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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.