Sam and Paxton bid a temporary farewell to their spiritual legionnaires at the Higher Ground meditation retreat, leaving them to their breakfasts for Sam and Pax to get a head start hiking. Sam had requested a stack of blueberry flapjacks, hoping the griddle would be searing hot, causing those flapjacks to sizzle and bubble to a steaming fluffiness. The batter hissed and bubbled on contact the lightly oiled griddle. The cook threw fresh blueberries in the batter, still wet, but turning airy.
The fry cook, brandishing a steel spatula for flipping eggs and omelets and pancakes to order, stood behind the glass, receiving requests over it. He wore a lapel tag, identifying himself as Randy, on an an apron still white and clean.
“Pile them on high, Randy,” Sam had said, with Randy looking up quizzically. He sometimes enjoys the informality of calling someone he doesn’t really know by their proper name. Sam is amused at the puzzled look that’s returned like loose change, followed by focus of mind, reflected in the eyes, of having figured it out. You can almost see the formulation that leads through point A to B. There’s a sense of play in it that, to Sam, should be a signal to the recipient of his whimsy – that they’re on the same level, whether they’re serving him or not. Sam sometimes follows the gesture with a mischievous smile. other times a wink. It gives him a feeling of self-satisfaction, leveling the social plane between himself and anybody else. But, if one is attuned enough to notice that the behavior only trickles downhill, not upward, then the implication of social strata’s still implied. Sam is jovial and playful toward Randy, but always gracious and serious and never playfully condescending, as interpreted by some, to the Lama.
Sam had eaten the hotcakes greedily, with real maple syrup that made him feel warm and full and comfortable, and a side of veggie bacon that tasted like paste, with coffee – black. Pax had order scrambled eggs, requesting them a bit wet, with toast and turkey sausage in links with some pulpy, freshly squeezed orange juice. The evening before, they’d split a fifth of Kessler and some ghost stories over a campfire. It was all fun, if not a bit spooky, before turning downright awkward when Pax’s drunkenly confessed to not minding sexual meddlings with a woman on her menstrual cycle. This morning, Pax had sat at breakfast regretting more the lack of a mixer with last night’s whiskey than his confession. Sam, drunk and feeling an obligation to reciprocate in the awkward moment, admitted to flirting with piercing his navel in college – how he’d even poked at an apple with a brad nail to get a sense of what his visceral response might be.
According to the map, Crow’s Beak Trail was of moderate difficulty with a moderate ascendancy and descent averaging roughly 7% at an overall length of 5.6 miles. Sam and Pax finished their breakfasts and stepped out of the dining cabana with the slight queasiness from their acute, nocturnal consumption but with the confidence that the walk in the sun and brisk air and the digesting breakfast meats, both real and faux, would return them physiological equilibrium. Sam noted to himself just how swell he felt overall and Pax thought he felt pretty dandy too.
The sun, in the east, still hung in the previous day’s humidity. By Sam’s estimate, they’d been on the trail maybe a mile. Sam hadn’t shaved and felt a bit guilty but realized that Pax hadn’t even showered, still smelling of yellow pine smoke and noting at breakfast how his breath smelled like a dog’s ass.
They were ambling along peacefully, slipping on the cracked and sun crusted trail, asking each time, “You okay?” Sam balanced himself with a large walking stick akin to Moses. They permitted their minds to roam as the influence of a meditation retreat might promote. But when the brain’s hung over and dehydrated, neither focus nor clarity tend to come easily. While Sam hiked and wished to contemplate the meaning of existence and his place in it, he couldn’t shake the vague and fuzzy memory, from just hours before, of playing air guitar to Run to You. Were he fully sober now, his embarrassment might be pointed. He glances over his shoulder at Paxton, who’d accompanied him on air drums, taking special delight in the part where the drumsticks clack, and realizes they’ll probably never share such an emotionally raw and honest moment again. Sam was grateful to Pax for so graciously allowing Sam the frontman role. He’d always liked Bryan Adams, especially the sleeveless leather vest and Ray-Ban shades. Sam was only 17 when that song was a hit. It was a fine time in Sam’s life, when he was free.
When they’d finished the rocking pantomime, Pax had asked, “you wanna do Cuts Like a Knife?” But Sam had exhausted his method acting. Plus, Run to You had randomly just come across the radio. They’d have to do Cuts Like a Knife by memory.
“I’ve had enough,” Sam replied. But in truth, he knew that once his inebriated lack of inhibition wore off, he’d feel shame. The exact shame he was feeling in that moment of recollection on Crow’s Beak Trail. A shame he tried displacing by a quick change of subject and focus from the his mind to the material (ontological arguments aside).
“I’d really like to see a jackrabbit,” Sam says to Pax. “You ever seen a jackrabbit?”
“No. Just cottontails.”
“Do you think they have jackrabbits around here?” Sam asks.
“I hope so,” Pax says. Their previous night’s air orchestration was still on Pax’s mind too. But he knows Sam, unlike himself, is not an emotional sorta guy. Sam’s one who guards his composure as if letting it slip is a moral failure. But it had been a moment of real spiritual connection, something both their souls desire greedily. So he tests the water by humming the chorus to Jessie’s Girl just loud enough to be caught between the crunches of their soles on that sun baked trail. Pax is aware that it’s a Rick Springsteen, not a Bryan Adams tune, but imagines that the change might be just enough to entice his friend. But Sam’s keen to the subterfuge. He wants to forget about that part of last night and, knowing Paxton well enough, he knows just how to do it.
Sam pretends to swat away an insect and awaits the query from Pax. But the query doesn’t comes so Sam allows himself to go on pondering the variety of lepus. He considers their hopping and also the hopping of the kangaroo. What might be their relation, Sam thinks? It occurs to him first that kangaroos aren’t placental mammals. Kangaroos, having the pouch, are more like opossums, which is to say a kindred marsupial. “But the possum’s so ugly,” he thinks. “Like a giant rat. But the rat’s more human than possum or kangaroo, both rat and human placental.”
He hears Pax again, fuzzily humming, “….where can I find a woman like that?….”
Sam swats his arm, making a purposefully loud slap, wanting to do away with this reminder of his faltered inhibition.
“What was that, a sweat bee?” Pax asks, alarmed. Pax has a general fear of stinging of biting and stinging insects.
Sam shugs an I don’t know. The swat and slap were ruses to distract Pax from Rick Springfield. Last night, amid the air rocking and ghost stories and tales of bloody cunnilingus, Pax had gone on a drunken ramble about his fear of killer bees and fire ants but, oddly, didn’t seem too concerned about rattlesnakes or scorpions. That had laid the foundation for Sam’s mental examination of the difference between arachnids and crustaceans – lobsters versus scorpions, in particular. What separates them, he’d pondered? They both have claws and segmented tails. The woodlouce – sometimes called a roly-poly or pill bug or roll up bug is a crustacean too, having fourteen legs instead of the lobster’s ten.
Pax disrupts this reflection as well. “They got all kinds of crazy shit around here. There’s the normal stuff, of course, but the exotic stuff too. Ever heard of a Cow Killer? Or a Cuckoo Bee? Or the Velvet Ant?”
Sam thought for a quick second about red velvet cake. He’d passed it up at last night’s buffet for a bowl of peach cobbler with vanilla bean gelato.
“Or Weevil Wasp? You ever heard of a Weevil Wasp?” Pax asks.
“On your left!!!!”. They’re startled and swooshed past by a young jogger passing from behind, lifting a puff of dust with every gallop. She was fit and and chocolaty brunette with legs firms and defined like a stallion’s with a blonde ponytail to complete the real-life metaphor. Her presumed youth was simply a matter of speculation from the length and natural tints of her hair and that firm, athletic build. And the bold, pastel blues and pinks of mid-thigh shorts which fit her thighs snugly. Colors bold enough to draw attention for someone, presumably, young and attractive enough to desire and warrant attention. Sam and Pax both being gentlemen, they refrained from comment or acknowledgement, either to one another or to themselves. Instead, Sam makes a comment about Joseph Campbell quote about religion being “a misrepresentation of mythology”, evading that fleeting potential of carnal distraction.
But Joseph Campbell didn’t deflect Sam’s feeling of self-consciousness of his sandals and a floppy Crocodile Dundee hat (sometimes referred to as an outback hat) while Paxton, though surprised too in his hybrid hiking/running shoes and dungaree shorts, continued to be on the lookout for exotic insects. In their stone colors (sandstone, limestone, soapstone) and browns and tans and khaki and beige and greige – reflections of sand and dust and dirt – the earth. Neutrals or drabs of nature, one might say.
Sam tried from it all with talk about Daniel Dennet’s athiesm and beard, Pax noting that the latter reminded him of Santa Claus. The runner was then roughly 100 yards in front of them, braking herself on a downhill trot. She was running past a thimbleberry thicket, when she was viciously sprung upon by a grizzly bear. She had no defense. The bear ripped at her, its weight pummeling out her wind. She screamed in terror as she was disemboweled.
First she shreiked for help. Then her mother. And then, finally, God.
Sam and Paxton looked on, aghast and in horror and terror at the vicious scene.
“What’d we do, Pax?”
“Nothing we can do but haul ass, Bro.”
That was true so that’s what they did, hot footing it back to the Higher Ground Conference and Retreat Center. Sam lost a sandal in the retreat, wishing he’d taken Paxton’s advice and gone with Merrell’s. On losing the sandal, he stumbled, and in an instant imagined a diety he didn’t believe in helping him along. He had a life filled with potential ahead of him, after all. A potential that, in that moment, he became poinently away of wanting to retain.
“Doc,” Sam says, “I know you or nobody else gets it, but it’s not just grizzly bears. Everybody thinks pandas and black bears and European browns are just cute and friendly. Like in the circus they put put them in a tutu and they ride a bicycle and everybody laughs and cheers.”
Years have passed since the mauling. Sam has sought the counseling of Dr. Sigmund Ziff who holds licensure, oddly, in both gynecology and psychiatry and is known throughout the medical community for his hypnotic and shock therapy techniques on George ‘The Animal’ Steele.
Sam continues, “Paddington and Pooh. Yogi and BooBoo. Ranger Smith doesn’t get any respect for his courage.”
“There’s an argument that Ranger Smith was a tyrant,” Ziff refutes. But Sam ignores it, continuing on this tirade against celebrity bears.
“And Victor the wrestling bear. The walking black bear in Jersey.”
“Yes, all of those things have delighted me. The Jersey bear even had a name, Pedals. He was killed by a hunter,” Ziff says, pushing his spectacles to rest at the nasion.
“Good. That hunter deserves a medal. Better a dead bear than someone’s child. You know why it was walking on it’s hind legs?”
“It was mimicking a human. Easier to stalk people that way. And see how easily it was able to sway people’s sentiment in its own favor? How people though it was all cute and harmless? They’re devious and deceptive. Can’t be trusted.”
Ziff recoils at the criticism, reminding him of the slander and aspersions cast at both his and Sam’s ancestors and heritage not all that long ago. But Ziff understands as well that emotional attachment to an ideology is a tough bond to break. Just because he’s never experienced a patient’s particular trauma, he knows better than to discount its effects. Ziff recalls how he’d once shit hit pants while passed out from Bacardi 151. He remembers the embarrassment. He knows that he could drink it again without shitting his pants and while enjoying himself. After all, he’s done so with Dewer’s White Label many times since. So the avoidance (sans a visceral response such as gagging to the smell), is purely emotional. But it exists, even in him, undeniably.
“No, Sam. It had an injury to its front paws. Or its paws were deformed.”
“Its mind was deformed.”
“There was no record of Pedals attacking anyone, even in that residential neighborhood.”
“It’s all a lie. They’re not cute and lovable. They’re dangerous. They’re all dangerous!!!! They’re killers!!!!”
“Nature can be cruel. I can grant you that.”
“Bears are cruel.”
Sam begins to tremble on the couch. He’s disoriented and panicked. He’s in grey stalkinged feet, decorum and perhaps even hygiene demanding his removed his his retro Saucony runners, traded in for the sandals, tucked beneath the couch.
“Do you need a pillow, Sam? Or some water?”
His eyes blink uncontrollably. His head twitched.
“Calm yourself, Sam. We’re in my office. Realize, Sam, that less than 1% of bears eat people. It’s very rare.”
“Yes. But it’s a vicious display. I wish we could eradicate them to another planet or something. That way nobody would have to suffer like Rachel did.” It had come out in the paper and news reports after the mauling that the jogger’s name was Rachel Lee.
“And what about your suffering, Sam? You’ve suffered as a consequence too.”
“Do you know, Sam, that bear attacks are on the rise in areas where their natural habitats have been altered – affecting their ecosystems? When that happens….well, they gotta eat something. Similar things are occurring with mountain lions.”
“Doc, I know what you’re getting at. That it’s nature AND environment that drive their maniacal instincts. ut I don’t buy it. They choose to be beasts.”
“Not every bear is a boogeyman, Sam.”
“Their hatred of mankind is irrational.”
“Maybe they’re not rational.”
“What do you mean?” Sam asks. “They don’t try to drive cars, do they? Or study mathematics? Obviously they’re witted enough to know what they can’t do or know. They’re intelligent enough to see us in clothes and understand that clothes aren’t for them. And if intelligence or wit is either a foundation of reason or vice versa…I get it….the jury’s still out on the particulars….then it stands to reason that bears can reason.”
“But bears don’t have natural access to clothes, Sam. Or the ability to craft them. Nor the need, really. Neither fedoras nor slacks nor sundresses. Not even yoga pants.”
“We’re reasonable creatures too, Doc, with many things we simply create the need for. Like glowing toilet seats. Novelty stuff, you know.”
Ziff loses Sam’s line of reason like dandruff in a windstorm. Something about all things reasonable can be unreasonable as well. And vice versa. Ziff tries following.
“Then, by this rational, the bear accepting his natural, unclothed state, is more rational than us, who frequently and illogically manufacture false needs and desires?” Ziff queries aloud.
“Exactly,” Sam replies. ” Like the need for various textures of toilet tissue.”
Ziff is a sort of connoisseur of toilet tissues, preferring “luxury” soft, while Sam, being thrifty, uses plain old Scott’s. And though Sam’s choice is primarily a matter of thrift, he likes to pretend it’s more a matter of lack of pretension. He’s noted the luxury of the tissue in Ziff’s office and has concluded his doctor’s flamboyance and taste for things ostentatious, including even toilet paper. What Sam doesn’t know, however, are the the details of his doctor’s chronic hemorrhoids. Yet, for all his inner snideness and criticism of Ziff and his hygienic extravagance, were he to be truthful, there is something soothing about that velvety glide of Ziff’s tissue across his butthole. A visceral pleasure that he’s noted arouses the cremaster to a pleasing tautness.
Sam’s mind is lightening quick. This talk of bears and Ziff’s interjection of toilet tissue and the subsequent anal sensations brings to mind the joke about a bear shitting in the woods. This quick connection of dots could easily be distracting to a mind as sharp as Sam’s but he dispels with it by will, choosing to remain focused on the argument instead.
“Precisely. You see, bears are far more crafty than anyone imagines.”
There’s different schools in thought in both psychiatry and gynecology about how to address the mentally ill. Do you smash them in the face with their lunacy, like a cream pie for laugh? A laugh derived from the humiliation? And from there build a whole new foundation for the patient’s reason? Dr. Ziff has decided on a gentler tactic with Sam.
Ziff understands that it takes considerable intelligence to calculate the trajectory of a rocket to the moon (a.k.a. trans-lunar injection) and that even the slightest miscalculation in the beginning, a decimal point displaced or an error in the thousandths (e.g. 18599944.112 versus 18599944.113) could be the difference between that manned rocket getting captured within the orbit of the moon’s gravitational pull or the disaster of the rocket eclipsing that orbit, if only by a thousandth. But the calculation of getting the astronaut safely on the moon or not, is still the difference between genius and near genius, both being a far, far distance from the fool. So there’s care to be taken in showing the near genius the error of his way – of how one simply misplaced decimal at the beginning of the calculation can lead to devastating results at the end, and that, though it would be failure, it’s not a reflection of foolishness. Rather, the foolishness comes with the denial.
Or, from a chemical engineer’s standpoint, in tweaking the formula for bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) to save a few pennies in flavoring or color, the introduction or extraction of a single chemical bond or ion to the whole formula may turn it from pink and smooth to muck after sitting in a hot or cold tractor trailer, sitting broken down on the freeway for hours.
“It’s called instinct, Sam. Can we at least agree that few bears eat people and fewer black bears and pandas kill people.”
And with Sam, it’s not only his identity as intelligentsia that Ziff needs to so cautiously navigate around, it’s also an ego as tender as any he’s ever seen, including Starchild Paul Stanley’s.
“Of course, I’m not a moron,” Sam says.
An ego as tender as the meat and vegetables in a slow cooked roast.
“Can we conceded that part of why that woman was attacked was because of what we may have done to it’s environment?”
“No. It was that bear’s choice. We had nothing to do with it. Not Pamela. Not me. Not Paxton. Not humanity, damnit!!!!”
“There are theories that for anything to flourish, it can only flourish or evolve in opposition. For goodness there must be evil. For peace there must be violence, not just as concepts, but, in a sense as existing entities.”
“Yeah.” Sam’s been through this before with Doc Ziff. If left to his own devices, he has a proclivity to amble into fancies of juvenile metaphor and philosophy – like comparing theories of psychoanalytic to trans-lunar injection and Pepto-Bismol. So Sam’s guard goes up, which isn’t the best cognitive state to be in for psychoanalysis.
Ziff continues, “For example, to improve a batting average, one must practice batting. The force of the ball or the force behind the ball….whatever……is directed at the hitter. The hitter’s goal is to direct that force in the opposing direction. The ball’s force versus the batter’s force. The ball’s will, as force, versus the batter’s will, as an opposing force.”
There’s a pause as Ziff either contemplates the ball/batter metaphor more deeply or grasps for another juvenile metaphor. But Sam’s been through this whole routine before, at $250 an hour of his own time.
“That’s all well and fine Doc, but how about saving it for your own book?”
“Okay, but my point is, Sam, that perhaps there’s violence and carnage inherent in bears. Always has been. Always will be. And we can, perhaps, temper that best by maximizing the balance between his inherent temperament to his environment rather than trying to change his essence – like dressing it in a tutu and putting it on a bicycle. Perhaps we should mostly let the bear be. She’ll be violent in defense of her young. And violent in hunting and stalking and killing prey. But mostly peaceful, eating berries and bark, not people, when we give it enough bark and berries.”
“Are you still meditating, Sam?”
“And what about the Fluvoxamin I prescribed.”
“No. I’m not having any of your psychotropics messing up the way I think, especially about bears.”
“Is it true you’ve booby trapped your yard with pits baited with picnic baskets, Sam?”
“Who told you that, my wife?”
“She’s concerned, Sam. You have children who play in the yard too.”
“I warned them about the pit,” Sam says. “And the picnic baskets.”
“She doesn’t understand bears like I do. She wasn’t there. She never saw the bloody sneaker.”
“Neither did you, Sam. You fled. The sneaker is a detail of your own making. Your own imagination.”
“But I heard those blood curdling screams. It was absolute horror.”
Dr. Ziff’s cuckoo clock cuckoo’s. Given the implication of cuckoos, Sam has imagined that it’s minimally odd if not inappropriate to have such a clock in such an office. But Ziff’s one for antiques and curios, so it sorta makes sense.
“I’m afraid we’re out of time. Same time next week?”
“Yes, Doctor. Thank you for all your help.”
“And what about nature, Sam. Do you get out there much?”
“I prefer the term ‘environment’, Doc, if you don’t mind. But, no, it’s been a while.”
“Maybe you should try it.”
“And Paxton. Are you will in touch with him? ”
In actuality, Sam was only Facebook “friends” with Pax. He’d noted how shortly after the attack, Pax had bought a drum kit. A “coping mechanism,” Sam had thought. Today, Pax is a member of an 80’s cover band, Summer of ’69. Pax had invited Sam to a few of his weekend gigs in one of the numerous and dank neighborhood bars where Pax plays. But Sam’s always declined the offer. Even the pull of lowering himself to the level of the working class, like his playful associations to those, who by lack of skill and education have to identity themselves by name in serving food or stacking shelves, isn’t enough.
“Do you ever wish you could go back to that evening with Paxton?”
“OF course. But never what happened the following morning.”
“Of course not, Sam.”
“And what about Grizzly Man. Have you been watching it as I suggested? You know what your friend Jordan Peterson says, you must confront, not avoid, your fears.”
“He’s not my friend,” Sam says. “He knows nothing about truth. Besides, I’m done with Netflix and DVD’s. All of it.”
“Is this about Artificial Intelligence? Have the night terrors about Terminator and HAL 9000 and the Google android come back?”
Sam had made an argument in a previous session about R2D2 being deceptively cuddly and cute. But today, Sam refuses to respond.
“Reason, Doctor. Reason is the key to everything, don’t you see?”
“Yes. I see very well, Sam. So, next week?”
“I’ll see you then,” Sam says while lacing up his Jazz’s. Though Sam is broken, he and Ziff are both men of science. As a child, Sam had noticed his mother’s composure before figures of authority. It was as if, by feigning to treat her as an equal, it was enough to soothe her confidence and ego into paying little attention to the details of the interaction. Treated with kindness and respectability, she left feeling good, as if she too were on the level of physician or bank vice president or elected public bureaucrat. She’d walk away saying, “now that’s a good man”, thinking more about the perfumery of interaction than its content. It’s reminded Sam over the years of the way Alex Trebek treats his Jeopardy contests – with a smug, false kindness – a passive/aggressive suggestion that it’s his turn and they’re just temporary players. This, perhaps, is why he’s go guarded behind a shield of reason. He’s seen the results of emotional manipulations.
“Maybe next time we can address my mommy issues, Doctor.”
“Yes, Sam. If there is time.”
“She humiliated me for playing with my schmeckle. And I don’t mean the coin. She told all my aunts who told all my cousins. It was terrible.”
Then Sam confesses, “I soiled myself with pancakes and gelato on the day of the attack.” He meant the bear attack.
This reminds Ziff of soiling himself on Bacardi 151, which he won’t confess to now or ever, even in the best interest of a client.
“Bowel management’s nothing to be ashamed of, Sam. Especially in a moment of crisis.”
“Calm yourself. All that’s for next time.”