The Hummingwhale

Jennifer A. Connor, Writer

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Grandma Hands, Baby Thighs

Photo on 2-12-14 at 3.08 PM

In a long cold Buffalo winter I warm myself in thinking of my favorites.  What I love; what holds the world together, under all the ice.  I suggest that holding the ENTIRE world together, at this very moment, are two troves of precious treasure: grandma hands.  and baby thighs.

I have witnessed both lately.  Grandma hands fall into the beatific category.  They encompass all: joy and sorrow, of course; disappointment and deliverance; the miraculous and the ordinary.  They are hands that have seen and touched it all.  Thank you Jesus: Grandma hands heal.

Baby thighs sit solidly in the Buddha realm.  My niece’s thighs at six months looked like a pound of butter had been melted and poured into them- one pound each.  I love them.  They are dimpled and perfect.  Great contact with the earth.  They keep Baby from tipping over, sometimes- a kind of centering weight.

On the baby thigh-to-grandma hand trajectory we encompass so many expressions of our selves that it is not even a trajectory; it could be a chart of every cloud formation, ever.  Every rock formation, every riverbed imprint- no, better call it the shape of the water in the river: see it now- no, now.  We are a multitude in our lives.  There is no one place that every body inhabits.

When I think of our bodies in this way, over time, not just mine, but everyone- they become fluid, a stream of mercury flowing and dazzling my ability to pinpoint anything other than 98.6 degrees.  What do we do with them?  What is our gesture?

Baby thighs demand one thing only: adoration.  Grandma hands open, they stretch out even in their sleep to open to the unseen and unknown- these hands bless and also, they receive.


Friendly Presence


When I hiked across England the wind was so strong that it would sometimes flatten me into the soft grasses.  My backpack caught gusts like a sail and without my walking stick, my other limb, I would have gone down many more times than I did. The precarious stream crossings on steep hillsides in blustery wind highlighted the stability and balance of my valued companion, one who walked every step of the two hundred miles with me. Eight miles before the end of the hike my knee gave out and it was only by putting my full weight on the stick that I could continue.  From my first steps along the grassy headlands over the Irish Sea to my last tentative steps in the pitch blackness on a trail along the top of the bluffs of Robin Hood’s Bay while invisible waves crashed below, this friendly presence walked at my side.

The stick was about my height, with a jog towards the top where a branch broke off and most of the bark peeled off.  I could hook my thumb over the curve for a better grip.  After I washed my one bandana I tied it to the top of the stick to dry where it flew straight out like a flag.  Not that things dried really; they just achieved a lesser state of dampness, dry in a relative sense in the landscapes of misty lakes and dales and moors.  It was on these hills that I first encountered the tarn, a small circular body of water like a coin of sky dropped from above, without outlets or inlets, self contained and unexpected and serene.

When the wind did blow me down the surprising part was how much less windy it was on the ground, especially if I curled up with my pack over me, as I did on one particularly windy peak where I could hardly track the cloud formations with my eyes as they raced across the sky.  Protected like a turtle, I ate my hiker’s bar that I bought in the village far below, a concoction of oats soaked in butter and sugar that restored life to my bones and remains one of the best snacks in my memory.

I was talking about these companions with my roommate the other night, these Friendly Presences, objects that help me, every day, in humble and menial ways.  I mean, a walking stick just stumps along the ground.  No glory there.  The plastic dish basin at school is constantly at my fingertips because with this basin we wash our dishes and our hands, I bathe muddy children, collect items, disperse them, soak the feet of tired children in lavender water, soak thick paper for painting, wash paint jars and brushes, collect compost, and deliver things.  They are a lot like buckets, which I also have a fondness for.


The basins are in constant rotation and recently one appeared in my house along with my roommate who the other night pointed at the dish basin on the rack and said, “What do you think about that?” at which point I launched into a discourse on the nature of Things as Friendly Presences in my life, much of which is transcribed here, a narrative she was probably not expecting when she pointed at the basin and said, “What do you think of that?”

It is no wonder the Germans capitalize their nouns.

I traveled one summer to fourteen beaches of Puerto Rico with a friend who lived only with Unfriendly Presences.  She had a very difficult time, always hitting her knee, or unable to turn spigots on or off.

At the time of her question my roommate was framed in her doorway into the kitchen.  The kitchen itself was dim, the lamp on the table illuminating the muted green walls, whereas the yellow walls of her room were fully lit and saturated the doorway around her in golden light.  Her hair swept to one side and her silk skirt did too, its hem cut dramatically at a slant.  “So I should get rid of it?  It’s a crutch?” she said, after I had concluded my meditation on the dish basin.

I was going to argue that these things are not crutches, my walking stick was no crutch, but then I realized that a crutch also might seem like a Friendly Presence, one to be relied on.  Once I was on crutches and I did not like them, they hurt, and they were ugly.  Neither form nor function succeeded, and they did not meet.

I thought that my roommate in the golden doorway amidst the soft green walls and forms of door and tile and floorboard looked like a Rembrandt, and I told her so, but really I meant Vermeer.  Nonetheless it was a Life as Art moment, the whole scene, accented with the one red string of charms that hang in the corner for luck and chi circulation.

The scene contained the qualities of both unreality as well as sharpness and clarity, and perfect composition, though I couldn’t say why.  “What is the purpose of painters?  What is it that they have to say in the world?” my painter friend writes to me.  I still don’t have an answer for her but when I do it will be related to the living painting I saw, a transcendence of the everyday which is not metamorphosis but an unveiling of essence.

The News, Remembered

The News, remembered, one day later.

Please be advised: the News is mostly depressing.

Day 1

sources: NY Times, life

The sun rose.  On a street in Philly, two men and one woman assaulted a gay couple.  One of the victims had to get their jaw wired.  The perpetrators claim it was not gay bashing, the victims say otherwise.  An 18 year-old white woman from Northern Virginia disappeared two weeks into her first semester at UVA and a black man has been arrested and charged with abduction and intent to molest.  This encapsulates two central tensions of Charlottesville: a campus hostile and unsafe for women, and a town sharply divided between the upper class white students who move there and the long-time African-American community that lives next door.  The young woman is still missing.  Gauthier is retiring from ready-to-wear collections.  While some lament the loss others say his once ground-breaking pieces have become a tired recycling of ideas.  He is photographed with a model wearing a tutu and bustier composed of blue butterfly wings.  Will Gauthier ever be photographed in tutu and bustier?  Probably not.  He will continue to work in “couture.” ISIS, or ISIL, draws its violent roots from “Wahhab-ism,” a cleric’s teachings from the Saud peninsula. Saudi Arabia and numerous other countries are trying to protect and distance themselves from the attacks and ideology.  Whereas fundamentalist Islam uses violence as a means to an end, Wahhab-ism sees violence as a “purifying act,” an end in and of itself.  If I only read this article I could assume that Islam has two branches, violence as duty, or violence as pleasure.  France has a long-standing policy of paying to get hostages back and spends large sums of money on it.  The New York Times/ U.S. seem to frown upon this policy.  According to the Times, Islamic militants now use this as a source of funding.  It is very easy to find the phrase, “Islamic militant,” at my fingertips.  I don’t know what the word for Islamic peace activist is.  France refused to pay out for the mountaineer who went hiking in Algeria and was killed.   The U.S., under Obama’s directives, is enlarging its nuclear arsenal, thus endangering the entire planet.  By mixing and matching nuclear parts they are going against the spirit of the nuclear test ban treaty and non-proliferation treaties, both international treaties the U.S. has signed on to, while simultaneously creating even more dangerous weapons that have not been tested.  A memorial to Michael Brown was burned in Ferguson amidst more fighting between two white cops and five black community members.  The Google workforce is seventy percent male and they are trying to remedy this with anti-bias training.  There was a headline about Jeter but I have no idea what it said.  He exists.  Bloggers are getting tired of/bored of/stressed out by blogging, and some of them have to renovate houses and raise children too, and some of their house renovations are boring and unoriginal, although people like their perky husband-and-wife, how-to instructional videos.  Obama has decided to take a bite out of fundamentalist Muslim violent crime.  In Scott County, Alabama, when you go to jail you don’t have to have a trial or a lawyer.  The Bills won in the last four seconds!  I fixed the furnace by blowing through a little rubber tube and poking parts of it with a paper clip, and we turned the heat on for the first time.  Positive reactions continue to roll in following the inspired collaboration, “In the Shadow of Sacred Heart.”  Porter Simon still has big feet.

Day 2

sources: Buffalo News

Ebola is very bad, almost as bad as bureaucracy.  In Liberia government  bureaucrats are refusing to admit a shipment of medical supplies donated to combat ebola because proper protocol was not followed.  It was delivered in August.  According to sources at the dinner table, ebola is contagious only through liquid not air.  Ebola is increasing exponentially in Liberia.  A refugee brought ebola to Dallas after having helped a neighbor in Liberia.  He was trying to get back together with an old girlfriend.  Now he is in the hospital and the ex-girlfriend, along with children and grandchildren, are in quarantine.  A Dallas philanthropist donated a basketball hoop to them.  The predatory coyote business continues to extort those seeking to emmigrate to the U.S. by using house and land deeds as collatoral, thus beginning a cycle of debt which causes even more family members to try to come to the U.S. The Liberian man who brought ebola to Dallas was a quiet man back home who lived in small apartment in a cement house with a corrugated roof.  There were two other units.  He liked to ride his motorcycle and lived an hour from work.  Query: did someone go to Liberia to see his house and find out about his hobbies?  Something about the Bills in the sports section.  Nothing about Jeter. There were protests for democracy in Hong Kong.  The Supreme Court delayed hearing cases for months and gay marriage passed in more states, including Virginia.  State breakdown: 30 pro, 20 anti.  One resident of Buffalo thinks that the whole Peace Bridge plaza would be a boon for everyone, and who are those crazy people trying to fight it.  In Google autofill results for 2014, “I want a …”, “house,” “a car” and “stock” come in at first, second and third; in fourth place “I want a gun” has been supplanted by “I want a drone.”

Day 3

source: Democracy Now

Sadly the real news is even worse than the fake news.  Twenty percent of small ammunition being used by ISIS was made in the U.S. and recovered from Iraqi defense forces, along with U.S.-made weapons. The Center for Arms Research writes in their report that the U.S. “gifted much of this material to ISIS.”  Three thousand refugees died trying to cross the Mediteranean Sea this year.  Guards in a south Texas detention facility for immigrant woman and children are sexually abusing the women and promising them help with immigration papers in return for sexual favors. Also in Texas: the state passed legislation which compelled numerous abortion clinics to close, including all clinics in the Rio Grande valley.  Nearest clinics to the Rio Grande valley are a four-hour drive. Also sadly I can’t remember half of what I read, both because it has been days now and also because it was on the computer, which encouraged my speedy and superficial scanning.


Last week a 45 year-old Mexican fisherman was discovered floating in his styrofoam cooler after his boat was wrecked in a storm.  He had been adrift in the cooler for eight or nine days; his fishing companion, a man in his sixties, perished.  The remains of a seagull that he had caught, his only sustenance, had to be pried from his hands.

The polar vortex is coming.  It’s going to be a harsh winter.  It’s going to be an easier winter.  It’s going to be warmer than usual until December and then snowier than usual after.  We’re going to get more snow than last winter.  Heating bills will be less this year. It was supposed to be a hot September.  It was supposed to be a cool September.

Last Day

Obviously I did not make it through fourteen days of assiduous news reading. After a trickle of gleaning, there was nothing.

While I was on vacation this weekend I did return to the news, however.  This will be my last post.

warning: this round of news contains a lot of assault and violence

Young men who play sports at a school somewhere south of NYC are being investigated for hazing practices which include anal penetration, which one victim referred to as “poking.”  The Bills beat…someone… maybe Madison?, 17-16.  Ebola continues to inflame the overheated imaginations of certain parts of the country.  Parents at a school in Mississippi refused to let their children attend until the principal was placed on paid leave because the principal had recently been to Zambia.  That’s right, AFRICA.  Another teacher at a school in Maine was placed on leave because they had recently been in or near Dallas, though they were not exposed to ebola.  A Liberian family have placed themselves in quarantine because they know people are scared of their daughter, recently arrived from Liberia, though she does not have ebola.  A real wing-nut i.e. wholesome conservative woman in Kentucky will not go out because a possible ebola victim may have flown through Cleveland, a mere three hours away.  I can’t find any information on how it actually spreads, except that health profession are supposed to avoid contact with victims.  Under the circumstances I think that every article should contain information on actual risks in light of the wingnut anti-African responses.  The last newspaper I read had maybe five articles on ebola alone, including one on how perceived and imagined risk created more stress and anxiety than the actual risk, at least in the U.S. Cuba is sending medical professionals to Liberia.  The U.S. is considering a travel ban on Liberia which experts (not sure who) believe would make the epidemic worse (not sure how).  A nuclear reactor in Tennessee is set to open to quiet fanfare, after a mere forty years in the making.  Wave of the future.  Pope John Paul the III was beatified, with note of his sweeping church reforms.  The man who died from ebola in Dallas was remembered for always lending a hand to others and, once again, for his love of motorcycles.

A journalist who had emigrated from Liberia with family returned to report on the resilient community trying to continue with their lives.  At the end of the journalist’s visit, they and a government official were traveling back on a deserted dark road when they saw a body.  The official stopped the car and got out.  Upon return he reported that it was merely a drunk person; he had woken them and sent them home.  The journalist was shocked that he had risked ambush or ebola; he replied, is this what you do in America? Pass by a body in the road?

The disappearance of UVA student Hannah Graham appears to be approaching a devastating resolution, with a web of connections emerging.  Police found a body in the woods, only five miles from where Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington was found.  The suspect in custody has links to both young women; Morgan Harrington’s assault and death has been linked to an attempted rape in northern Virginia.   Two sources report that the suspect in custody has a history of publicly aggressive attention towards women at Charlottesville bars, including the night of Hannah Graham’s disappearance.  I referred to two long-standing tensions in Charlottesville previous to this, but feel that I have missed the point: now I see the longest-standing tension, that of the whole spectrum of violence towards women, from aggressive behavior passed off as acceptable flirtation all the way to murder.

Back to other news- In an effort to clean up government corruption in China, secret teams torture suspects until they confess.  Numerous North African refugees die at sea each year trying to escape by boat.  A clump of cordgrass might be the oldest organism near NYC.  Two years after Hurricane Sandy Rockaway remains in rough shape, with many properties boarded up and construction moving slowly in other parts.  The library is still operating out of a trailer parked in front the of the actual library which is being remediated.  Ballerina Wendy Whelan is retiring from her company but not from dance.  A forty-year-old Bronx man who was unofficial historian for his neighborhood was found in the river.  Though he detailed Bronx history for all who knew him, his own history remains unknown.  He was estranged from all family after coming out and while he fought for his community history, he felt the lack of support for gay black men in his Bronx community.

I will not be reading the news for a while.  I do not want to be ignorant but I find it incredibly sad and distressing.  Every day, like the tides, the news comes in and goes out again, comes in and goes out, and we are supposed to let it wash up and back.  Probably writing, as well as the means by which I wrote- through recall- has caused the news to imprint more deeply.  For example, I probably won’t ever forget the Mexican fisherman and his seagull.  However, forgetting is exactly what we are supposed to do with this material.  To remember would be the mental equivalent of people who keep every edition of the newspaper until they can no longer live in their house.  Forgetting the news is as important as reading it.

Heart of America

All artwork on loan from the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art


detail, The Heart of America

Like Ahab, but no longer after a whale, not a scientist either: I was a human on the hunt for the heart of America.  I began in Washington.  Oh, I see you rolling your eyes, what naiveté- put it aside.  Go along with me.  You can’t find a heart without being a lover, even a heart as dried up, as desiccated as you might suppose this one to be. Who is to say it might not have been in the Smithsonian, cleverly disguised as a furnished room from the Colonial era, chairs that turn you out onto the floor, portraits and busts that eye you severely, a lamp that either bathes you in a syrup of golden light or grains each pore with shadow.  The halls and hallways of the Smithsonian as chambers and ventricles usher me in and though I make myself small I do not find the last and tiniest chamber of them all, complete with early American doll furniture.

So I became a rat and ran the sewers until I reached the shield, the coat of arms, the breast plate of Washington, the most defended and secret cell of all.  I wormed my way from the Smithsonian down through dark pipes and flushed secrets of prominent politicians until I emerged in a den of mystery: the Pentagon.

Quel disappointment.  All men and men-like people and all suits, all ties, all desks and desk jobs.  I go after the passion, the deep aaaah of inamorados, and find no lair but that of beurocrats engineer details of death for export.  As a rat I was beloved in the Pentagon, stroked and fed endless remnants of chips and snack mixes and pretzels, and sometimes the tail end of a candy bar, taught to roll over and have my belly tickled.  I knew I had to leave before they hired me and so late one night by the blue light of data crunching its teeth on death I slunk out, one last cheese doodle under my scrawny arm, yellow dust on my whiskers.

Who is physician to America? The cardiologists and cartographers will have to get together and procreate themselves a love child, and that child will have the eyes of the hawk and the hearing of a dolphin or whale.

The brain, the brain: banks of Google computers? A vast fungal system in the Oregon rainforest?  Nervous system: cell phone towers.  Pancreas: Great Dismal Swamp, VA/NC.  Belly: Texas.  Eyes, seven, silver with green flecks, eyes of a behemoth: the Great Lakes, threatened by cataracts of algae.

Now on to commuter flights I went, sometimes as stewardess, sometimes as business commuter.  By a combination of triangulation and deduction I placed the center somewhere in the midwest.  I was on the scent and this wild heart beat everywhere.  If only, if only it were beneath the floorboards, I could find it, but it is under the floorboards of America.  I employed a pacemaker, a geiger counter, a dowsing rod and a pendulum and I walked in fits and starts up and down the central plains and crossed cul de sac and pasture. In fits and starts- I start, I am struck.  The beat is striking, beating, pulsing, pounding, it requires the gerund, the echo ever after.  Again and again I woke to find myself tangled in barbed wired, hooked into clothes and beard.  My clothes tattered and my skin bled, it weathered and cracked and my leather shoes curled.  One day I woke up by the rail yard, surrounded by broken glass, and I got on the first grain car that came through- back porch riding, Chicago-bound.  Boxcar Bertha is my name and under my many coats I wear a locket with only a question inside.  In the Chicago yards I change to a Dtown line. It has come to me, where I must go, sharpened in my mind like an etch-a-sketch in reverse.  The ghosts of hobos ride with me and tell me stories, sing songs to pass the time.  When I arrive I climb the fence and walk the roadside, confident of my direction.  At the factory the locks fall open, the doors swing wide; it is like the parting of the thorny woods upon the prince’s return to the castle to wake Sleeping Beauty from her glass casket- no, that part was Snow White.  I carry a key but I don’t have to use it.  I stride through the silent production floor and a cemetery of stillborn cars in hopes that at the center of the tomb I will find a still beating heart.

Unassuming, in a small wooden casket lined with bullets, set in the center of a metal desk, chair pulled back as though whoever was keeping vigil just left.  As I look upon it, the charges detonate, and the whole factory blows.


The Heart of America, courtesy of Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art

Now I travel with the wind, over all of the land, and hear all of the sighs of every heart rise out of chimneys in a flock that darkens the sky.  People think it is weather.  All of the coos become feathers, and all of the tears turn to dust and blow in the air.  When the wind settles the dust sinks into the rivers and turn to tears again and I go with them.  I flow with the rivers, I trickle from spigots and fill kettles and baths and run down drains.  I go into cells and facilitate mitosis and I also go in and through the bedrock where it is so dark I become light.  I shine out of lamps, candles and the twinkle in your eye.  I go through the dark in order to re emerge as light yet again.

And everywhere I go, I hear it in the land.  Striking. Beating. Pounding.  It is not the ticking of machinery.  I hear it in the cement fortresses of Attica and Riker’s Island and Angola, especially strong and low.  Every day, bolts are slid to and fro, locks are latched and opened.  Every day, rust.  Every day, bullets.

A red herring.  A heart in a box.  A sleight of hand, a trick.  A tick that is not a tock. I become a rat again, I sleep in a hole in the earth.  Every night I am lulled to sleep by thrum of a beating heart.

This story is the first in a series of collaborations between the hummingwhale and the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art.  The art and story may or may not agree in their meaning and content.  We leave that to their discretion.

Heartbeat of the Whale, 1956

“Human hearts beat 50 to 90 times a minute.  But the heart of a large whale pumps very slowly- perhaps fewer than 10 times a minute.  No one knows exactly, for the pulse of earth’s most ponderous creature never has been taken satisfactorily.  To do so has been my dream of 40 years.”

So begins Paul Dudley White M.D., cardiologist to President Eisenhower, in his expedition account as published by National Geographic Magazine, 1956, a magazine that sat undisturbed in a shelf at my parents’ house for another twenty-five years after I brought it home from the middle school library. There were a few of us who sought refuge as library volunteers, and we spent hours sorting and discarding old magazines.  The National Geographics were the most favored, and we spent considerable time assembling personal collections of the most promising- for example, a photo essay on the personal effects of King Tut, an article on the desert-warriors of Oman including a photograph of a young Sufi boy skewering his own shoulder with a stiletto, and “Hunting the Heartbeat of the Whale.” National Geographic: a magazine of Otherization at a time when nearly everyone in the world was an Other.

I know for a fact that I saved it for the whale heartbeat article.  I know because I would do the same thing now.  It was a gift from my twelve year-old self to my present self, a twelve-year old self I have often disparaged, a self who proves wiser than I remember.

“ setting forth with such an aim, we were really searching for the mysteries of the human heart.”

I do not think of 1956 as the Year of Plumbing the Mysteries of the Human Heart in America, nor was my thirteenth year such a time.  Some stories wait, encapsulated, to burst on the tongue and tell themselves.  Twenty-five years later I am caught again by Paul Dudley White’s forty-year dream, by the foolhardiness, the single-mindedness.  By the utter romanticism which will get me every time.

If I judge by this article, the science of the fifties was personal, poetically descriptive, schmaltzy.  I am invited in to the slow and powerful pulsing of the whale heart, perhaps ten beats a minute, sonorous, resonant.  I can imagine dancing to the pulse of the whale, and then the human, the hummingbird.  It is the dance of the whale heart that appears most beautiful this morning, the slowing and drawing out of the human gesture.

Here is a human gesture.  Paul Dudley White and team of scientists and engineers took their boat into a lagoon in Baja California to try to measure the heartbeat of the gray whale.  Thirteen men, several boats, cardiology instruments and several harpoons were on board an 83 foot expedition boat called the Dorado.  The Dorado and all thirteen men returned, but they paid their price.

“Medical science searches for deeper understanding of the heart, not only in quiet laboratories but in distant and dangerous places.”  Some would say, especially the romantics amongst us, that the heart itself is a difficult and dangerous place. I am either in search of a deeper understanding or in flight from it.  Sometimes just by standing still I can experience flight.  The story of the whale heart is not the story of love, except that it is.  I believe a forty-plus year story is a love story.  Even a twenty-five year story, a message from my former self: love.

“The whale charged into the keel, sheared off the rudder, bent the propeller, and left the fragile craft with a gaping hole smashed in the bottom.”

Yes.  It is most certainly a love story.

The whale who smashed their boat- which was the small craft being used for the actual operation, not the large boat- was a mother whale defending her calf.  The scientists had chosen the lagoon because it was calving season, and in the narrow and shallow waters the whales would have little room for evasion.  They would be backed into a corner.  The scientists believed that the wire barbs they shot into the gray whale’s flesh would “Inflict Little More Than Pinpricks.”  Here is a description they provide of the whale’s reaction to the pinprick: “The upright whale gave a massive shudder and fell away to one side in a white thrash of water.”  The whale then took off with all of their equipment in tow.

In some ways I see this story as bumbling, unqualified failure, a manly failure to live in the world as it is.  These men have missed/forgotten/failed to attend to some basic facts, such as:

  1. A mother whale will protect her calf at all costs.
  2. A barbed wire shot into a living creature causes pain and terror.
  3. A gray whale in flight is stronger than bits of wire and metal.

The mysteries of the heart, human or otherwise, are dependant on these basic realities that we live with.  They are powered by the heart, in fact.

Paul Dudley White writes, “We are not downhearted.  We had failed, but it was a profitable failure, for we knew now where our shortcomings lie.”  His solution involves better technology, helicopters, perseverance at all costs.

I envy his attitude.  I spent much of last year writing about how people construct their life stories and that of Quest has been the notable male narrative. Setbacks are simply part of the narrative, vital to it, in fact.  The elemental truths which may cause these setbacks are challenges to be overcome. I envy the perseverance, but not the disconnection.

I don’t read many stories of failures in the newspaper, in magazines.  I don’t think we tell those stories these days, possibly because our entire ecosystem is experiencing massive failures.  Maybe if I read scientific journals I would read more of them.  Paul Dudley White, MD renders an account of failure, epic if you throw in those forty years.  Recently I have been telling my own stories of forty-year failure, ungenerous in spirit.  He begins with the mystery. He has not left that behind, even though the beginning of his telling is simultaneous with the ending of his failed attempt. Can you still hear the slow pulse?  It has not stopped.

In 1916, forty years earlier, he saw a whale heart from the last whale caught by a whaling vessel from New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He describes the delicate tissues; the size would “overflow a bushel basket.”  Though he does not name it as such, this is the root of his story; Paul Dudley White MD meets Whale Heart.  New Bedford, 1916.

I take heart from this.  I eagerly read for failure, irregularity, and for the bones of the real world that hold me up.  I read for the normal abnormalities.  Parting words from the undaunted cardiologist: “What might seem at first glance to be a malfunction may be due merely to a heart larger than average.”

This essay is based on the article “Hunting the Heartbeat of a Whale,” written by Paul Dudley White, M.D., Samuel W. Matthews, and J. Baylor Roberts, as published in The National Geographic Magazine, July, 1956.  All quotes are excerpted from the article.

Dead Deer Blues

Every Friday and Saturday I worked in the bike shop, which was really just a large garage/ storage area with a medieval rolling door that looked out on the tracks.  The lot behind the shop doubled as an industrial storage area, with a constantly changing assembly of culverts and jersey barriers that we used as seating for movie nights.  The neighbors, an auto-detail shop, also used the lot as a driveway, so periodically everyone had to move their bikes to let a freshly painted lime-green Lamborghini go through.  There was no bathroom and no running water and only one pathetic light suspended by a cord from the ceiling, which meant that most of the shop was in darkness, especially in contrast to the bright sun outside.  Bikes hung in rows that disappeared into the back of the shop, like bats in a cave.

Additionally, when it rained a lake formed on the roof of the adjacent building, and for weeks afterwards the water ran down the back wall and seeped across the floor, so that even in the drought heat of August our cement floor was mysteriously wet.

The floor was pretty grody anyway from the accumulation of grease and dirt and the building crumbling around us.  The space was donated to us for free by Coran Capshaw, manager of the Dave Mathews Band, who was using it as a tax write-off until he could parlay it into the condo boom which had never gone bust in our town.  His other shitty, thrown-up-in-a-week high-end condos loomed just a short walk down the tracks, on the other side of the train station.  The tracks were active, coal trains coming through from West Virginia, maybe livestock too since there were cars with vents, and boxcars too.  Sometimes the drivers pulled the whistle for us, and on movie nights we had to pause the movie when the night trains went by, except for the one night when we were watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and in perfect synchronicity a freight train passed right as Pee Wee was riding the rails, projected on the garage door.

Since we had no plumbing we all had to sneak in to the hotel next door to use the bathroom, both adult mechanics and kids too who liked to lift a few apples and granola bars from the breakfast buffet.  We had one big jug of water to drink, a la Saturday morning soccer, and at the end of the day we cleaned up with orange mechanic’s soap and grimy rags.  The truly filthy rags that practically slithered out of your fingers we threw away; the rest we reused, like everything else.  On Fridays in the summer I closed up and then practically bathed in orange soap: arms, legs, neck, face, so that I could go to the best wine tasting in town at the crowded underground Wine Cellar.  I sipped wine with dirty nails and orange fumes rising all around me.

The hottest days of summer were amazing.  The sun rode the sky over the tracks all day, trained on the lot every minute.  Inside the bike cave the grease atomized into a fine hot mist that coated my skin.  One time I was late to open and a kid waiting in the lot passed out.  But as hot as it got, people always showed up, to fix bikes, work on bikes, talk bikes.  We filled up all of our stands and spilled out into the lot.

On the truly unbearable days I biked straight home to the rain barrel at the back of the house, my closest source of water for full immersion.  I could practically hear a sizzle as I climbed in, fully clothed.  Bliss.  I could sit in the blue plastic barrel, arms resting on the rim, and look out at the yard: the vegetable garden off to my left with too many morning glory vines bowing down the fence; the sinuous trunks and limbs of the peach trees all around.  At the edge of the yard forest took over and dropped away to the river, too low to swim in this time of year and too dirty the rest of the time.  Sewer vents lined this particular section of the river and released noxious gases all along the banks.  Just before the edge of forest was an encampment which had sprung up overnight where my ex-girlfriend had pitched her tent after she lost her apartment.  Somehow, within days, surrounding her tent she had gardens, fairy circles, and daily group therapy sessions with my housemates, all of them in lawn chairs checking in for the day before it got too hot and we all had to go lie on the tile floor inside just to survive.

Once, as a house activity, we released our goldfish into the rain barrel, just before Easter.  It seemed, somehow, ecological.  Then, on Easter weekend, heavy rains overflowed the barrel and our little fish was lost forever in the peach orchard.  That year I cooked Easter dinner for friends and served it on the long table in the main room, almost all windows that overlooked the orchard.  That Easter, also, my roommates butchered a deer in the yard, a roadkill deer that traveling primitivists found on their way up from North Carolina.  Throughout dinner blood-spattered and rain-soaked guests stepped inside the house periodically and huddled by the door to dry off, casting envious gazes at our vegetarian dinner.  The carcass hung on a beam that was just out of sight from where we ate.  Somehow it didn’t occur to them that leaving buckets of deer blood out in the heavy rain was a problem, so over the next day the rain barrel rivers were joined by rivers of blood that meandered down through the peach trees.  Someone took the deer head and mounted it over the path to the river to scare off surveyors.  Those were the years in which steeply wooded hillsides suddenly became potential building sites.  Everything became a building site.  Those woods are gone now.  The peach trees are shielded only by a thin layer of bushes and brambles beyond which a barren precipice descends to a cul-de-sac of model homes.  Some of my good friends moved into those homes.  I used to forget that the rotting deer head was there, on my way to the river, but on the return, the approach to the house, its eye-holes, its tongue visible inside the slightly open mouth, its ragged neck would suddenly loom over my head and make my heart stop.

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