Friday, June 29, 2012

Sex On Mountain Road

A few days ago I was on my way to a dental appointment when an impulse prompted me to detour through our old neighborhood. Years had passed since I’d driven down these streets and I saw a street sign that made me smile. It wasn’t a traffic sign; it was one of those chin-high decorative brick walls that announce the name of a new housing development or apartment complex. I pulled to the curb and studied it. Written on the bricks:


Sexton Mountain Road was a development of comfortable homes named for the street leading up to an unimpressive bluff called Sexton Mountain. The sign was in good shape, without any vandalism. This was intriguing because I remembered when this sign was created. The letters spelling out the name were made of individual pieces of wood attached to the brick backdrop. Thieves thought it great fun to steal the “T,” creating a message that made the prurient giggle:


The Operations Department in our city was responsible for maintaining signs, and replaced the “T” dozens of times. These letters always disappeared. They were eventually replaced with painted letters that couldn’t be stolen. Taggers wasted little time painting out the “T.” The poor fellows at Ops were constantly sent to repaint the “T,” but the problem persisted.

A police car was dispatched to persuade vandals to keep their spray cans away from the sign but the cops could never apprehend anyone in the act of vandalizing the sign. It was as if the taggers had an informant at City Hall warning them when a squad car was near. One tagger did more than paint out the letter “T.” He was skillful enough to execute a trompe l’oeil painting, clever enough to fool the eye; not only was the letter painted out but the tagger skillfully recreated the bricks beneath the letter to hide the fact that it had ever been there.

Mrs. Chatterbox worked for our city’s Operations Department at the time; she told me the city was going to repaint the sign and shield it with a sheet of bullet-proof plastic. And so they did, but the plastic vanished after a few days, along with the freshly restored letter “T.” Residents of our city gave up on a solution being found for this problem and began referring to the street as SEX ON MOUNTAIN ROAD.

As I sat there staring at the sign, my fingers itching, I was distracted by fond memories. Drives at midnight. Excuses to utilize my artistic skills and play with pompous concepts like trompe l’oeil. Yes, those were the days. Interesting that the sign was now left alone, with no one sullying it with wanton acts of disobedience.

But then I didn’t live in the neighborhood anymore.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

CJ's Birthday

Today is our son CJ’s thirty-second birthday. I don’t feel old enough to have a son that age, but the wrinkled face in the mirror assures me it’s true. Mrs. C. and I were twenty-eight and had already been married six years when we had our one and only child. Since we’ve known each other since high school it isn’t inconceivable that we could have a son in his forties. I shiver at the thought.

Two reflections tango in my mind today as I think about my son. Surprisingly, the first involves one of the worst days of my life. CJ was two years old and I was out of work during a terrible recession that struck the Northwest in the early eighties. Mrs. C. had a job and was carrying the lion’s share of responsibility for supporting our family. I struggled to find work but my art background made me about as hireable as a shepherd. I decided to take little CJ to the park to feed the ducks and distract me from fretting that I’d never land another job.

At the park it started to rain. I’d failed to consider the weather and hadn’t grabbed CJ’s umbrella or raincoat. Adding to my failure as a provider, I now felt like a failure as a parent. When the shower hardened into heavy rain we took shelter under a tree that did little to keep us dry. I noticed an empty waste can nearby with a clean plastic liner. I pulled it out, tore three holes in it and slipped it over the head of my two-year old. He thought the makeshift raincoat the greatest thing he’d ever seen. He ran about in the rain, spinning like a whirling dervish until he fell down, repeating the process over and over. I remember the happiness on his little face as he dashed about in that garbage sack. I was glad the rain camouflaged my tears. Shortly after this incident I was hired by a local jewelry store where, it turned out, I had a gift for selling jewelry.

Years later another incident cemented itself into my mind. After years of selling jewelry and working my way into a management position, I quit retail to pursue my love of art. I began my career as a freelance illustrator. I’d located my business in a vintage building in downtown Portland, and one winter’s day the weather was unusually brutal. Light snow had been predicted but instead we experienced a rare blizzard.

MAX, Portland’s light rail, was a mile from our house in the suburbs and I usually walked to the station and took the train into town, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take to walk a mile in blinding snow. I called Mrs. C., who’d left work early and was already home. I told her I was leaving and would be home as soon as I could. She informed me that CJ, in his early twenties at the time, would pick me up at the MAX station.

Due to the snow, MAX shut down just as I reached my stop. The only people I saw were bus drivers chaining up their vehicles. I shivered and wondered where CJ was, if he’d even be able to come at all. Then his familiar CJ-7 Jeep rumbled into the parking lot and lurched up to me.

The door opened and my son stepped out. I hadn’t realized until then how much he loomed over me.

“Need a lift?” he asked, grinning.

I don’t know how long I could have stood there without freezing, but all I remember was a flood of warmth that filled me as I looked at the young man who’d somehow replaced my little boy, tall and confident, a rescuer—a man. I felt like I could bust with pride.

We all come to life’s banquet with our own unique gifts, gifts we’re born with, but I couldn’t resist basking in the satisfaction that his mother and I had done our job and done it well. For the first time I felt old, but for reasons I couldn’t possible articulate I wasn’t upset, even though I’d avoided this realization for some time. I slid into the passenger’s seat. CJ revved the engine, shifted gears and drove us home. Along the way I saw my Dad in his face and in his gestures. I suspected the grandfather who died before I was born was there also.

It was one of the happiest days of my life, a day when I was given a rare gift—a glimpse at immortality.

Happy Birthday, Son.



Monday, June 25, 2012

Whirling Dervishes

We entered a cave and passed through a tunnel that opened into a theater carved from rock. The blistering heat of the day couldn’t reach through tons of insulating rock. We were in Cappadocia, here to see the famous Whirling Dervishes.

I knew little about them, aside from that song “Maria” in The Sound of Music, where singing nuns complain that Maria could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl. I remember wondering what this meant but never bothered to find out. Here I was, forty-seven years later, about to find out.

As the lights darkened I remembered how, as a kid, I’d fling out my arms and spin around as quickly as I could until I was so dizzy I’d collapse on our front lawn. Was that what this was all about? Watching grown men in skirts spin around without getting dizzy?

A voice in broken English admonished us against taking pictures until after the ceremony. I noticed this wasn’t referred to as a show. It all felt rather illicit. I was reminded that the monastic life of the Whirling Dervishes was outlawed in the 1930s by Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Atatürk wisely felt that young Turkish men shouldn’t be hidden away in monasteries. He wisely wanted the country to shift its attention from religion to the progressive ways of the West.

A curtain was pulled back and figures emerged in a blade of light, a half dozen cloaked musicians with medieval instruments. Behind them came the Dervishes, dressed in black with the exception of their towering beige camel-hair hats. The music started, reeds, drums and unfamiliar string instruments. It was surprising how these primitive devices could create such a palpitating mood of expectation. The Dervishes bowed to the empty hat on far side of the circular stage, their tall hats (tombstones for the ego) seeming to defy gravity by staying on their heads when touched to the ground. According to our guide, the bow was to honor Mevlânâ, their thirteenth century spiritual leader. Mevlânâ, creator of the Whirling Dervishes, was said to have whirled for two full days. It was his belief that the fundamental condition of existence was to revolve. He knew the world to be made of revolving atoms, knew that blood revolved within the bodies of men and animals and understood the revolving nature of the planets and stars. His achievement was to acknowledge and embrace this feature of existence through an act of homage—whirling.

They looked exposed when they removed their black cloaks, as if the whiteness beneath was not only purity but vulnerability. They lined up and acknowledged each other, and slowly, one by one began to spin, giving the impression of dropping into a fathomless void like falling snowflakes. We sat close enough to feel the uplift of wind from their skirts as they spun in the same direction as the Earth on its axis, one hand pointed upward to receive the blessings of Allah while the other was turned downward to pour Allah’s blessings onto the people. Nothing was kept for themselves.

I finally understood that this was not a performance, it was a ritual, a re-creation of infinity and Creation on a subterranean stage, a thousand year old version of a high energy particle accelerator.

No one has ever been able to point out for me the differences between Allah and God, and I’ve come to assume that, if there are any, they’re insignificant. I can’t claim to know what these Whirling Dervishes believe, what thoughts animate their spirits, but their sincere commitment to Allah and His universe lead me to accept that they’ve achieved a harmony with existence that I can only imagine. I might not understand their beliefs, just as I don’t understand many of the tenets of my own religion, but this manifestation of faith was enough to set me whirling.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I don’t often create posts that are primarily photographic, mostly because I’m not that good of a photographer, but when Mrs. C. and I visited Cappadocia, Turkey, we found it so bizarre and interesting that I figured not even my photography skills could fail to capture the uniqueness. This region of Turkey, created millions of years ago by a nearby volcano, was one of the earliest sanctuaries for early Christians outside of Judea. They enlarged caves into churches in this region and secretly worshiped here for centuries.

But it is the rock formations themselves, often referred to as “fairy chimneys,” that receive the most attention. I wandered among the formations and felt like I was seeing Yosemite or Yellowstone on acid. But what I saw was real. If you find this World Heritage Site interesting you can Google Cappadocia for pictures far surpassing my humble efforts.

I remember turning to Mrs. Chatterbox after snapping shots of formations like these and saying to her,” Do these rocks look familiar to you? Do they remind you of anything?”

She said, “I find them strangely appealing. They look so strong and powerful. I’ve never seen anything like them.”

I sulked for the rest of the day.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Do you remember when it was considered a compliment to be called clever? I remember hearing comments like, “That Johnny is one clever boy.” I wanted to be like Johnny. I thought my parents wanted me to be clever, a term I equated with smart. But somewhere along the way clever became undesirable. My ears are still ringing from the last time my wife said, “You think you’re sooo clever!”

Clever was once used to describe someone who was brilliant, sharp and possessing quick intelligence, but lately it’s come to imply shallowness and superficiality. It is a mystery how “clever” managed to attain positive status in the first place, considering all Aesop did to disparage the idea. Aesop cleverly puts down cleverness with his fables, and cements into our collective consciousness the idea of the “clever fox.” No fewer than twenty-five of his fables deal with the exploits of foxes. Here’s one you might not know, even though you’ve been quoting the ending for as long as you can remember:

The Fox and the Goat

A fox had fallen into a well and had been casting about for a long time how he should get out again. At length a goat came to the place and, wanting to drink, asked the fox whether the water was good and if there was plenty of it. The fox, avoiding the real danger of his case, replied, "Come down, my friend; the water is so good that I cannot drink enough of it, and so abundant that it cannot be exhausted."

Upon this the goat without any more ado leaped in. The fox, taking advantage of his friend's horns, nimbly leaped out and coolly remarked to the poor deluded goat: "If you had half as much brains as you have beard, you would have looked before you leaped."

Look before you leap.

Clever yes, but admirable no. I didn’t read Aesop when I was a kid, but I was raised on another set of fables called Leave It To Beaver. On that TV icon from the ‘50s and ‘60’s, snarky Eddie Haskell serves in many episodes as a fox. There was no doubt in my mind that Eddie was clever, always talking Wally and the Beav into doing things that landed them in hot water. Eddie was morally corrupt, a fact well known by the adults on the program, and it always surprised me that Ward and June never forbade their kids from hanging out with such a corrupting influence. My folks would have booted Eddie out the door and told him to never return, and then they would have booted me in the ass for being gullible, not clever enough to see through his schemes.

Have you ever listened to someone trying to be funny, only to realize they were merely being clever? Do you laugh at clever puns, or do you groan? In fact, we seldom laugh at cleverness, which is why nobody laughs at Aesop’s fables. We despise the clever fox and want him punished for what he’s done, just as we wanted Eddie Haskell torn a new one at the end of those Leave it to Beaver episodes.

I’ve researched cleverness (five minutes on Google) and I’ve come away with the notion that cleverness is slick and temporary, designed to master the moment. Wisdom must be nurtured slowly, like grapes gradually transformed into fine wine. But unlike fine wine, the benefits of wisdom are lasting.

I decided when I began Chubby Chatterbox that this blog would not dispense advice

(I’m not qualified to give any) but here I contradict myself. I advise you to disregard this

post and endeavor to be like Johnny, mentioned at the beginning. It’s okay to be smart and fill your head with wisdom, but be clever about it; don’t broadcast the fact because most of us don’t really like smart people and consider them a pain in the ass. We have little difficulty erasing smart people from our thoughts as quickly as possible, but clever foxes are immortal, as are Eddie Haskells.

Anyone have anything clever to add?


I created this illustration for an insurance company a few years ago.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thirty Years In Waiting

Most people visiting our home don’t notice it, not that I’m surprised. I myself am inclined to disregard these unless they are on a wall in a doctor’s office, behind a surgeon discussing how he is going to slice me open. Then I check to be sure the document didn’t come from the Caribbean, embossed with a picture of Bob Marley. I’m talking about college diplomas.

I got to thinking about mine because a friend recently blogged that, while attending his graduation ceremony, he was surprised to receive an empty folder. His diploma had yet to be printed. He was unaware that colleges and universities pull this stunt as a precaution against students flunking their senior finals. My friend passed his finals with flying colors, and I hope he doesn’t have to wait long to receive his diploma. I waited thirty years for mine.

I graduated from UCLA on June 29, 1974. I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony because another event took precedence over my graduation; this was the day Mrs. Chatterbox and I were married, the only date available at the golf club where Mrs. C’s folks were members and where they wanted to hold our reception. Since UCLA was hundreds of miles south of San Mateo where we were to wed, and since I couldn’t be in two places at the same time, I was a no-show at my graduation.

To be honest, I never felt like I passed up much. Had I attended, I would have stood with thousands of others, waved my mortarboard cap for a minute or two and sat down. We graduates weren’t even going to be permitted to stroll across a stage. Besides, I was an art major and I figured (correctly as it turned out) that diplomas didn’t matter. Portfolios containing high quality art were all that galleries or advertising agencies cared about.

The decades came and went without me thinking much about my diploma, but after years of marriage the well of gift-giving ideas often runs dry. Mrs. C, who is one of the most generous people on Earth, was struggling to find a gift for my fiftieth birthday. Then an idea popped into her head.

So there I was on my fiftieth birthday, imagining myself as a tree and thinking about all those rings that would be visible if someone chopped me down, when my wife placed a package on my lap. It was shaped like artwork but she never bought me art, claiming it would be like bringing coals to Newcastle. I was baffled. I tore off the wrapping paper. In my hands, beautifully framed—my college diploma.

It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless. “You ordered a copy of my diploma?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “That’s your actual diploma. I called UCLA about having a copy made and they said it wasn’t necessary. They had all unclaimed diplomas from the time the University opened in 1882. They were happy to mail me your diploma, and they didn’t even charge me anything.”

I studied the document carefully, noticing Governor Ronald Reagan’s signature on it, probably just a stamp but still cool. In beautiful calligraphy it proclaimed my bachelor’s degree in Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts. I overlooked the fact that over the years I’d lied shamelessly about my major to suit my purposes. If I was in a hot and heavy philosophical discussion with someone I’d fib and claim Philosophy was my college major. The same with Politics or History. Now it would be hard to lie about my major with this diploma hanging on the wall for all to see.

Just before beginning this post I was reading an article on Yahoo that listed the five most worthless college degrees. First and foremost was any degree having to do with Fine Arts. This might be the first time in my life I’ve figured at the top of any list. But worthless? Hardly. I may not have thought much of my diploma when I graduated, but thirty years later it hangs on my wall as a testament to my wife’s love and devotion.

Besides, the last time I was in the Caribbean I bought a few fake diplomas for twenty bucks. They look cheesy, having been printed in a rusty van by a Bob Marley look-a-like, but I’ve won a few arguments with them.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Tempest

This jewel of a painting, glowing like a stained glass window, is more modern than it looks at first glance. We don’t know exactly when it was created (probably around 1508) and we don’t know its real name—The Tempest is a nickname to make it easier to identify. So what makes it so modern?

Giorgione (a nickname meaning Big George) was an astonishingly gifted Venetian painter who died young and left only a handful of paintings. The colors and textures are vivid hallmarks of Venetian painting, but in spite of its brilliance there’s a perplexing riddle at the heart of The Tempest: what the heck does this picture mean? It’s okay to scratch your head while studying it. Art scholars have been doing so since the picture was found in Giorgione’s studio after his untimely death from the plague at thirty-three.

In Giorgione’s day landscape art had yet to be developed, but this landscape is more than just a backdrop for figures. It’s a presence in its own right and will later point the way for future landscape painters. Lightning crackles in a sky choked with menacing clouds, and sultriness oozes from the painting. Gazing at it, I can almost feel my shirt sticking to my back. But the riddle doesn’t come from the steamy landscape; it’s harbored in the figures.

Is this a religious picture? On the right a woman sits, suckling a baby. Instead of looking at her child, she takes in the viewer with a challenging stare. Is this the way most women suckle babies? No. The baby is not on her lap but off to the side, as if Giorgione delighted in exposing her private parts. This has disturbed those who have wanted to interpret this as the Holy Family on the flight to Egypt. Venice was a licentious place, but not even the Venetians would have dared to depict the Mother of God this way. Is she a gypsy, or a prostitute? Is this Adam and Eve with their child Cain? A scene from classical mythology, and if so which one? How could a painter of Giorgione’s caliber have created something so confusing?

Take a look at the dude with the staff in the bottom left corner, smiling at we know not what. Who is he? He doesn’t even look at the mother and child. Does he know they are there? Is he a shepherd? If so what’s he doing in fashionable duds from a Venetian version of the Men’s Wearhouse? Is he a soldier protecting them, or are they hiding from him? We don’t know if he is flesh and blood or the spirit of a protective saint. Maybe he’s a member of a club for unwed men. If so, are the columns behind him signs of his steadfastness or phallic symbols advertising his sexual prowess? Either way, why are these columns broken? X-rays show that the artist had originally painted another nude female here before changing his mind, which could have made this a picture about women on the lam, a Renaissance version of Thelma and Louise.

Artists have always changed their minds, altered and refined their work, but here it seems as if Giorgione had no subject in mind. During the Renaissance, artists were considered mere tradesmen; they painted what they were told to paint; portraits flaunting wealth and status, a crucifixion for a church, the commemoration of a special event. Unlike modern artists, they weren’t free to paint what they pleased. The Tempest was said to have been commissioned by a Venetian nobleman, but who could possibly have commissioned something as vague, as peculiar as this?

This is not for those who shun mysteries, who like things tied and bundled with neat rules and explanations. Giorgione’s painting is like the city that inspired it—Venice, that labyrinthian marvel on the waves, a place of blurry twists and turns forcing you to question what you see. Like Venice itself, this painting floats on a sea of questions and improbabilities.

Giorgione has prepared a visual feast for us but we are expected to bring something to the party, our own interpretation. This is the beginning of something modern. We get to participate in the creative process by deciding for ourselves what this painting means. In the future this concept will be taken for granted, but here in 1508 it’s a steamy little revolution.

Welcome to the feast. What do you think is happening in The Tempest?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Fay

This was one of my first posts when I launched Chubby Chatterbox last year. It wasn’t intended for Father’s Day, but it seems appropriate.


On our way home from the barbershop when I was a kid, Dad would take a moment to tell me what a great haircut I’d gotten, adding, “It’s because you have such a nicely shaped head.”

Dad was an extremely upbeat guy, always finding something positive to say, which couldn’t have been easy when it came to his chubby, non-athletic younger son. Still, it always made me feel good when he said it, and there’d be starch in my walk the rest of the day. Dad is gone now, and nobody ever compliments me on the shape of my head, although my wife sometimes tells me not to let it get too big.

A short time ago I was traveling on the light rail when a young man sat down opposite me. He was dressed in leather and covered in tattoos. His numerous piercings made me wince inside. But his hair! His stylist must have been having a seizure at the time. There were bald areas, bristly patches, and lengthy strands dyed in colors I associate with a bruise. His rough appearance seemed to match his personality when he growled at me, “What the f#@k are you looking at?”

I flashed on my dad, how he could always find something positive to say. I leveled my gaze at him and smiled. “You certainly have a nicely shaped head.”

He didn’t pull a shiv out of his boot. He surprised me by returning the smile. When he exited several stops later he said, “Have a nice day.”

I miss my dad. If you are still blessed to have your Dad, give him a call and tell him how important he is to you. Do it for those of us who can’t.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Conclusion: Supertrout

It burst from its hiding place beneath a submerged log, and it was moving so fast

that at first I couldn’t identify it. But one look at David told me all I needed to know—at long last, here he was. The legend was true; it was Supertrout!

He seemed to be everywhere, flashing like a ball of mercury struck by a hammer. For a minute I thought he was just making a boastful appearance before vanishing into his hiding place. He didn’t immediately charge the three baited hooks resting on the sandy riverbed. But Supertrout was only pretending to retreat. At the last minute he spun around and dashed toward my baited hook.

He bit hard and sped back for the safety of his log as line screeched from my reel. I didn’t realize it right away, but I was crying. I didn’t want to catch Supertrout! I didn’t even like fishing! I liked to stand beside the river and daydream. Now I was to be cursed by catching this stupid fish, and I could see that he was sooo beautiful. I didn’t want to kill him.

David tried to rip the pole from my hands, but Dad brushed him away. This was to be my moment. If I’d known how to fish, I might have tried to lose Supertrout—since there were ways to hook fish, there must be ways to unhook them—but no matter what I did, Supertrout wouldn’t let go of my bait. David could see that Supertrout was about to reach the other side of the cove, where he could wrap the line around the dead branch of a log and snap it. If there had been time, and if I’d liked him more, I might have worried about David because he was starting to foam at the mouth. He looked like someone about to turn inside out.

When Supertrout reached the far side of the cove, I realized David was screaming at me. “Reel him in! Don’t let him get away!” Then he yelled, “Don’t give him his head!” whatever that meant. I truly would have preferred passing the pole to David, but Dad had made it clear that, want it or not, this fish was mine.

I began to reel Supertrout in. Perhaps I was strong from opening tight lids on jars of peanut butter and mayonnaise, but I surprised Dad and David by managing to pull Supertrout to the riverbank. The great fish glinted in the sunlight as it flipped about on the gravel. I just stood there and stared at it, aghast. Dad picked up Supertrout and bashed his head on a rock. I shrieked in misery as blood gushed from his gills. Dad later claimed this was the merciful thing to do, so the fish wouldn’t suffer.

There was a rusty measuring guide embossed on the lid of Dad’s old tackle box, but it only went up to twelve inches and the now lifeless body of Supertrout was more than twice that. I didn’t want to fish anymore, or ever again, but David continued for awhile, even though his heart wasn’t in it. He probably tried to convince himself that Supertrout had a twin. I noticed him looking at me with something close to hatred. On the way back to camp, he didn’t want to be seen with me and walked on ahead. With Supertrout dangling from a chain in my hand as Dad and I returned to camp, people pointed and clapped me on the back.

Legends should never die. I hope the Loch Ness monster, the Abominable Snowman and Bigfoot are never found. Supertrout spent time in our freezer, and for awhile Dad would bring him out to show people just what a great little fisherman I was, but eventually the fish became “cruddy” and was thrown away. Cats overturned our garbage can, and I caught a glimpse of Supertrout’s skeleton in the gutter in front of our house, not a fitting end for a legend.

The day I caught Supertrout, Dad drove us home with Uncle Manuel snoring in the front passenger seat. David and I were in the back, and David was staring out the side window with his back to me as much as possible. I leaned forward. “Dad?”

“Yes, son.”

“Do you think fish have souls?”

“I don’t know. Probably not.” He knew I was sad about Supertrout.

The moment felt right and once again I took my best shot. “Dad?”


“Can I have a German Shepherd?”

He surprised me by saying, “No promises, but I’ll run it past your mother when we get home.”

Later, the answer was still no, but I figured I was making progress.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


A true story from my memoir The Kid in the Kaleidoscope.

The Himalayas had the Abominable Snowman; Scotland had the Loch Ness Monster; the Northwest had Bigfoot; and the Santa Cruz Mountains had Supertrout. Described by those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him, Supertrout was a noble denizen of the water, a baron of bait stealing; big as a barracuda, he could be hooked but was too big to land. My older brother lusted for him like Ahab over Moby Dick. At eleven, David was three years older than me, and he took it personally when our camping trips ended without him landing the elusive fish.

The summer of 1960 was a typical California scorcher. Mom stayed behind for some coveted alone time; her idea of fun didn’t include camping or fishing. She smiled with relief as Dad, David and I piled into our ‘46 Chevy pickup for a rattling ride to Portola State Park in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. Portola’s streams and creeks were annually stocked with easy-to-catch trout, none bigger than five inches. Few of these made it through the summer, but there were other animals: blue jays, squirrels, inquisitive raccoons, and of course…Supertrout.

Our expeditions to Portola usually included cabbage-shaped Uncle Manuel, the family’s camping expert. I never knew if he was Mom or Dad’s brother, but he was older than either of my parents and his garage was choked with camping equipment. In addition to camp stoves, lanterns and fishing gear, he had an army surplus tent that slept ten.

Uncle Manuel was like that kid you had to let into the game because it was his ball. Since he owned the tent and most of the equipment, and since he was retired from working on the railroad and his children were grown and gone, Uncle Manuel usually came along. He wasn’t so bad, but I gagged when he made us eat raw spam sandwiches. I could never convince him that the stuff needed to be fried or that it was necessary to scrape that gelatin crud off. He also brought along cans of pork and beans that he ate cold from the can. I sometimes worried we might get attacked by raccoons because Uncle Manuel would turn the tent into a gas chamber if we didn’t leave the tent flap open at night.

When we arrived at the park we’d hunt for the best campsite. The adults always wanted a spot close to the bathrooms, while we kids wanted a place so far from civilization that if we died it would take bloodhounds to find our bodies. Once the site was selected, Dad and Uncle Manuel made us comb the spot where the tent was to be erected, an important step because a sharp rock in your back could keep you awake all night, or even poke a hole in the canvas flooring. And it was a sure thing that if only one jagged rock was left under the tent, it would find its way beneath your sleeping bag. Some campers brought air mattresses to cushion their sleep, but Uncle Manuel who, like me, carried around his own padding, called those people “softies” and forbade such things in his tent.

Shortly after arriving at the park, David would become a soul possessed. He was always eager to hear anything about Supertrout, no matter how ridiculous. Uncle Manuel, usually a miser with words, once made the mistake of telling David about a neighbor whose tax man had a bookie who spotted the famous fish. Dad tried to lower David’s expectations by saying he’d never heard of a bookie who fished, but my older brother took this, as he did most things, very seriously. Park rangers were the best source of information. When peppered with questions about Supertrout, they’d just wink and say, “Nobody’s caught him…yet.”

David would sleep in his clothes so he wouldn’t need to waste time dressing in the morning. Fish were said to feed at sunrise so many campers brought alarm clocks, which seemed to defeat the entire point of a vacation. Long before sunrise he would grab his gear and head down a forested path, disappearing into the inky darkness. The beam of his flashlight would be joined by those of other hopeful anglers staggering through the dying night like zombies. Diehard anglers staked out their fishing spots early, before the good ones were gone. Most stopped at the reservoir itself, the area of deepest water, but the prevailing theory was that someone would have caught, or at least seen, Supertrout if that’s where he was hiding. The truly determined sportsmen, fishermen like David, continued on past the waterfall at the far end of the reservoir to search for the perfect spot, usually a shaded cove with deep slow-moving water.

On those rare occasions when he allowed me to tag along with him, I’d hear David mumbling under his breath, “Think like a fish…think like a fish! Where would I hide if I was a fish?” Realizing he was trying to get inside the head of something scaly that ate bugs was kind of creepy. Eventually David would settle on a shaded cove and get down to the serious business of trying to outwit a fish that probably didn’t exist, a fish that, if it did exist, would have a brain smaller than a walnut. It was usually at this point he’d wave me away to a less promising site, claiming that sound of me munching the Frosted Flakes I’d packed into my pockets distracted the fish.

When it came to fishing, nothing was more important than bait. On this subject there were countless opinions. Some people preferred worms or crickets, but salmon eggs were a popular choice. They came in little plastic jars and were available in different colors; they also came in different flavors to accommodate a fish’s changing moods, but I can tell you from firsthand experience they all tasted the same. When salmon eggs didn’t do the job, anglers might try a bit of raw bacon or a piece of marshmallow. In an exploration of taste and style worthy of Julia Child, David would sometimes cover a salmon egg in soft Velveeta cheese and add a piece of orange peel. Although delicious, these were ignored by Supertrout.

Since I wasn’t as interested in fishing as the others, I’d often play in the shallow water leading up to the reservoir. Or I’d hike the trails that led through groves of redwoods that stood like sentient giants, many of them still showing scars from a fire that raced through the area long before the white man arrived. Or I’d daydream about owning a German Shepherd like Rin Tin Tin. I begged my parents repeatedly but the answer was always the same: NO.

David seldom returned to camp for breakfast or lunch, but Dad insisted he return for dinner. Dirty and tired, he’d stagger back to camp, angry that the day had been a failure. Dad would always say that any day spent fishing was a day well spent, even if you didn’t catch anything. But David would roll his eyes in obvious disagreement. Even though he desperately wanted to catch Supertrout, deep down I don’t think he really liked fishing all that much.

It always seemed to me that the best part of fishing came at the end of the day, when everyone gathered around the campfire to burn marshmallows, tell stories and let the whoppers fly. There were always tales of cagey Supertrout who, year after year, refused to be caught and grew in size.

On the morning of our last day at Portola that year, Dad insisted we all fish together, as a family. David grumbled that my whining would most likely prevent us from hiking far enough upstream to find a really good spot. Just before sunrise, we left Uncle Manuel snoring in the tent and headed for a fishing hole not distant enough for David but close enough for me and Dad.

The spot was just fine. It looked like trout heaven to me, but I couldn’t think like a fish the way David could. There weren’t other fishermen around, so we settled in for some serious fishing and bait eating. Hours passed, and David got edgy because he knew that all too soon we’d be breaking camp and departing. He was once again running out of time. Dad still enjoyed the whole fishing experience, but David scowled at the water like it was his personal enemy.

Then something moved in the water.

Conclusion on Friday....

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mary's House

Is this really the house where the Mother of God spent Her last years? Like so many things, it all boils down to a matter of faith. Although I work hard to contain my cynicism, faith isn’t my strong suit. But I am painfully sentimental and the story of Jesus is a remarkably good one, as well it should be after thousands of years of embellishment.

You might be surprised to learn that the House of Mary is said to be in Turkey; I know I was. This all began in Germany with the 19th century bedridden nun Anne Catherine Emmerich. She had experienced a number of visions, including the description of a house the Apostle John, to whom Jesus is said to have entrusted His Mother before His crucifixion, had built for Mary. John is known to have traveled to Ephesus in modern day Turkey, where he lived out his life. It is assumed he followed Jesus’ directive and brought Mary along with him. Emmerich’s visions were published in 1852. This excerpt is from Wikipedia:

Mary did not live in Ephesus itself, but in the country near it. Mary's dwelling was on a hill to the left of the road from Jerusalem, some three and half hours from Ephesus. This hill slopes steeply towards Ephesus; the city, as one approaches it from the southeast seems to lie on rising ground.... Narrow paths lead southwards to a hill near the top of which is an uneven plateau, some half hour's journey….

Emmerich also described the details of the house: that it was built with rectangular stones, that the windows were high up near the flat roof and that it consisted of two parts with a hearth at the center of the house. She further described the location of the doors, the shape of the chimney, etc.

The house was discovered in the 19th century by following the descriptions reported

in these visions, and just about every pope since then has made a pilgrimage to the spot and proclaimed it a holy place of veneration. But is it Mary’s house? It dates from the right era, but where’s the proof demanded by Doubting Thomases like me?

So why was I here on this mountain top, staring at something that, for me, carried as much spiritual significance as Disneyland—a place said to have been inhabited by a woman I wasn’t sure existed, who was said to have given birth to a son whose true purpose and identity has caused so much confusion and conflict in the world? I was here because this was the spot that had propelled Mrs. Chatterbox to Turkey, the place she’d wanted to visit most.

I snapped a few pictures of the house, and turned around to look at my wife. She was crying. “Are you alright?” I asked clumsily. I was worried we’d come all this way and she was disappointed, the site not having lived up to her expectations. Had she come to realize that this probably wasn’t the place where the Mother of God had lived out her life?

“I’m okay,” she said, swiping away the tears with the back of her hand.

“It’s a beautiful setting,” I admitted, a theological discussion taking form in my mind. But theology was the last thing on her mind.

“I miss my parents, and CJ,” she said. Mrs. Chatterbox’s folks had passed away a decade earlier, and our son was home, thousands of miles away.

My wife smiled at me, and something ineffable in her eyes made me realize that at the heart of Christianity is a simple concept—family. Maybe Mary of Nazareth didn’t live out Her days here. To my wife this hardly mattered. Countless other mothers had. Beyond the hype surrounding this place there remained a basic truth—this was simply a house, a home where generations of mothers had suffered losses and tragedies just as relevant as the one that, two thousand years ago, set in motion events that would prompt people to board the tour buses racing to this mountain.

Something about this tourist trap made my eyes well up with love for my wife and son, loss for those that I have loved and lost. I took comfort in the breeze that rattled the leaves of the ancient trees surrounding us. Sentimental—absolutely, but I felt a presence. Mary, are you here?

Cynic that I am, for a moment I believed She was.