There’s this guy in our hay barn

After the last time, the Hubbit and I promised each other never again to invite someone to share our home. For years we had (irritably and messily) shared an office, while the spare bedroom just sat and looked pretty for months on end until I succumbed to guilt and suggested to Himself that some or other lost soul really needed it … and he never bloody said no! And, despite my best intentions, almost every attempt at sustained hospitality ended with all parties seething.

There was Sewerbreath, a close friend whose marriage broke down a few weeks before we were due to leave on a prolonged visit to South Africa. “Come stay at our house!” we warbled. “Bring your dog! You can look after our animals, and it’ll give you three months to get on your feet!” While we were gone she fell and broke some necessary bone or other and wasn’t able to work. We returned home jet-lagged and unfazed. “It’s Christmas! You can’t be homeless over Christmas!” we caroled. “You’ll soon be back at work, and meanwhile you’re welcome – it’s fine!” She got a job at a grocery store early in the new year. “Congratulations!” I trilled. “No need to pay rent – save up for a deposit on your own place! And don’t worry about the food – three is as easy to feed as two! – just check in before you leave work to see if we need anything – save me making a trip to the store in between my regular shopping days!” So then I learned that expecting a grown woman in her forties to “check in” was offensive, and things pretty much went downhill from there.

I kicked her out the following April, seven months after she’d moved in. I forget the specific reason, but I think it was either because she refused to clean her bathroom (removing the crunchy toothpaste from her sink after she left was an exercise in archeology!) or because I got fed up with her attempts to allure the (blissfully oblivious) Hubbit.

There were the teenage daughters of old friends of mine, who wanted to leave the Pacific island where their parents were missionaries and start life in America. They didn’t have work permits, but were going to find jobs under the radar as tutors, nannies, house cleaners – you know the sort of work – to cover their personal expenses while they studied at the local community college, or maybe online – they were going to figure that out. Only … they were so tired after years of missionary life, they felt they deserved a little vacation. So for eight or nine months they lolled around, not studying, not working, not volunteering. I tried to engage with their parents via email, only to learn that these delightful young ladies had access to the parental email account and were deleting our messages as fast as I sent them. When their parents quit the mission field and returned to South Africa the girls decided to go home, and we sang the hallelujah chorus and waved them away.

There was Peter Pan. I call him that because when I met him he seemed joyous and wild and a little bit magical … but in truth he was more of a Lost Boy. He arrived one day with Wonder Woman’s teenage protégé, to spend a few days helping out, camping in a grassy corner of our farmlet, and canoodling like bunnies. Less than 24 hours later the protégé roared away down our driveway, and I went outside to find Pan standing outside his tent and looking forlorn. Well, we needed help and so did he so we invited him to stay, and that year was pretty good. He was a hard worker, giggly and zany (he was high a lot of the time), the animals loved him, and I fell a little bit in love with him myself – nah, don’t be stupid; he was sort of like a beloved nephew. Since my actual nieces and nephews were all clear around the other side of the planet, and my grandchildren-by-Hubbit were by then not speaking to me, I felt the lack of a young person to love and mentor and indulge. And as someone who had been severely abused and neglected by his parents, he lapped it up. After a while he went off with a girl, but he kept in touch and it was all good.

Verruca arrived shortly after Pan left. She showed up with someone who’d advertised on Craigslist, looking for temporary accommodation for her pet chickens. I’d invited the chickens to rough it with the flock of not-pet-but-very-happy chickens hanging out in my veggie garden, so she came to take a look and brought Verruca with her. They arrived just in time to distract me from a full meltdown caused by several hours spent trying to sign up with WWOOF because the Hubbit and I desperately needed, but could not afford to pay for, help on the farmlet. Only the WWOOF website kept crashing, and I was brimful of angst, gloom and fury. Well, Verruca looked around, and gazed longingly from the river to me, and said, “I don’t suppose you need someone to help you out in return for a place to stay, do you?”

The Olde Buzzard and the Hubbit, down at the river near where I met Angelo and Charlie (see below). The Fogies also spent a year with us. Memories built despite some stormy weather, and kept close to my heart.

So Verruca moved in, and for maybe a week or two it was great – we were like sister wives (only with certain duties allocated, not shared). And pretty soon she started educating me about how the world really works. Like how the government is using contrails to rain down poison upon us all, and how Nibiru is going to destroy us all, and … oh man, she believed so many things! I wrote a lot of them down to share with you, but now I can’t find the list … It was a while ago. Anyway, I was enthralled! I was fascinated! Sometimes I asked questions, but that just annoyed her. I learned it was better to shut my trap and listen.

And then … I don’t know, I guess she had a revelation. She realized that our water was contaminated. She stopped eating anything we raised, and would consume nothing but energy drinks and canned soup. (Of course I bought them for her – I’m a sucker!) But she just got sicker and sicker, and eventually I took her to the doctor, who diagnosed Hepatitis A. “Yikes! That’s contagious!” I said, hurling myself at Google, where I learned that it’s common in homeless shelters (she’d lived in several) and among addicts (she’d lived with her addict daughter and son-in-law prior to moving here). Then she announced that she was going to sue us for making her sick. Testing our well water (clean and sweet) and ourselves (ditto) had no effect. The situation got ugly and depressing and – as I read up on Washington State law pertaining to eviction (not good for property owners. Not at all) it got scary.

But one day she up and left, and suddenly peace was restored, and the Hubbit and I agreed “Never again”. Only then Pan came back and of course we figured he’d be okay. We knew him. He was practically family. It was a bit stressful that this time he had a bunch of friends who liked to hang out in our shop or my kitchen, and often some stayed over, but I loved Pan and kind of enjoyed having a houseful of youngsters, and the Hubbit tolerated the invasion. Only pretty soon it became clear that Pan had … changed. I’ve done some reading since then about mental illness that emerges in young adults and … well, I don’t want to write about that. I already told you how it ended.

So after that the Hubbit and I agreed never, ever again under any circumstances for any reason to invite anyone to live in our home, double pinky promise. To reinforce that promise, while he was in rehab for the months following his altercation with a tractor I transformed the spare bedroom into a Hubbit Hole just for him. It’s inconvenient not to have a spare room when the Girl Child or the Young Bull come to stay, but a lot easier to tell myself “We don’t have room” when, in fact, we don’t have a spare room.

And then, a few weeks ago I was down at the river with Argos, and there was this guy with a Chihuahua. Conversation ensued. The Chihuahua – a cutie who occasionally answers to Charlie – needed to be spayed and vaccinated, so I got that done, which led to more conversation. In the middle of all this conversing we had the mother of all windstorms. I pulled together some food and a tent and went down to the river – did I mention they were living there? Under a bush? Well, technically, under a piece of tarp, but shrubbery was involved … Ugh, sorry, I digress. My point is, I went down to check on them, and Charlie came hurtling out of the bushes and leaped into my car with a look of the most profound relief, which was followed by a look of bewilderment when her papa didn’t join her in this comfy place out of the wind, and then plummeting dismay when he took her in his arms and disappeared back under his bush as I drove away.

We really don’t have a room.

But we have a row of horse stalls, and the end one – where we keep hay in winter – is empty. Or was. It now has a tent in it, and a random assortment of other stuff, much of it rather smelly. When the heat gets unbearable (right now it’s 108F out, and the heat wave is only getting started) they come inside and cool off. (They’re watching Penguin Town on Netflix as I write this.) Lying in bed the night after they moved in, I started feeling guilty that I had a comfortable bed and a house, and they have so little. A better person, I thought, would invite them inside. But then I slapped myself upside the head and counted their blessings. They have shelter from the weather, a fridge and freezer, drawers for storage, a place to cook, and food any time they ask for it. They have electricity and wi-fi, and the use of our guest bathroom. They have walls and a door and privacy. Cops don’t hassle them to move on. Bikers don’t roar up and start a middle-of-the-night party a few feet from where they’re hiding under their bush. They can ask for a ride into town when they need one. And that’s as good as the Hubbit and I can make it and still be okay inside ourselves and with each other.

I wish I could say “It’s all good,” but really it isn’t. The thing about most homeless people in this country is, there are reasons they’re homeless. There are reasons Angelo has been kicked out of most of the places he’s lived in. A few days ago I got so mad at him I was ready to dump him back at the river and let the damn heat dome cook his skinny ass! I didn’t because of Charlie, and a little bit because that’s not who I am, and mostly because I heard my hectoring voice getting shriller and angrier and … I was ashamed.

The thing about not being homeless is, you hold all the cards. You have all the power. It doesn’t matter how broke you are, or old, or sore, or disappointed in yourself or your life … if you have a piece of this earth you can call your own, you have everything. And if you have the power, you can’t use it against someone who is powerless and still feel good about being you. So the next morning I sought Angelo out.

“Hey,” I said. He looked at me warily. “Can we agree to a truce?” I asked.

He sighed with relief. “Oh,” he said. “Yes please.”

Charlie – never so happy as when she’s with her papa.

He is a good man – Charlie told me so. He is also a profoundly annoying man, moody, often irrational, desperately needy, and not very clean. Keeping my temper in check is going to be hard. But we promised him a place through the summer, until we need the stall back for hay. In return, he helps out – sometimes with begrudging carelessness, and sometimes pouring his heart into making our lives so very much better. I’m hoping we can make it work.

I might have to come on here to vent occasionally. I hope that’s okay.

Walking with the Black Dog

The problem with pain is figuring out what to do about it. Do you take a pill to make it stop? Do you fix what’s causing it? Or do you learn to live with it?

The problem with the Black Dog is the noise it makes when it’s tearing your heart with its teeth. It muffles nuance; the tune pain plays on your heart-bones-breath emerges as random notes, dissonant and jangling.

Black dog in the dark

I could take a pill – put the leash back on the Dog. I still have plenty – at least a month’s supply – and my doctor would willingly give more. Here’s how the argument goes (I know it well, having used it often on others): “If you had diabetes or a heart condition, wouldn’t you take whatever pills were necessary to control it?”

The problem with that argument is, it’s specious. If you have diabetes or a heart condition, the first act of a sane person is to change the way they eat, move, sleep, live. The TV commercial narratives – glowing visions of super-sized burgers and greasy pizzas followed without a pause by ads for aspirin and Tums, Lipitor, Prilosec and metformin, always with the soothing reminder to “talk with your doctor” – those are the ravings of a crazy person.

I may walk in the dark of an imaginary tunnel with an invisible black dog at my heels, but I’m not crazy. I’m on a mission to find what’s real – friend or enemy, loss or gain, joy or pain. I’ve rejected the phantasmagoria that lie in pill bottles. I want to grieve real loss, fear real terrors, fight for what’s really good. And laughter – the kind that makes the fat on your belly jiggle … It’s been a while; I need to remember how that’s done.

So here we are, the Dog and I, still walking together and now deep within the tunnel. How deep I can’t say; how much further we have to go I don’t know. Sometimes a crack in the roof lets in a beam of light, a breath of clean air. Sometimes in the darkness the Dog leaps, knocks me to the ground, sinks its teeth into my flesh – and when that happens it makes no difference whether or not I scream, because in the dark we’re alone. So far, I’ve yielded sometimes and fought back sometimes, and I’ve learned that, either way, sooner or later the Dog is sated. It comes back to heel, its breath steamy on my left thigh, my fingertips resting on its head, and we walk on, watching for light, hoping for joy.

Let’s talk. Do you live with depression, anxiety or some other mental illness? How do you deal with it? And, as you deal, how do you identify and give priority to the things that are most important to you?

Kill day

We usually do it in late fall, after the flies are gone but before we start feeding hay.  It felt weird to do it on Labor Day, wrong to rob them of the last weeks of summer. But at a time of year when our pasture should be lush it is looking tired. That’s why I scheduled kill day early – supposedly next week Monday, but Shane the kill guy and I got our wires crossed and he came today.

Today we killed the first cattle that we’d raised from birth on this land. I know, gruesome … but it kinda feels like a milestone.

We used to buy steers from auction and from private sellers, buying in spring and pasturing them until fall of the following year. But I didn’t like them being taken from their mothers so young, and also we kept buying duds – not every time, of course, but often enough a steer failed to grow as expected, which meant less income from meat, which meant less money for hay through the following winter. So I started niggling at the Hubbit about making our own baby beefs, and he rolled his eyes in that resigned sort of way and bought our first heifer.

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Tshepo became more friendly after she learned about treats.

Her previous owner told us she used to keep her on a halter, tied up to graze in different areas of the yard, so we thought she’d be easy. We were wrong. She turned out to be a bloody-minded baggage, who took one look at our nice big pastures – bigger than a backyard, anyway – before she stuck her tail in the air and refused to have anything to do with us. Undaunted, we added another cow and her heifer. I named them Tumelo, Tshepo and Lerato – which are Sepedi words meaning Faith, Hope and Love.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a sentimental idiot. I don’t name the steers. They are food, and you don’t name food. The first steers we brought home we named Mac and Arby, but that was a joke. Also, naming them after hamburger chains was the Hubbit’s sweetly subtle way of reminding me that they were beef, not pets. He seemed to find it necessary to make a point of this. I’m not sure why … Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I couldn’t bear the way my nannies looked at me after we murdered their kids, and eventually insisted we deliver the whole lot of them to a goat rescue 300 miles away. But that was then, and goats are smarter than steers. In any case, I don’t name the meat.

Of course some of them have names when they arrive. When that happens, I have to respect it. Like the little guy who liked to stay quietly by himself in a corner of the field – obviously he was Ferdinand; I didn’t just name him after some book character. And the goofy one with a sickle moon on his forehead was Moonboy, as clearly as if he’d been wearing a name tag.

Okay, there were also last year’s calves, Kitty and Obie – but Kitty was the first calf to be actually born here, so obviously she had to have a name by way of acknowledging the event, and the Hubbit named Obie; I had nothing to do with that. And … okay, fine, this spring’s steers are named Pi and Eezee, but there are good reasons for that.

Usually I don’t name the meat.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get back to telling you about today. It started fairly leisurely. I yawned and stretched and thought about getting out of bed, and at about 7.15 I noticed that Shane had left me a voice mail yesterday evening, to say he’d be here between 7.00 and 7.30AM. It sounded like the kind of message he always leaves the day before he comes … not the week before.

I called him. “Shane?” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m running late, I’m on my way!” He sounded stressed. As for me, I went straight from “Ho hum tra-la-la” to “Fuckadoodledoo!” and rushed off in search of the Hubbit.

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Lerato, expressing an opinion.

Here’s the thing: we have a routine – more of a ritual, really – for kill day. A few days ahead of time we split our small herd. The doomed go into one pasture and get special treats, not because they need to put on weight but … just because. Meanwhile, the others get used to being without them. On kill day, before Shane arrives, the Hubbit puts the horses into their stalls, while I stay in bed with a pillow over my face and one ear exposed, tensely listening for rifle shots. After a while I phone the Hubbit and he tells me everything’s okay, it all went according to plan, yes they are dead, no they didn’t suffer, yes the others are fine. Then I can get up and get on with the day. But I wait until they no longer have faces before I go outside to thank Shane personally, and admire the marbling in the meat. (I like Shane. He never has to shoot twice.)

Well, there was no time for any rituals today. There wasn’t even any time for me to get used to the fact that I’d condemned my favorite cow to the freezer. There definitely wasn’t time to feed her treats. That made a crappy situation even crappier. Sometimes I hate being a grownup!

For a while the Hubbit had been quietly insisting that three cows plus their progeny plus two horses was too much for our pasture to carry, and I’d been loudly declaiming, “But we can’t live without Hope!” (Tshepo, aka Hope, was the smallest cow, so least likely to produce a large calf and most likely to get into trouble if trying to birth a large calf.) Well, last week I accepted that he was right, which is something that happens more often than he likes to admit (me accepting, I mean; the silly fellow thinks he’s always right, hahaha). But it made me sad because I’d become fond of her, and she was supposed to grow old with us. Her independence, her bossy way of marching over to see what I wanted if I went into the pasture, her enthusiasm for treats … they reminded me of me.

Well, anyway … At about 7.30, Shane’s white truck rumbled down the dirt road and through our gate. All the cattle in our neighbors’ pastures clustered in groups behind their fences and watched. Our girls and their two little boys were relaxing together at the far end of their pasture, but they got up and thundered alongside the fence, keeping pace with the truck. I don’t know why they do that. I’ll swear they know what he’s there for, but they act like it’s a holiday every time.

I was already up; it was too late to stay in bed so I hid behind my computer. Through the window I watched the horses galloping up and down their pasture, snorting and stamping, their tails like banners. After a while,  I went outside to say hi to Shane. The carcasses, clothed only in thick jackets of fat, looked enormous. The heads, skinned and staring blindly, lay in a heap to one side. The Hubbit and his friend Cool Dude were busy sorting various inside bits according to whether they were for human or canine consumption. Between the dogs and various friends, very little is wasted.

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Men at work. I’m glad I get to hide away!

After Shane was done and had left to deliver the beefs to the butcher, Cool Dude brought a wheelbarrow heaped with innards up to the workshop. It always startles me how hot meat is even several hours after killing. We loaded it into big plastic bags and put it inside a chest freezer to cool, because warm meat is rubbery, making it difficult to cut and also disgusting. Later the Hubbit backed his truck up to the shop door, and while he and CD cut the almost-chilled meat into manageable lumps, I slapped away swarms of flies and stuffed it into Ziploc bags, which went into the dog meat freezer.

So that was my Labor Day, and I know it probably sounds completely horrible to you, but I liked it. Not the killing, and not the betrayal – I don’t really think cows feel betrayed, but I feel as though I betray them. The price of their contented existence is their lives, which is better than most farm animals get, but undeniably a one-sided deal. At the same time, eliminating anthropomorphism from the equation, I like that, having chosen to eat meat, I can also choose to ensure that the creatures who provide it experience lush pasture and sunshine, companionship, peace … and, at the end, the grace of a single bullet while grass is still sweet on their tongue.

How about you? Do you eat meat? Do you care what kind of life it lived before it became meat? Would you eat it if you knew its name?

A man and a dog, on the road home

I picked up a hitchhiker on my way home from the writer’s conference a week ago.

The way it happened was, I left the highway to buy gas, and on my way back to the highway I saw a dog lying just off the on-ramp. As my foot shifted to the brake I saw that someone was already there, so I thought, “Okay, not my problem.”

Bubba on the onramp
A dog, a backpack, and a highway.

I was halfway up the ramp before I heard that still, small voice that speaks to all of us, if only we listen. “Go back,” it said.

“What? I can’t reverse down an on-ramp!” I argued indignantly, but I was already braking. I know that voice. I don’t always like what it says, but I’ve learned to pay attention. I reversed down the on-ramp, and I didn’t hit anyone or go off the road or get fined.

When I was close to the dog, I stopped and honked my horn. The man kneeling next to it looked up, and jogged over to my car. In my rear view mirror I saw the dog raise its head, and then move to a more upright position. I realized it wasn’t hurt – it had just been sleeping … but I was there and the man was leaning to peer through my side window so I rolled it down.

“Is that dog with you?” I asked him. “Is it okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and smiled. I glanced at my rear-view mirror. The dog – it looked like a pit bull – was watching us. It looked healthy, well-fed. I looked back at the man. He was dark, and had gray hair in a long braid down his back, and wore a red bandanna. Even with him outside the car I could tell he needed a shower, yet he looked … well, not clean, exactly, but put together, as though he’d taken some trouble. The air billowing in through the open window was hot and heavy, and I turned up the fan on my air conditioner.

That voice wasn’t saying anything. It didn’t need to; I knew what I had to do. I sighed. “You need a ride?” I asked.

His face split in a huge grin. “Yes ma’am!” he replied. “Are you going near Ellensburg?” I was going 100 miles beyond Ellensburg – further than he’d hoped to get that day. We stashed his backpack in the trunk, and the dog, Bubba, jumped into the back seat and settled down with a sigh.

He introduced himself – I’ll call him Cajun. I’ll pick up hitchhikers when the voice says it’s okay, but I don’t feel obligated to entertain them, so I told him I was in the middle of listening to the final book in the “Wayward Pines” trilogy and didn’t want to stop. I brought him up to speed on the story and we listened together, but every now and again he’d drop a comment, and I’d switch off the CD and we’d chat. That’s how I heard his story – in bits and pieces interspersed with the bloody destruction of the last humans on earth – until I decided his story was more interesting than the book.

He told me he was part Cajun, part Mexican, part African, and two parts Native American. He’s been a mechanic for Boeing and a Marine, and a street preacher to the poor. Now, he does construction work and roofing, and picks up odd jobs here and there when he needs to. He’s a musician and songwriter and has supported himself and Bubba more than once by playing on sidewalks and street corners. At the moment his guitar is in Idaho, but he played me one of his songs that he’d recorded on his tablet. The recording wasn’t good, and I really wished it was. That song sounded worth hearing.

His regular-people life fell apart around 2001. The Man kicked him in the ass, so he gave The Man the finger, acquired a backpack, and hit the road. Since then he’s lived on the streets and wandered the highways of the USA, trusting God to provide, which He does mainly through the kindness of strangers. A few years ago he picked up a job in Sedona, Arizona, and within a few weeks he’d saved enough to rent a home. That job was followed by a couple of others. Life was good. He celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2015 by visiting the local animal shelter, where he found Bubba, and since then they’ve been inseparable.

But things fell apart in Sedona too, and soon Cajun and Bubba were back on the road. I was puzzled that he gave up on a place where it seemed he’d been content. This is not a lazy or stupid or unskilled man. He likes a cold beer at each end of a hot day, but he seemed sober to me. I asked him what had happened and he didn’t want to go into detail, but he said, “I don’t define my work as who I am. My purpose is to live in poverty and share God’s love with the discarded people in this earth.”

He has a grown daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. He had planned to connect with her when he passed through Seattle a couple days before I met him, but something went wrong and a payment he was counting on was delayed. He didn’t want to face her with empty pockets so he canceled, and now Seattle was behind him and she was pissed.

“You think she’d have cared that you were broke?” I asked.

“I wanted to at least take her to lunch,” he replied.

“You’re an idiot,” I informed him. “You should go back, or at least apologize.” (I am so good at telling other people how to run their lives!) I don’t know that he cared much what I thought – why should he? – but a bit later he was texting with her. He didn’t want to go back, though – he was focused on his next destination.

Dream home
When Cajun is surfing the net, imagining his dream home, this is the kind of picture he’s likely to save.

Before Seattle, on their way up the west coast, he and Bubba got a ride with a long-haul trucker, who told him all about the trucking life. So he was on his way to Salt Lake City, where he’s signed up for a training course with a trucking company. Not too far down the road he reckons he’ll be able to buy his own truck – apparently trucking companies contract with drivers and help them do that. He was excited at the prospect of having a real home, but one that wouldn’t involve staying put in the same place.

“Do you think of yourself as homeless?” I asked. I was trying to puzzle him out. He’d told me he could not “live the American life”. Some of the things he says sound as though he’s on the road by choice – a hobo rather than homeless. He says he has no regrets. But then he’ll say something else that aches with hurts and disappointments, both suffered and dealt out, and I wonder what he’d change, if he could.

“I can’t afford a home,” he said, and he sounded sad.

“So you’re not like Reacher – just choosing to live on your own terms?” I asked.

“Jack Reacher? Like in the movie?” He laughed. He liked that idea. He said he personally didn’t want a home, but he thought Bubba would like one, and that’s what mattered most.

Just east of the Cascades he asked for a restroom break, so I pulled over in Cle Elum. While he was taking care of himself and Bubba, I texted the Hubbit to let him know I might be bringing someone home for dinner. The way things work with the Hubbit and me is, we each make our own plans and the other accommodates, but each of us has veto power. So I waited an hour or so, until we were near the Tri-Cities, before I said, “Okay, you have three options. I can take the next exit and drop you in town – there’s a McDonald’s, Walmart, etc. Or I can take the exit after that one and drop you there; there’s nothing there but you say you do better getting rides from country people. Or you can come on home with me, and tomorrow morning I’ll drop you at the truck stop.”

His eyes lit up, then he looked worried. “But won’t your husband mind?” he asked.

“I texted him hours ago and he hasn’t said no. And he’s used to me picking up strays,” I said. Plus, if the Hubbit won’t remember to keep his phone with him and check for texts from his loving wife who is driving along a lonely highway through the barren wastes of Eastern Washington, that’s on him, right? “You’ll be welcome, so it’s up to you. It looks as though you could use a shower and a washing machine,” I added, ever tactful.

So he came home, and the dogs weren’t assholes when I introduced them to Bubba, and the Hubbit was surprised but welcoming. Well, resigned, anyway – and once Cajun had showered and dinner was on the table, the Hubbit discovered for himself that the company was good, as promised.

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Cajun prefers his tent to a bedroom indoors.

Cajun didn’t want the spare bedroom. He pitched his tent under a tree in the back yard. The next day we offered him the option of staying on for a few days, helping out a little on the farm in return for his keep, and giving himself and Bubba a rest – but he was in a hurry to continue his journey. He repacked his backpack – traded me some cheap dog food that the chickens like for the better stuff we feed our dogs, and left a small blanket and an umbrella on the washing machine. I guess when you have to carry everything you own, you don’t hang onto an umbrella during the dry season.

It turned out that the truck stop near us, that I’d planned to take him to, was on the wrong route, so we drove into Oregon, and he kept studying Google Maps on his tablet and saying, “It’s pretty soon … I think the next turn-off … Or maybe the next one.”

“I’m not taking you all the way to Salt Lake City, you know!” I groused – not because I minded so much as I was worried about running out of gas, and it was nearly the end of the month so I’d already run out of money. The truck stop was at the next turnoff after that, and he put $30 in my tank, because he may be homeless but he’s not a bum.

I texted with him while writing this story. I had to ask his permission to use photographs off his Facebook page, and I wanted to check in with him anyway. He’s in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, feeling down in the dumps. It seems people there don’t respond to a “Hungry” sign, and no one is stopping to give him a ride. He’s hoping a trucker will come by soon, because they usually stop when they see Bubba. He’s moving on, going to Laramie, Wyoming, where he reckons he has a better chance of finding work. His course is in September and it lasts a month, and he can’t have Bubba with him while he’s training, so he needs to save up for a boarding kennel.

I hope they get a ride soon. I hope they make it home.

Do you pick up hitchhikers? What about hitchhikers with dogs? And … what do you think, when you see a homeless person?

 

What’s in a name?

Over the past year, reading the news carried me all the way from disbelief to despair before I ran out of angst. I keep abreast of major news events (the ones the online mainstream media, as funneled through my personal algorithm, tells me about, anyway. I’ve canceled my subscriptions to alternative sources like The Intercept).

Often I listen to National Public Radio when I drive, and if I’m not interested in what they’re offering I switch to the conservative talk show hosts on the AM channels – Savage, Limbaugh, Hannity. Sometimes they repeat themselves on an endless loop as they troll for callers, but the people who call in can be interesting. These are the folk who, for now, are driving our national bus. I’d rather know what they think than not.

Superman stopping a bus
Apparently Wonder Woman didn’t ever stop a bus from plunging to its doom while someone was around with a camera, so here’s Superman instead. She’d have done the same, except with one hand. And without a cloak to obscure the view. And afterwards she’d have parked the bus alongside the curb. (Source)

I have friends, mainly on Facebook, who share articles and rants. Sometimes I join the conversation, but more and more I just hit like/love/ha-ha/sad face/angry face and move on. More and more, I’m an observer rather than a participant. I feel as though I’ve been thrown from the bus and am lying, stunned but (as far as I know) intact, watching it spin toward the cliff edge. And while I’d like to care – or, better, release my Inner Wonder Woman to stop the bus from going over – what I really feel most of the time is curiosity. I wonder what’s going to happen next. I wonder what you think about it, and why your thoughts are not the same as mine.

We’ve ditched the Paris Agreement? Oh well, at least now corporations and communities are taking direct responsibility for limiting climate change, and maybe we’ll all be okay, and even if we aren’t I can’t change anything, although I’m thinking of setting up a beehive, so that’s something. We need bees.

Jeff Sessions is all set to enforce heavier penalties for drug use and cancel states’ rights to legalize marijuana, provided he doesn’t resign or get fired first, and also he thinks America is light on crime and he wants to change that? Wow … I wonder how it’s possible for someone to look so cute and be so horrible. Maybe he was teased and bullied in the schoolyard for looking like an elf, and now he’s compensating by behaving like a gremlin. Bullying has consequences.

A whole bunch of people are suing Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution? And James Comey’s testimony to Congress destroyed / vindicated Trump? And Trump may (or may not) fire Robert Mueller, as he may (or may not) have the power to do? And if he does he will definitely (not?) be impeached? Huh. Well, at least between all that and Twitter he’s being kept busy. Maybe this is good. If Mike Pence moves into the White House, everything will calm down and shit will get done.

To stay grounded I watch a lot of late night talk shows on YouTube. Trevor Noah is my favorite (just to give a fellow South African a shout-out), but I enjoy Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers too. Between them they almost make the news palatable.

Lately I’ve been watching Bill Maher. He’s arrogant, but I like the way his bullshit meter swings left as well as right. Like me, he believes in free speech for everyone, not just the people who think as he does; and he’s impatient with snowflakes and political correctness, as am I. So it’s been interesting to watch him navigate the turbulence following his use of a “racial slur” during an interview on his show.

He’s invited quite a few people, mainly black celebrities, to come onto his show and berate him. And while he squirms and occasionally protests, he takes what they dish up and he eats it.

This has been unexpected. I’ve been waiting for him to say, “Oh come on – it’s a word, that’s all. I haven’t enslaved anyone. Get over it!” I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have said. I’d have apologized, and then if they continued to fuss at me I’d have rolled my eyes and left them to flap their mouths at my departing back.

It’s not that I don’t know words, the names we call people, can hurt. I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner living in Smalltown America, I’m fat; I know how it feels to be smacked with a slur. But I believe – that is, I have believed – that someone who uses racist, sexist or otherwise denigrating language is really saying more about themselves than about the subject of their attack. So what’s the big deal? Let’s move on – right?

And mealy-mouthed euphemisms – ugh, I hate them! You don’t “drop the F-bomb” – you say fuck. You don’t call someone the B-word – you call her a bitch, and then – depending on whether she’s a ball-breaking bitch or a frigid bitch – she either rips your head off or says, “Really? You say that as though it’s a bad thing.”

So this word that Maher used … ehh. It’s icky, but it’s just a word. It’s just a noun people used to use. At least he was honest – he didn’t say it by using a euphemism to pretend he wasn’t saying it. And slavery was terrible, no joking matter, so that was a mistake – but it’s over, right? Both slavery and Maher’s joke – they’re over. Past and done.

Except … I remember the pure searing rage I felt, years ago when I was sick with longing for home, when the Hubbit and I were guests at a Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation shifted to reparation and how idiotic it was all these years after slavery was over, and somebody commented, “Weelll they oughta be grateful we enslaved ’em – otherwise they’d still be stuck in Aaaafricaaa.” These people, these buffoons who knew nothing about my beautiful home, so much richer and deeper and more alive than this flimsy America with all its flags and silly nationalistic rituals – how dared they say her name with such contempt?

And I remember the anger I still feel when I’m editing a report for a South African client, and I have to refer to black people as “Africans” as though I, being white, am not African, even though my ancestors have lived there since 1665. As though my grandparents and great-grandparents, and now I and my daughter, were ghosts, our lives without substance or meaning. As though we are illegitimate and homeless.

Thinking about it, I begin to understand that anger and hurt aren’t always subject to common logic, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

This morning I was lying in bed, yawning and flicking through the news on my phone, when I noticed my feed contained something new from Bill Maher – an interview with Ice Cube.

Full disclosure: I cannot stand rap, and I think Ice Cube is a stupid name for an adult; I don’t care how cool he thinks he is. Also, I was about bored with watching rich, successful “African” Americans (light brown people who have never lived in Africa) huff and puff over a two-word slip of the tongue. But I didn’t feel like getting up and I’d already watched the other late night shows I follow, so I clicked on it. You should too.

Seriously … If you let your eyes flick over the video without stopping to watch it, go back. (If you can’t see it, just check YouTube for “Bill Maher and Ice Cube”.) It’s part of this post and I need you to hear it, otherwise what I’m trying to communicate here will fall like a pebble down a well.

You done? Good. Thank you.

Okay … so, I still don’t understand why, if I don’t agree with the politically correct (as defined by black people) narrative, I’m accused of white privilege as though it’s something I’ve done. I don’t understand why blacks cling so tightly to past injustice instead of putting it behind them, living in the present and focusing on the future.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be dark-skinned in America today. It seems to me that when you read the news or watch late night talk show hosts, you don’t get the same message I do, and I don’t understand why. I can’t grasp how it feels to know your grandmother used to be someone’s property. I cannot comprehend your anger, your fear, your hurt.

But I understand this: I don’t have to use euphemisms if I don’t want to. If I want to speak about something, I can call it by its full name. But there is one word – the one that stabs like a knife – that I have never needed, and to which I relinquish all claim.

I understand now. That word is not mine to use.

 

Talk to me. I’d like to know what you think.