from his blousy linen shirt to his canvas boat shoes. . . and a gregarious beef farmer on vacation from Missouri with his chipper wife, and rosy-cheeked teenage son and daughter, both bred and raised on that midwestern can-do confidence and red meat.

The sign at the entrance to the farm proclaimed it an “Honor Dairy,” and welcoming us was the dairy farmer’s wife. A hearty woman, she was clad in faded denim and a demeanor suggesting her idea of relaxing after a long day in the field might be bench pressing a 90-pound calf. 

As she led us toward the big metal barn and milking parlor, the air grew thick with the smell of excrement. My eyes began watering as we stepped from the sunny blue day into the big dark barn, damp with the reek rising up from the mucky ooze of manure and urine on the cement walkways between the empty stalls. 

Where was Hercules when we needed him? As partial punishment for killing his wife and children—a crime he was unwittingly condemned by the goddess Hera to commit—the hapless hero was assigned the task of cleaning the Agean Stables. Home to thousands of cows, goats, bulls, sheep, and horses, these stables were a wretched mess. To begin, Hercules knocked a hole in each side of the stable, then dug trenches to the stable from nearby rivers and rerouted the water. As the rivers rushed though one side of the stable and out the other, the water took all the muck with it. 

Moving around the periphery of the barn, we came to a dozen corralled in a pen made of metal bars.
The boisterous children, catching sight of kittens frolicking on some hay bales, went squealing off in pursuit of the terrified kittens. The twenty-two heifers in a metal corral across from the calves grew agitated and—with the slippery stinking mud of their own excrement up over their hooves—began sliding into each other like bumper cars.

You’ve got a great operation here!” exclaimed the beef farmer enthusiastically. 

At first I thought he was being sarcastic. But the beef man was breathing it all in, loving the smell of napalm in the morning.

41—Stepping Into the Business of Dairy Farming Wearing White Sneakers and Cow Socks

Wearing the cow socks I’d bought with my field guide to cows, I boarded the little yellow cheese bus in front of the cheese factory, eager for my first farm tour and meeting some cows up close and personal.

“Hi,” said the young blonde woman in denim overalls standing up front, “my name is Mandy, “and I’ll be your guide this afternoon.” Mandy introduced herself as a high-school junior and farm girl active in 4-H. She used to scoop out cones of Tillamook ice cream at the factory but was now working in fudge. Doing tours was a bonus, and she was glad to have a full bus. 

Even in overalls, our little Mandy exuded a prom-pink sweetness. 

Before leaving the parking lot, the bus paused in front of a replica of the Morning Star, a ship constructed in 1855 to carry the left-over milk and butter of Tillamook’s pioneer farmers up the coast and inland to Portland. As they exchanged these goods for supplies, the Tillamook dairy industry was born. Because milk spoiled easily in transport, the farmers began making cheese.  (Click on link under the picture for your own tour.)

On the way to our destination, Mandy pointed out different breeds of cows grazing in the fields:  
Holsteins produce the most milk.    
The brown and white Guernseys produce the rich milk with cream on top. 
The tan Jersey’s milk is highest in butterfat.  
The Brown Swiss are the heartiest and also great producers of butterfat.
Dutch Belted cowsknown locally as Oreo cows because of the white stripe around the middle of their black bodies—eat more grass than grain so need a lot of pasture.


Brown Swiss

While learning about cows, we passed around baggies of feed—corn, various grain pellets and pellets of beet pulp, soybean meal,barley, canola meal, and delinted cottonseed, along with whole fuzzy cottonseed to clean out the cows stomachs. All this food had a high fat content because farmers get paid according to the butterfat content.

Dutch Belted

Our guide then launched into the specifics of artificial insemination—A I, as Mandy referred to the breeding procedure in which freeze-dried sperm is injected into the cow. “And if the A I doesn’t take,” our prom-pink farm girl added, “we just stick the cow in a pen with a bull.” 
She then passed around a catalogue of available bulls whose studly sperm stats were outlined under their pictures. These big boys sported such bullish names as Caleb, Durham, Black Bart, Emerson, and Kenneth.

Someone in the group asked Mandy about her plans for the future. 
“A doctor,” she said, “but I don’t know if I want to work on people or animals.”  

40—Cows. Wow!

One sunny afternoon, I was driving into Tillamook for my workout at the Y when a no-nonsense woman in a hard hat and orange safety vest turned her SLOW sign to STOP. Ahead, a big yellow road machine was flattening a strip of fresh blacktop. As Tillamook County is dairy country, I wasn’t surprised to find myself alongside a pasture where herd of a Holsteins was hanging out. Never having been up close and personal to cows, I was stunned to see how big they are.    

They were so big, in fact, that with only a three-foot ditch between us, I was pleased to have a half-ton pickup on my side. Although a comparative study revealed that the truck’s burgandy color was more of a distinction than size. But then I saw these cows were not the least bit interested in trampling me or my pickup. It was the big yellow machine rolling back and forth over the blacktop that had their attention. As they stood rapt and chewing their cud, it looked like a free popcorn matinee at the CinePlex. 

I gazed out over the field at the rest of the herd, some grazing, others lying down in quiet rumination. I liked their broad gentle faces, their big dark-eyed nuzzling muzzling ways, and ears like huge furry mittens sticking straight out from the sides of their heads. One wandered over to check me out. She mooed. I mooed back. And several others wandered over to join the conversation. 

As I sat, I began to wonder: Where would we be without cows?
There would be no cheese for macaroni or wine.  
And way before Prozac, there was creamy milk chocolate. 

I remembered being four-years-old and terrified at seeing Disney's Pinocchio swallowed by the whale.  
After the movie, my dad carried me down the street from the Capitol Theater to Isaly’s where a strawberry ice cream cone restored me to the safety of childhood. 

I was jolted from my reverie when the cow closest to me started to pee—a golden rush of pee so gigantic that the same force from a garden hose would sting. The peeing also went on and on—a peeing so grand that it seemed to relieve something in me. And when the peeing finally stopped, the cessation created a pocket of stillness in the drone of roller and idling motors.

The flagperson twirled her STOP sign around to SLOW and motioned us on. I drove away, but instead of turning right to go to the Y, I turned left toward the Tillamook Cheese Factory where within minutes of entering the gift ship, I owned John Pukite's A Field Guide to Cows: How to Identify and Appreciate America's 52 Breeds.
Before leaving the parking lot, I’d learned that a cow can detect odors up to five miles away, that there are an estimated 920 breeds of cows in the world, and that a cow sits down and stands up about 14 times a day. I also discovered that Boston, the cradle of our liberty, was formed around cow paths. Cambridge, home of Harvard and the American intellectual tradition, began as a cow pasture—a detail leaping to resonate with the fact that a 1000 pound cow produces 10 tons of manure a year.

On my way home, I stopped at Rainy Day Books where I bought About Cows  and  ordered The Complete Cow, both by Sara Rath.  

At home, I was introduced by Ms. Rath to William Dempster Hoard, the Father of Modern Dairying.

39—Swimming Upstream

I stood in the middle of the living room looking at the bird standing waif-like in the middle of the tar roof—no emergency kit, nothing to save him from the hazards of his world but the feathers on his back. 
“Where do you go at night?” I wondered aloud. 
“kwik,” he said and waddled to the window. 
The cats hopped up on the sofa, more to participate in the exchange than protest it.

Even in this peaceful moment, I could feel down through my feet and the apartment below, down through the dune on which the drafty old beach house stood, the minuscule movement of that massive oceanic plate pushing its way under the continental plate on which I was now living this strange little life—the friction, the tension building silently, slowly toward some in determinant but inevitable moment of cataclysm.

“How do you survive those terrible winter storms?” I asked the bird.
“kwawk,” he said with a tilt of his head, then abruptly fluttered off at the sound of his frenzied flock. The cats and I went to the window and watched the big flap over a free lunch that was being tossed out just beyond the motel deck by a gaggle of vacationers enjoying some beers around a big steamer pot. 


In the days that followed, the bird began showing up less and less, then not at all. 
Relieved, I busied myself: Signing up at the local Y. Taking kayak lessons. Thinking about buying a kayak. Walking along the beach, exploring nearby forest trails, telling myself that the inertia I called writers block would be transformed into clarity and purpose when my furniture arrived. 

Then, one day in mid June the furniture did arrive. Before the dawn of the next day, I’d emptied all the boxes and by the following afternoon had taken the boxes to recycling and had everything in its place.

As the final point of order, I hooked up my TV, turned it on, and kicked back in my recliner to enjoy the rush-hour traffic report. Yep, I was living the dream of thousands trapped in similar jams from coast to coast—I was in good health, had no debts or obligations, was living in a house by the sea for less than most urban apartments cost, and could do whatever I wanted, which in my case was to write that book about why we can't solve the problems in our schools. 

However, in the days that followed, every time I stopped being busy and sat down at the computer, anxiety overwhelmed me. Freedom was not “just another word for nothing left to lose.” It was a void in which I had to create my own meaning, find my own confidence. Maybe I should give myself a few weeks to relax, give the ideas time in this new environment to percolate. 

38—Emergency Management

With The Big One due and inevitable, I began preparing my emergency earthquake kit with the zeal of a bunker-mentality survivalist. 

If only I hadn’t given away my finely crafted frame backpack that had taken me from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the heights of Mt. Whitney…if only I hadn’t left my beloved desert…if only development hadn’t sent Vegas rents skyrocketing, I could go…but no, there was no going back. 

So with time ticking, I began searching online for an appropriate emergency supply kit. 
Perfect: a large green ripstop nylon, water-resistant duffle bag with back-packing straps—easily tossed in the back of the pickup for quick getaways or strapped to my back if fleeing on foot.

While waiting for my duffle to arrive, I bought a collection of travel-sized toiletries, eye drops, suntan lotion, mosquito repellant, wipes, sanitizers, and other sundries. I’d saved the camp stove and stainless cook set from my backpacking days, along with some emergency blankets, waterproof matches, and a water filter. At the local sporting goods store, I picked up some fuel, a Leatherman utility tool, emergency flares, a headlamp along with an economy-size pack of batteries for my flashlight, a more extensive Red Cross-approved first-aid kit than the one I had, a rain poncho, cord, a folding shovel, a small ax, pouches of freeze-dried food for me, and kibble which I secured in plastic freezer bags for the cats. I also bought duct tape and a packet of bungy cords. 

For emergency cat evacuation, I bought a sturdy dolly and stacked the carriers on it. Using the bungy cords, I secured three half-gallon bottles of water and my backpacking tent on top of the carriers.

With all my gear laid out on the floor, I pictured myself hunkered down with the cats in the back of the truck or tucked away in my tent. After a busy day of meeting my survival needs, I could catch up on the latest disaster news via my solar-powered radio while waiting for my Thai rice to rehydrate. After dinner, I would kick back in my Polar-tec sleeping bag. Enjoying my cup of evening tea spiked with a touch of Seagrams, I’d pass the time reading aloud to the cats from my palm-sized Emily Dickinson or the Tao Te Ching.  


The moment the duffle arrived, I packed it. Then, to get the feel of the pack before strapping on the compression bag, I slung the duffle over my right shoulder onto my back. The weight of the thing nearly took me to the floor as everything inside slumped rattling and wobbly to the bottom. As I hunched across the floor toward the fireplace, all I could see in the mirror over the mantle was a pathetic reenactment of the Joad family fleeing the Dust Bowl in their rickety old truck. 

37—Juan de Who?

As I stood staring at the box springs wedged at a hopless angle in the doorways between the living room and narrow side room, I heard a scratching sound at the other end. cd was watching from the back of the sofa. Damn. The anxiously persistent little tuxedo cat now trapped in the side room was trying to claw her way out. I pictured the covering on Chuck’s box springs shredded.“Hang in there, sweetie,” I called in my most confident voice. A moment of silence was followed by a yowl, then a kind of tussling. Her claw was stuck. “Lift up, sweetie,” I called. A rip was followed by more scratching.

On Chuck’s fifteen-inch TV, a man was droning on to the Tillamook County Commissioners about Juan de-Someone. “Well, let’s shut him the fuck up,” I said and was reaching for the POWER button when a map of North America appeared and a red laser dot began tracing the coast line from nothern Vancouver Island to northern California. Suddenly words started popping out of the droning—Juan de-Fuca . . .  not a person but a plate. A tectonic plate converging with another plate in the Cascadia subduction zone . . ." Whoa!. ". . . twisting clockwise into the subduction zone . . . conflicting with oblique subduction under the North American plate fed by the divergence . . . earthquakes . . . volcanos . . . the worst case scenario—devastation of the entire west coast of North America . . .”
Holy fucking son of a bitch shit. But then the droning spoke of the blow up of 5600 B.C. that collapsed Mt. Mazama into Crater Lake. Oh, well. Ancient history. I reached again for the POWER button. "And more recently the eruption of Mt. St. Helens." At which point, the droning came to the upshot and bottom line:

Studies showed earthquake activity occurred roughly every three hundred years. It was not if the plates slip but when—the last recorded disaster January 26, 1700. 

Following that quake estimated somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2 on the famed scale, the very coastline where I was standing had collapsed. Trees with ring counts ending in the year 1699 showed that entire forests had fallen into the sea. Records of a tsunami in Japan occurred at the same time with no other seizmic activity evident in the Pacific Rim. 

Feeling light headed, I realized I'd stopped breathing.

MITTS began yowling.

“And right in the center of the disaster zone—” the drone went on as the red laser pointer hovered over familiar ground, “Tillamook County.” 

Thonk, I heard down the long corridor of my terror. 
cd rushed the window and hitting it, rattled the glass. 
The bird shrieked. cd puffed up and hissed. The bird departed. 

I looked out at the sun setting over the Pacific. At any moment, the ground might not just rattle the Richter at 9.0 but liquify as the entire coastline fell fifty feet. And while the ocean would be sucked out for fifteen minutes or so, a hundred-foot wall of water would then come rushing in. Holy fucking son of a bitch shit. What had I done to myself. I couldn’t even get out my damned door to make a run for it.

A knock at the door scared the hell out of me. 

36—Card Table

When I got home from Dorothy’s shortly after five, the bird was peering through the living-room window with the look of one annoyed to have been kept waiting. 

I looked for the cats in the back room and didn’t find them on the bed or under it. Only slightly alarmed, I returned to the living room calling, “Hey everyone, time for dinner,”  and as I called was astonished to see my beloveds, right there, napping on either side of the sofa just like old times and unperturbed by the bird. At the sound of dinner, they uncurled, stretched long and slow, hopped down, and headed toward their placemats alongside the fridge.

“kwik,” said the bird, following along politely to the kitchen window.

“Well, now,” I exclaimed, “isn’t this nice. Everyone getting along.” 

I opened a can of food and served up the savory chicken-duck-salmon-with-carrots-and-hint-of-cranberry on two saucers. I then stood back and watched as the cats snarfed up their dinners and the bird—he really was cute—craned his neck to see over the window sill to the feast on the floor. 

As I returned to the sink to cap the leftovers, the orphan of the sea stepped back from the glass. 
“kwik kwik,” he pleaded with a forlorn tilt of his head. 
I gave it a thought. A little reward for good behavior. But to toss him a crust, I’d have to remove a screen. And what might that mean later for the wellbeing of the screens?

Meanwhile, down at the edge of the bay, Heron moved through the shallows, oh so cool and elegant, graceful and profound. The neighbors only have a gull, I heard Dorothy say, disdain falling like a bird dropping on the word gull.

I retired to the back room.
“KWWWAAWK,” came the piercing cry from the tar.
The cats fled, leaving their dinners half eaten.
I moved the saucers into the back room.
While MITTS hid under the bedspread, cd scarfed down both meals, backed away from the placemats and threw it all up.
I cleaned the slimy bluck out of the carpet then waited in the back room until the bird had flown off.

Stealing back to the kitchen, I saw that his stake out position at the top of the telephone pole past the motel was empty and sat down at my laptop to check email. The glare of the late afternoon sun made it impossible to read the screen. I closed the drape, which like all the other drapes was a heavy tan affair, clean but stained and depressing. 

It was then that the idea for a different work station came to me. "Everything's going to be all right," I told the cats, then drove into down and bought a card table and long phone cord.

Two hours later, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. Having positioned the new card table behind the partion that formed the back of the kitchen, I'd moved my laptop and other accessories from the kitchen and run the phone wire from my modem, up over the partition, along the wall above the kitchen cupboards, and down to the phone jack next to the kitchen window. It was perfect: No glare from the sun. No advertising my presence to the bird. And if I angled my chair just right, I still had a wide blue view of the Pacific. 

It wasn’t until two days later that the bird caught me carrying my dinner back to the card table. No longer able to track all my activity from atop his telephone pole, he began making frequent reconaissance flights past the window. 

Catching a glimpse of me at the card table, he would drop down and knock on the window. Concentrating was impossible. This was war. It was him or me. And if I couldn’t outwit a damned birdbrain, who the hell was I? 

As I was heating up some soup, a  mattress commercial caught my attention and the grand plan came to me.

35—Trying To Keep Up With the Herons

A widow, Dorothy was a small white-haired woman in her eighties. Soft-spoken and grandmotherly in her navy-blue polyester pants and pink smock, she was fragile but in no way brittle or timid. Her old green beach house was filled with the clutter of a woman more interested in experiencing life than imposing order in it. 

“He was such a handsome fellow,” she said like a dreamy teenager while sliding a plastic baggie of feathers from the drawer of an old buffet. “He shed these over the years,” she explained then handed me two: One long and charcoal from that powerful umbrella wing, the other wispier and full of the salmon-pink flush of the mating season. Holding them, I could feel the great bird in my hands.

Out back on the deck, Dorothy laid her fingers tenderly on the railing where Heron had come every morning and evening for more than seven years. She explained how on the first of every month, she’d buy two packages of frozen smelt at the local bait shop. “Thirty to a pack,” she noted. “Breakfast and dinner for the month. “I'd lost my husband unexpectedly,” she said, “so didn't have much. But the expense was worth it.”

“When I had to go away,” she went on, “Heron went to the neighbors two houses down. They gave him hot dogs, and I worried about all those chemicals. It got so I hated to leave.” She paused, then confided, “I loved him. Really loved him.” Blinking back tears, she smiled. 
“The neighbors called him Harry. But it wasn’t right. He was Heron.”

“How did you and Heron become acquainted?” I asked. “Is there a secret to . . .”

34—Falling Off the Creative Cusp

On the morning of the fifth day of the rest of my life, word came that my furniture would arrive in four weeks, not three. Initially downhearted, I decided the delay was an opportunity to begin stripping away old patterns of thinking. 

Writing a book that called for more effective school reform would require original thinking. Many books, best sellers even, had revealed the social injustice and academic deficiencies in the system but had changed nothing. Mine would be different. 

Was it luck or destiny, I wondered, that had freed me from the bureaucratic absurdities of the education system then brought me to this small unpretentious townHowever it happened, here I was, a world away from policymakers and on the cusp of a fresh perspective. 

So, who would I become without the expectations and judgments of the system?

Who would We the People have become if policymakers had not responded to Sputnik by promoting science and engineering by cutting funding and class time for history, literature, art, drama, music, and creative writing? 
How might our nation evolved at home and abroad over the last four decades if 30,000 years of what it means to be human hadn't been reduced in so many schools to an occasional elective?

Exhilarated by these thoughts, I began setting up my work station at the kitchen table by the window—arranging my laptop, modem, journal, pens, pencils, lamp, dictionary, everything just so. 
Curious, the cats came out from the back room to observe and chase cords.

When all was in place, I sat down to check email and was surprised to find how right the new setup felt. As the cats curled up on our borrowed sofa, I looked out the window at the Pacific—only to see the bird descending to the tar.    

Photo by Walt Van Campen


On the fourth day of the rest of my life, I looked out my living room window—over the bird—and surveyed the sunny low-tide morning. Scores of clammers were digging away on the beach at the foot of my hill. Heron was breakfasting in a tide pool just feet from the shoreline and unperturbed by the crowd around him. Yes, here was the chance I’d been waiting for—my first up-close-and-personal meeting with The Great Blue Guru. 

“kwik kwik,” simpered the bird as he stood, looking helpless and forlorn, in the middle of the tar roof. Refusing to make eye contact with the little con, I went into the back room where I dressed hurriedly. Grabbing my binoculars, I said goodbye to the cats and flung my arms at the bird screeching on the roof. Then grabbing my binoculars, I headed toward the door, eager to begin my instruction on stillness as the most important part of motion. 

As I closed the door, I glimpsed the bird now craning his neck to see through the side-room window. “Give it up, buddy,” I muttered in his direction, then dashed through the narrow hallway, out the back door, between the cars in the car port, around the corner of the apartment, and down the narrow sidewalk between my building and the motel. 

My Second Floor Apartment (With the Three Windows to the Left: Side Room, Living Room, and Kitchen)
At the top of the steps between the roofs jutting out over the ground floors of both buildings, I paused to remove my binoculars from their small leather pouch. A flap and screech from the left startled the hell out of me—and there I was face to face with the bird.

32—Thonk and Splat

Ah, the advantages of small-town life. On the third morning of the rest of my life, I returned home from registering myself and my pickup at the DMV—all accomplished in less time than it would have taken me to stand in line back in Vegas. The cats were happily exploring the apartment and comfortable enough to ignore my return. With lunch in mind, I went to the refrigerator. 

The thwuup of the refrigerator door opening was followed without pause by a thonk, a hiss, a wail, and the tiny gallop of cat paws. “kwawk,” said the bird, announcing his presence at the big middle window.

Photo by Walt Van Campen
“We’re just ignoring him,” I reminded the cats.
The bird opened his beak wide and screeched.
cd hissed from the back of the sofa in the middle of the living room.
MITTS was nowhere to be seen.

I laid two slices of bread on a plate and opened the cheese. 
The bird padded to the kitchen window and stood, shfting back and forth on his splattlly pink feet in waif-like anticipation.

I stepped into the living room on the pretense of getting the newspaper to read at lunch. 
The bird raced back to the living room window as if on a desperate mission.

I returned to the kitchen counter and began cutting up an apple and some cheese.
The bird, head and beak stretched forward, jetted back to the kitchen window, skidded to a stop, and retracted his neck into his orphan-of-the-sea pose.

I set my plate on the table next to the window.
“kwiwk,” simpered the bird.

“This Dickensian act of yours,” I said, my face to the glass, “it’s so derivative.” 

The bird began screeching, setting off the thumping in my ear that such sounds always triggered.
Impervious, I lifted some bread and cheese to my lips. 
The bird took hold of the aluminum window casing with his beak and yanked. My stomach tightened.

31—Subverting the Dominant Paradigm

On the second day of the rest of my life, I awoke to another sunny and teal-blue-ocean day in Paradise. Or so it seemed for the first ten minutes.

The cats had followed me into the kitchen in the far front corner of the main living area. I’d filled their bowls and was waiting for my coffee to finish perking when we were distracted by a dull thonk. 

The bird had come in for a landing on the tar roof.

"kwawk  kwawk  kwawk," he said as he wadded to the large center window and peered in like someone expected for brunch. Seeing me at the stove, he dashed like a duckpin on legs to the kitchen window. 

“Just ignore him,” I told the cats.
They continued eating but warily.

“kwawk kwawk   KWAWK,” called the bird. 
Receiving no acknowledgement, he tapped on the window.

MITTS retreated to the back room. cd fluffed up and hissed. 
Refusing to make eye contact with the interloper, I poured myself a cup of coffee, then added a bit of milk. As I returned to the bedroom, coffee in hand, the bird raced across the roof alongside me. 

“KWWAAAK,” I heard as I slipped under the covers. Then, silence. Just as I relaxed, several more plaintive kwaaawks wafted in through the open window. Unmoved, I let the steam of freshly brewed coffee warm my face. 
As the distress call continued, the cats grew agitated. 

“We’ll just let the baby cry it out,” I assured them. “He’ll eventually give up,” I assured myself.
Setting my coffee on the bed stand, I opened the book I’d picked up the day before at Rainy Day Books—The Great Blue Heron by Hayward Allen, a beautifully illustrated description of the life and temperament the bird I’d chosen as my spirit guide in this new life . . . jab   jab   jab . . .  

Let him break through the damned glass, I thought. I'm not budging. 

30—Will It Be Love in a Pita Pocket or Screens?

May 21, 1999—the first morning in my new apartment. And what a great apartment it was—three small but conveniently arranged mahogany-paneled rooms with a wall of windows looking out from the main living area over Netarts Bay at the Pacific. The sky was blue, the ocean calm, the air brisk and alive. And at the foot of my hill, there was Heron gliding through the shallows.  

MITTS had finally come out from the back bedroom to join cd on the window sill where they sat chittering at the swallows darting past the tar roof that jutted out over the apartment below us.  

My landlord Chuck was a round-faced affable man who’d brought me dinner the night before and moved in some furniture from the adjacent apartment until mine arrived. He’d even agreed to find some screens for my windows. All I had to do was promise not to feed the gulls. Gulls, he explained, had pecked right through every screen he’d ever installed in this apartment. Well, one gull in particular—the one that when Chuck’s mother lived downstairs and opened her patio door, would walk right in and help himself to the cat food. 

“White trash of the bird world,” my neighbor Buzz warned me. “They might soar like angels, but the city dump is their smorgasbord.”

Looking forward to the flow of salt air through my apartment, I went into the back bedroom to unpack. Hearing a knock, I headed out through the living area to the door. “Must be opportunity,” I said to the cats who’d ensconced themselves on the bed. Opening the door, I saw only the long narrow hallway leading to the carport. Puzzled, I returned to unpacking. 
Again, a knock. This time the cats went with me. Still, no one. What the hell?
As we headed back through the living room, there was a third knock. But not from the door. From the wall of windows. Mitts yowled and fled. cd leaped onto the back of the sofa and hissed, tail up and fur on end. Oh my God—

Standing on the tar roof was a seagull peering in through the large middle pane. From a distance, gulls had always looked, well, small. And cute. But this bird was over a foot tall. And there was nothing cute about the way he began attacking the window with his big yellow beak as if the thermal pane were an obstinate crab.

"Shoo!" I cried and waved my arms.
cd retreated.
jab Jab JAB went the bird. 

Fearing the glass might shatter, I stood between fight and flight, somewhere in the vicinity of Code Blue. 
But then having gotten my attention, the bird stepped back and began chatting me up. “kwawk  kwawk  kwawk,” he said.

And gee, he was cute, all freshly white with those cadet gray wings and that sunny yellow beak. When I approached the window, he side-skittished back to the edge of the roof on his oh so adorable rickety-spindly pink legs with their nubby knees and splattily-flat rosy pink feet. “kwawk,” he said, with a cute little tilt of his head.

White trash of the bird world—no way.

The bag of stale pita bread on the kitchen counter caught my eye. 

The bird just stood, drawing his head in oh so shyly between his cute birdie shoulders. 

What harm could there possibly be in sharing a crust with one of God’s creatures?
So I tore up a slice of the bread, slid open the window, and then placing my heart in a small piece of pita pocket tossed it onto the roof, along with the rest of the crusty crusts. 
Within seconds, out of nowhere, a swarm of gulls descended on the roof, flapping and squawking over the free lunch. I slammed shut the window and gaped at the frenzy which made junior high school cafeteria duty seem like a teddy-bears’ picinic. 

Suddenly at the center of the fray, one bird let out a shriek and then, wings spread wide, began running and screeching back and forth from one end of the roof to the other. Within seconds, he’d cleared the tar and was swaggering back toward me, his wings bent slightly outward as if he’d just holstered his pistols. 

“kwawk  kwawk  kwawk,” he said.
It was my adorable one!
My heart quickened. 

Another pita pocket in hand, I started toward the window where he was waiting for me, or so I thought until he hooked his beak onto the aluminum window casing and bracing those spindly pink legs at a determined angle, began to yank. When the metal refused to give, he pecked the roof clean of crumbs then flew to the top of the telephone pole just beyond the motel next door. There, he assumed the statuesque pose for which gulls are famous. 

Pita pocket in hand, I knew I could get him back. 
But clearly, all that little con wanted was the bread.
There was a knock. This time at the door. It was Chuck with the screens.