Author Archives: Tippy Gnu

The Church of Ruth and Pancakes

Ruth, about a year before she died.

My mother-in-law, Ruth, died about three years ago.

Ruth was a tough-minded woman and an alumnus of the college of hard knocks. And she could be hard to please. She disliked all of her sons-in-law, as well as her daughter-in-law.

Except me. She and I had similar philosophies on life, and agreed with each other often enough to be agreeable with each other.

But that wasn’t why she liked me. She liked me because I worked for a living and took care of her daughter. Which was hard to do. I’m lazy and don’t like work, so like I say, she was hard to please.

Ruth was old-school. She saw a man’s place as one who brings home the bacon. She liked when women worked, too. But she especially enjoyed seeing a man bending his back.

Occasionally I would yawn and stretch in front of her, and mutter, “I’m tired.”

Her invariable reply was, “What the fuck do you have to be tired about? Get the hell off your lazy ass and do something!” She was half joking, but the other half was deadly serious.

She and I viewed the world through morose-colored glasses. She greeted the news of pregnancies with deep somberness, as if someone had died. But word of a death left her feeling elated, and eager to celebrate the blessed event.

Ruth cobbled together many wise sayings over the course of her long life, some stolen and some original. Every Sunday morning for over 20 years, my wife and I, and other members of my wife’s large family, would gather at my in-laws’ house. My father-in-law, Jake, would cook pancakes for us, while Ruth regaled us with her wisdom.

It was almost like being in church. Family gossip and other salacious news was tossed around the table, just like all that gossiping that goes on at places of worship.

Ruth would ponder over the table talk, then weigh in with her proverbs and preachments, often punctuated with four-letter imprecations, and mallet-mouthed maledictions. Her sermons were down-to-earth, salty, and as powerful as fire and brimstone. They hit home hard, sometimes to the chagrin of a pancake eater seated nearby.

One day I wrote a poem about her, and read it to her at church. Er, I mean at Sunday pancakes. She loved the verses, and requested that I read them at her funeral. It took eight years, because Ruth was slow to leave this world, but finally I was able to grant her request.

That was three years ago. Since that time, I’ve had the honor of sleeping in the same bedroom Ruth slept in for nearly three decades. In fact, it’s the same room she passed away in, and the same room I’m typing this post in.

She haunts me. In her loving but tough-minded way, her memory reminds me now and then to get off my lazy ass and stop napping. Do something. Take care of business. And cut out the bullshit.

Well if I’m going to be haunted, I think you should be too. So I’m unleashing Ruth’s spirit upon you. I’m sharing with you the poem I wrote for her, which I read at her funeral. I hope you like it, but keep in mind that it goes down better with an earful of gossip and mouthful of pancakes.

The Church of Ruth and Pancakes

The Church of Ruth and Pancakes
Holds service every week.
We congregate on Sundays
And find the things we seek.

We find many words of wisdom,
And a family reunion,
Where Deacon Jake fries pancakes
And serves them for Communion.

The sermon is a doozy,
With words of wisdom, long in tooth,
From a wizened, world-worn woman
Whom we call our Prophet Ruth.

Now listen up, and I will share
Some treasures from her mind.
If you heed these gems you will become
A little more refined:

“Never deal with a dummy,”
Prophet Ruth is prone to mime,
“My father warned me if you do,
“You’ll be screwed most every time.”

“I can smell a bum a mile away,”
She’s often proud to state.
But when the bum comes near her,
God help that poor man’s fate.

And to the fair young ladies
Attracting all the guys,
She’ll say, “A stiff prick has no conscience,
“Take this warning from the wise.”

And when an older woman
Acts mean, she’ll find the blame,
She’ll say, “An old bitch was a young bitch,
“I think I know your game.”

She sees how generations live
And says with gravity,
“You’ve got to think of fruit
“Falling not far from the tree.”

We’ve learned a lot from Prophet Ruth,
With pancakes on our plate,
And as our week goes grinding by,
It’s for Sunday we can’t wait.

If you follow Prophet Ruth’s words,
Your reward will one day be
Pancakes made in heaven,
With some damn good company.

Tibetan Sky Burial

When I die, I want to free up real estate so that others can more easily take my place. So I don’t like the idea of being buried in the ground. Just incinerate my body and spread the ashes to the wind.

Or better yet, let me feed the wildlife, by giving me a Tibetan-style Sky Burial.

The finality of death is chilling. I like to dispel the chill by assuming there’s a hereafter. I like to assume that the only finality is the end of our history on this earth, and that somehow our consciousness will migrate to a different realm.

We simply move on, to chase new unicorns in new ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no inside information on this subject. And I’m willing to agree that I could be living in a fool’s paradise. But for me, a fool’s paradise beats the depression and abject terror that would darken my every remaining day, if I assumed there is no more life after our bodies cease to function.

So I can watch a Tibetan Sky Burial with hope, rather than horror. I see death as a change, and quite possibly a change for the better. And this thought of death as change leaves me looking forward, to some degree, to my last day on this crazy earth.

Tibetan Sky Burials tend to attract audiences of Chinese tourists. And the monks who conduct these burials sometimes complain about the tourists, viewing them and their cell phone cameras as desecrating a solemn event.

And yet Buddhism teaches us to embrace impermanence. One way to embrace the impermanence of life, is to come face-to-face with this vulturine approach to the disposal of dead bodies. So I like that audiences and cell phone cameras are allowed.

You too can be part of the audience, by watching the following video.

But I must warn you: If you’re squeamish, you might want to keep a barf bucket nearby.

Piss Poor

The Piss Poor Potato Eaters, by Vincent Van Gough, 1885. Or maybe it’s just called The Potato Eaters.

Wouldn’t you know it, a crank has submitted a unicorn beam, for a guest post. Her full name is Cranky Pants, although I will lazily refer to her as CP. CP honestly admits she didn’t write this. Yep, she stole a unicorn. But that’s okay, unicorns respect honest thieves.

CP wants us to know how folks lived back in medieval times. Especially the folks who were piss poor. Like all of my ancestors.

If you’re the empty-pocketed type who often doesn’t have two nickels to rub together, I think you’re going to enjoy this piss poor submission from CP.

 

Did you know…..??

 

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “piss poor.”

But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot; they “didn’t have a pot to piss in” & were the lowest of the low.

The next time you are washing your hands & complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. Since they were starting to smell, however, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women, and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it . . . hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the Bath water!”

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, resulting in the idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed, therefore, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, leading folks to coin the phrase “dirt poor.”

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way, subsequently creating a “thresh hold.”

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while, and thus the rhyme, “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the “upper crust.”

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up, creating the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be saved by the bell, or was considered a dead ringer.

Bread of Life

Today we start a new decade. 10 is a nice, round number that’s easy to work with. So, with my limited math skills, I like to divide my life into decades. Sometimes I like to look back, decennium to decennium, and see how my life has changed.

And the change is always dramatic. My life circumstances 10 years ago are much different than now. And with each 10-year increment, remembering backward, I find more great differences.

The philosophies I live by are also very different. They’ve constantly and imperceptibly metamorphosed, day-after-day, to adjust to my gradually changing life. From yesterday to today, there’s not much difference. But from 10 years ago, there’s been a sea change. That doesn’t invalidate the way I guided my life a decade ago. It only means that I’ve had to change my ways, ever-so-slightly, day-to-day, to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of life.

Thus, I’ve concluded that there is no one guiding philosophy for life that can survive the test of time. We must change, and keep changing, to adjust, correct, and compensate for the viscous foundation we stand upon. As our lives change, so must our perceptions and philosophies.

It seems to me that the philosophies you and I live by today have never been used before. They may resemble philosophies of the past, but there are subtle differences. Life as we once knew it is not the life we know today, nor will it ever be again. And so we’ve had to make adjustments.

And as we progress through this new decade, we’ll have to keep adjusting.

But I wonder what drives the adjustment process. How does this miracle occur that enables us to adapt to each new, changing day? Is it inspiration from a higher source? Is it cues we receive from others? Or is it reflection, from the meditation of our own minds?

Whatever it is, be it deified, social, or innate, or perhaps all three, I believe it’s absolutely essential that we never lose touch with it. Especially if it seems to be working. For this is the source of our philosophy.

This, I believe, is our bread of life.

Happy New Year. And may the bread of life you consume this year, and this decade, be abundant and delicious.

Holding Trump’s Balls

Last year on December 17th, I predicted that Trump would be impeached and gone by the end of 2019. How stupid of me.

Senate Majority Turtle, Mitch McConnell.

Trying to predict politics is like trying to augur the outcome of a grasshopper race. But at least I was partly right, because Trump was impeached exactly one year and one day after my post. However I didn’t predict that our Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, would promise a quick acquittal for our Gaslighter-in-Chief.

The grasshopper jumped backward.

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

And now the grasshopper has jumped another odd direction. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is withholding the articles of impeachment from the Senate, until she’s sure Trump will receive a fair trial.

Pundits and politicians from both parties have puzzled over this move. Some worry that Americans will lose interest in impeachment, the longer the trial is delayed. Some claim she has no leverage. And some taunt her by saying she’s too scared to send the articles over.

But I think it’s an act of genius. Hanging onto the articles could make the grasshopper jump in any of these four directions:

  1. It could allow Mitch and Nancy to move legislation and pass laws. Mitch has said that he won’t put his large backlog of bills before the Senate unless he knows the president will sign them. Well Mitch, now you have some leverage. Either the president promises to sign some bills, or you make a deal with Nancy. It’s ironic. The most partisan impeachment in history has potential for the most bipartisan legislation in history.
  2. It might lead Republican senators who are up for re-election next year, to vote for conviction. Right now they’re caught in a bind. If they vote to convict, they’ll lose their primaries, even when it would help them in the general election. But if the trial is held after they’ve already won their primaries, they’ll only have the general election to worry about.
  3. It allows time to force more evidence before the trial occurs. The fight for subpoenaed documents and witnesses might be resolved by the Supreme Court before the Senate trial occurs. This might pile more damning evidence upon the current mountain of evidence against Trump.
  4. But most importantly, I think, holding this Sword of Damocles over Trump’s head could motivate him to be a good little boy. He’s pissed off Republicans before, but never while at their mercy during an impeachment trial. Now he might think twice before going off half-cocked and doing things that jeopardize our national security or our economic stability.

So keep dangling that sword, Nancy. Or how about this metaphor? The two articles of impeachment you’re hanging onto are like Trump’s balls. Don’t let go. Make the son-of-a-bitch sweat until perhaps this summer. How about a Senate trial during the Republican National Convention, for instance?

His balls are in your court Nancy. Put the squeeze on hard before you give them a whack toward the Senate’s court.

In a way, perhaps I was right about Trump being gone by the end of 2019. For while he will still occupy the White House into 2020, maybe he won’t be the same Trump we’ve known. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll turn into someone unrecognizable:

A mild-mannered man with no balls.

When The Mail Stopped

I parked at my house to take a little nap, before starting my rounds. By the time I woke up I could barely drive the streets without slipping and sliding, and had to return to the post office with most of the mail undelivered.

This photo was taken on the morning of December 17, 2008, after my little town in the Mojave Desert had received about two inches of snow. Ten more inches fell that day.

No one at the post office had ever bothered to check our snow chains to see if they would fit the tires. And they didn’t fit. Mail delivery was canceled for two days, until we could finally get the correct chains.

When we returned to work, we had a high mountain of mail and parcels to climb, and put in many hours of overtime to catch up.

Heavy snows like this are very rare for our area, but some weather reports are predicting the possibility of up to 11 inches falling overnight.

We’ll see.

Meantime, have a Merry Christmas. And if it isn’t white, just look at this photo and enjoy vicariously. And be glad you don’t have to use your shovel.

Point Last Seen

About a week ago my wife’s diet club, TOPS, held a Christmas luncheon at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, spouses of club members were welcome. I hate parties, but I knew this meant a lot to my wife, so out of my hole I crawled.

About 30 of us sat gabbing, around a long, narrow table. A finger of restlessness clawed my gut, as there was something at home I had been deeply engrossed in, that I wanted so much to return to.

I found myself warding off the usual assortment of flibbertigibbets, Nosy Parkers, and loud drunks. I did my best to suppress my inner misanthrope, while surveying this party for a kindred spirit who might share my wonkish taste for cerebral communication.

I spotted a candidate. This spirit sat opposite me, and about three chairs to the left. At first I wasn’t sure if the candidate was male or female, until I heard her feminine voice. She was middle-aged, had a heavy, husky build, with a large, square face that surrounded tiny spectacles.

She spoke with those around her sporadically, thoughtfully, and briefly, yet with the gravitas of an anvil. Just my type of conversationalist. I said something in her direction, to grab her attention, and it came across as awkward as the oblique acreage that separated us. I looked like a fool and gave up, contenting myself with the pursuit of staring downward and studying my napkin.

A party game ensued, called Who Am I? We were given clues about various club members’ lives, and asked to guess which member it was. One of the clues stood out like a unicorn.

“I was a Search and Rescue volunteer at Joshua Tree National Park. And then I moved to the Kalahari desert to research subsistence tracking,” the party leader proclaimed, as she read the clue from the paper. Everyone was stumped. “Hannah,” the leader finally revealed (pronouncing it “Hon-noh”).

Wow! I thought. Now there’s someone I’d like to have a conversation with. “Who’s that Kalahari desert person?” I asked my wife, sitting next to me.

“Oh, that was Hannah,” and she pointed at the husky lady with gravitas, whom I’d so awkwardly and unsuccessfully attempted to ensnare in dialogue just a few minutes earlier.

Hannah heard us and looked over at me. My opening! And our conversation began.

She was a challenge. She revealed herself in short sentences. But each sentence was an enticing breadcrumb that led my wife and I, and those around her, on and on, deeper into her personal history.

Hannah had come to our desert to get away from people. Yes! A fellow misanthrope! Tell us more, Hannah!

Her children had been abducted. Twice. What? Was Hannah actually a crazy nut? I mean, whose children get abducted twice? Ah, but it was her estranged ex-husband who had done the abducting. And it was our eccentric local judge who had given this ex-husband unsupervised visitation rights, after the first abduction. Yes, now we understood.

But Hannah exhibited no bitterness toward the judge. Or toward her ex-husband, whom she made a point to say something positive about after I made a sarcastic comment about him. Here was a deep spirit indeed. One who could find the beauty in any soul, no matter how obscured by the dark shadows of their heart.

Hannah mentioned graduate school, which led me down the tangent of her education. I love educated people when they’re as down-to-earth as her. She had a Masters Degree in Anthropology and a PhD in History.

Poor Hannah. It seemed to me that she had invested in an expensive education that was highly unlikely to pay for itself in monetary remuneration. Yet what an adventuresome life. “You’ve really lived!” my wife noted.

“You could write a book,” I added.

“I have written a book. Several books,” Hannah answered.

Another breadcrumb. More inquiries. And more enticing information.

This was no everyday Hannah. This was Hanna Nyala, author of the books, Point Last Seen, and Leave No Trace.

Point Last Seen: A Woman Tracker’s Story had first been published in 1997, and is an autobiographical account of Hannah’s experiences as a tracker for the National Park Service’s Search and Rescue operations. And not only was she a tracker in this memoir, but she was also tracked. By her ex-husband.

Point Last Seen was highly successful for Hannah, and in 1998 became an eponymous, CBS-TV movie, starring Linda Hamilton.

Leave No Trace was also a big success for Hannah, and made into the 2013 action-thriller movie, Heatstroke, starring Stephen Dorff and Svetlana Metkina.

She has also authored the book, Cry Last Heard, a sequel to Leave No Trace.

The diet club members seemed stunned. They suddenly realized that for months, they’d had a celebrity in their midst. The quiet, modestly unassuming, Hannah.

My favorite book genre is the public domain classic, and it takes a lot to get me to stray from that genre. But this was a true story about someone hiking through my backyard. Joshua Tree National Park. And Hannah fascinated me.

So after the party I got on Amazon and forked over $15.21 for Point Last Seen. When it arrived a few days later, it was hard to put down, and I consumed it within 24 hours. Or perhaps I should say, it consumed me.

For me, Point Last Seen was suspenseful, intriguing, outrageous, and funny.

I followed along on pins and needles as she tracked people lost in the desert, including a nine-year-old girl. I felt intrigued as I learned how to track. Or at least, learned how to learn how to track.

I raged at a legal system that sided with her abusive husband and put her and her children in mortal danger. And I laughed at her sense of humor, which had of way of seeping through at unexpected moments throughout the book.

Hannah shares her personal philosophies throughout this memoir, intertwining them with the art of tracking, the terror of being tracked, and poetic descriptions of the Mojave Desert. She left me with the sense that tracking is not just about finding a lost person. It’s also about finding yourself.

Point Last Seen was an inspiring read for me, and so of course I stole many quotes from her book. Here’s a few I’ll share with you, for your own inspiration:

Sitting and thinking and watching. That’s an important part of tracking. Patient attention to tiny, seemingly inconsequential details and differences. Measuring changes, memorizing patterns, asking intuitive questions and looking for their answers, ignoring sand in your eyes or rain on your head but imprinting on your mind the qualities of rain and sand located anywhere else.

As a tracker, I was not only surviving, but following the footprints of other human beings, well on the way to becoming human again myself. Going to the desert to escape people, I quickly began searching for them again in the most literal way imaginable: following their tracks.

Tracking isn’t instinctive or natural. It only begins when you start seeing the ground under your feet instead of just staring blindly at it; when you acknowledge the pain, accept the uncertainty of hope, feel the fear of being saviorless, yet insist not simply on surviving but also on paying attention to the small details of life once again.

Tracking also means learning to walk alongside, caring enough to reach out to other people—a crucial part of surviving when someone wants to make sure you don’t.

“Why didn’t you just leave him?” is one of the first questions our society has for battered women. What we don’t yet want to face is that there are many excellent reasons for staying with an abusive man—and not one completely positive reason for leaving. When you leave, things almost always get much worse, and sometimes they stay that way for a very long time.

No one else can teach you to track, no matter how much money you pay them or how much time you spend with them. Until you put in enough dirt time yourself, you cannot follow footprints on the ground.

Too frequently we notice vague signs, hesitate, and miss the lesson entirely. How many lessons can we miss before we’ve jeopardized the whole search?

Perhaps it’s time to admit that if trackers didn’t pay attention to hindsight, they’d be as lost as guppies on a tree branch . . . Looking backward and sideways while keeping your eyes focused forward is a crucial part of knowing not just where you are—but also where the one you seek may be.

Part of the process of getting lost is losing sight of your reference points without noticing they have disappeared. Then when your memory tries to connect itself to something familiar, it’s gone.

In the final decision to leave, you get out blindly, dumbly, knowing that when (not if) he catches up with you, he’s going to kill you and your children. So why even leave? Because somewhere deep inside, something shattered that last time he choked you—from a place long forgotten, you finally decided that if you had to die, you at least would not do so cowering in a corner of his house.

It’s always the little things, the tiny decisions or nondecisions, that contribute most to losing one’s way.

There’s no rationale behind losing your way, but trackers have to at least try to understand the process before attempting to find someone. Tracking one’s life is much the same. Sometimes you have to figure out why you did a thing in order to know what it was that you actually did. Retracing steps requires getting alarmingly close to what is most unknown to us: who we were at a specific point in time.

The U.S. legal system does not work for people who have no money. And according to the judge in our own case anyway, while it was legal for a man to beat his wife and children, it was illegal for a woman to desert her husband. I had deserted Kevin—and now to fight for the return of my children would require more money than I could ever hope to find.

I’ve always thought that those who manage to do anything for anyone else—regardless of where they happen to be at the moment of “the find”–are heroic. And as for the notion of “outstanding in the field”? To me that means exactly what it says: “out standing in the field”.

By learning to really see and listen to one another, by daring to smile and laugh and, yes, cry together, we can overcome what would destroy us. By joining hands, hearts, and efforts, we make human places where a whisper of hope is indeed equivalent to a done deal.

You can find Point Last Seen on Amazon, by following this link.

And you can learn more about Hannah Nyala at her website: PointLastSeen.com

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