Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Those who hope I will eventually live a nice conventional comfortable life are just doomed to disappointment. I would collapse from boredom. But my current project is relatively risky without any danger to myself, my house or my cats. I’m writing a book by alternating chapters with Tim Barrus. You already know that if you’ve been paying attention to the samples.

This the beginning of the book, provisionally called “KICKSTART.” This is still in process so it’s likely to change in the coming months. What you need to know is that Tim was pilloried by the politically correct Indian crowd (including Sherman Alexie who is currently being raked over the coals for saying that teens masturbate) because he said he was “Navajo.” Navajo is the name of his dog.

If you are up for it, Barrus and the guyz post at le-too.blogspot.com. It's got a notice of adult content, but I think it is the adults who need to be warned. The kids know. We are all proceeding under the idea that this is at least one way "books" can go.

KickStart: Part One: Chasing Your Stubby Tail


There were various endings.

One was, we would live and die together. It had reached the point where I could not envision myself without Navajo simply because she pulled me around. Pulled me around. And pulled me around. I needed her and she knew it. I was her job. Australian cattle dogs need a job.

The training that turns a dog into a service dog is intense. I thought the trainer was severe but I suppose that was necessary. Navajo had to be trained as to how to pull me out of traffic.

"I will never need her to do that," I said.

"You're wrong," The trainer was resolute.

One of the things Navajo had to be trained how to deal with was the loud noise from traffic, especially trucks. I had always protected her from almost everything. But that had to change to become a service dog. So the trainer and I had to expose her to heavy traffic on sidewalks in Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill is not the quaint little college/country town it once was. North Carolina is urban. Traffic in the Triangle is snarled on a good day. Navajo was terrified.

But we got through that. It was what we did.

The first time Navajo had to pull me out of traffic was downtown, San Francisco. The walk/do-not-walk at Fourth and Market turned red while we were in the middle of the intersection. Walking with forearm crutches and being pulled by a dog because my right hip refused to move at all was not a quick way to cross the street. We were quickly enveloped in traffic on both sides. The dog swallowed her fear and pulled hard. Tires screaming. We just made it.

"Essentially, your hips are both broken and your shoulders are riddled with hairline cracks," my doctor informed me at UNC Medical Center. He snapped the X-ray light off and pulled the X-ray off the clip. "You're going on a book tour. You are out of your mind."

There wasn't a lot of choice in it. Not if I wanted to keep publishing, and there was no way the surgery I needed was going to happen unless I could pay for it, and that meant publishing more books.

Avascular necrosis is a bitch. Essentially the blood bone needs to stay alive (and strong enough to support you) stops reaching the bone. No one seems to know why. In my case, I was told that prednisone, a drug given to me when I had had a bad pneumonia, had the side effect of causing avascular necrosis, and mine was the worst case my doctors had ever seen. Often, it can only be diagnosed on an MRI, but you could see my dead bone clearly on an X-ray.

Your bones break like China cups. Mine had started breaking in Santa Fe. I was there to receive a literary award.

Let's be real: I was there to receive the check from the literary award.

When the hips broke, I could hear them crack. This in an alleyway while I was walking to the awards ceremony at the La Fonda.

I gave an acceptance speech that night through a blinding white pain.

"You should have called an ambulance," my exasperated physician said. I knew it was bad. I had to idea how bad it was.

I am a writer. I had never made any money writing, and now I was winning awards. I would eventually need several hundred thousand dollars.

The idea of calling an ambulance is not something a desperately poor writer would do. The thought of how you would pay for it would have ended that fantasy. I was so used to thinking like a poor writer. Eating scraps. Sometimes out of restaurant dumpsters. The dumpster behind Winn Dixie. I could have taken a cab to the La Fonda.

A cab? But no. I walked.

It was not a good idea but I had never even heard of avascular necrosis. I have no idea what I said that night to the assembled literary crowd of New Mexico. The pain made it difficult to breathe. But I had been so poor for so long, there was no way I was not going to receive that check. In fact, it would get deposited in the ATM machine directly after the festivities. There's an ATM right outside the La Fonda. To hell with festivities. I wanted to eat. And not in a dumpster.

I thought it was raining on the drive back to Chapel Hill. But it was only the agony that has somehow concentrated in my eyes.

There was something I had to do. Life and death stuff. It will make no sense to anyone other than me. There were various endings.

The grave of Geronimo is on the Fort Sill Army Reservation in Oklahoma. Navajo and I sat under the huge oak tree that spreads its enormous branches out over Geronimo's grave. A thousand eye glasses had been tied to branches of the tree. I had never witnessed such a thing. They tinkled like music in the Apache wind.

I let Navajo off her leash and she went round and round gleefully chasing her stubby tail.

The surgery is elective. If you don't have it, you'll spend what time you have left in bed and in a wheelchair. I do not know why they say it's elective. But there it is.

I went to UNC's orthopedic clinic to check it out. I walked into the men's room. What I saw stopped me cold.

This was the filthiest bathroom I had ever seen. It was beyond the third world. Feces and piss and toilet paper were all over the floor. It stunk. It was disgusting.

And this was the place where I was going to recover from major surgery. This was a shit hole.

There had to be another way.

Finding that other way would take another year. The bones just kept breaking.

I ran a support group for boys with AIDS. I remember sitting there as they groped for words to describe pain.

They would go around the circle, each kid taking his turn, and then they'd look at me. My eyes staring at the floor.

"The blinding light of what sticks in your eye and then looking up -- eyeglasses but you cannot reach them. Thousands of eyeglasses making music in the wind."

They had no idea what I was talking about but I did.

The Apache old people bent and broken. I had worked with Mescalero Apache children in New Mexico. None of them had ever attended a literary event. I am told I talked about teaching them how to read.

The bones kept breaking. When Random House sends you on a tour, there is no real discussion about it. Your itinerary just gets spit out from a fax machine, and there you have it. If you want to publish your next book, you will get on that plane. Navajo pulled me onto the flight.

My publishers would claim later they had no idea as to who I really was. In order to get on any flight, you have to show photo ID. Your publicist makes the airplane and hotel reservations. You have to have a name. They knew mine. To make these kinds of tours you are always having to flash your driver's license and tickets. The tickets will have your name on them, too.

Navajo was thirty pounds of Australian cattle dog dripping wet. She had never been on a plane before. When the jet took off, she was terrified beyond anything she had ever experienced. She shook but she never left my side.

The tour was a nightmare. I left home at 4am. I arrived in Denver, did speaking gigs, and got deposited at the Brown Palace after midnight. All of this in that blinding light of agony. I had to get up at 3am to make the flight to California where I would be whisked to the next speaking gig.

People thought I was crazy because I wept through most of the gigs. I was just exhausted. No one asked me a single question about Indians. All the questions were about AIDS. Although the questions themselves were articulated differently, with different words, they were all the same question: Nasdijj, is there any hope of a cure.

I told them there is no hope and then I would cry and they would sit there in silence.

Then Navajo would pull me to the next gig.

We were on our way to one in Carmel. I asked the driver to stop the car. We were near the beach. The Pacific was sparking. The light that bounces off the blue. The tide was out. Navajo and I left the car.

Navajo pulled me to the water and then into it. We both just stood there staring out to sea. It was the most profound moment of my life.

There were various endings.

One would be to die together.

That blinding moment she died I was holding her in my arms. She did not want to go. She fought it all the way.

Time to let it go, girl.

It was not unlike standing there with the Pacific Ocean rolling in. I am told that death can be a silent thing. Navajo's was a thunder like the waves exploding on the land. She screamed until she left. And then she was gone.

I had never heard a sound like that from an animal before. She did not know how I was going to make it alone and either did I.

I had the surgery. I can walk today.

We turned in the surf and walked north along the glorious beach. My forearm crutches sunk into the sand. Navajo pulled hard. I was late for a radio reading but I didn't give a flying fuck. We didn't want to see the ocean. We wanted to be in it. I was dripping wet at the radio station and so was Navajo.

There were various endings. I had found her abandoned in a cave on the Pecos river. I took the puppy. Now, she belonged to me. Fourteen years of side-by-side. Pulling me around. Listening to the music of eyeglasses in Geronimo's tree. Wading out into the surf. Thirty pounds of courage. For me, following the branches of my life is the same as looking up through the strong, black branches of Geronimo's oak. The sun will reveal your real existence. You cannot put it with any accuracy in a book. In a movie. On a blog. In an interview on the radio. In a talk at a bookstore. On a university stage. At a writer's conference. Your real existence will catch you fleeing and chasing your stubby tail.

My body now is tightly nailed and not unlike a coffin. I am still exhausted. My work is in Europe now. They kicked me and my art out of America. Exile is okay. I will not replace my shoulders. Enough is enough. Walking is anticlimactic. I do not know how I am going to make it without Navajo Whenever I hear any pounding surf on any windswept beach, I get down on my broken knees and weep.

But I do not stay there. There is far too much to do. There is art to make, books to write, and films to film. So I stand up and know that she is still pulling my slow length along. The light is not quite so blinding, and it still bounces off the blue.


This reader's dearest wish was always that the book in my hands would somehow come to life so that I could enter it and find an incredible, dangerous, yet somehow understandable life that I could never lead on my own, that was extraordinary in a way I felt intensely. I did not expect that book to be "The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping," which was the second in a trilogy written by Barrus under the nom de plume of Nasdijj. I confess that I ordered the book as a remainder, thinking I was adding it to my library of books by Native American authors.

I did not expect Nasdijj to be Tim Barrus, a person so entirely different and yet somehow like myself -- both of us gifted, childish, ambitious, anxious to please and yet defiant, wishing to be writers but at the same time to have real lives with real impact on the world. We want to be significant, to say meaningful things in vivid ways, to resist all efforts to make us conform. Both of us were imprinted, challenged, mystified by the high arid prairie deserts of the American West. It was clear to me that whether or not “Nasdijj” was genetically Navajo, he certainly knew reservations. Later I saw that “Navajo” had become a code word for him, meaning both the high windy freedom outside the usual constraints and also the small but effective force for protection represented by his dog.

Many times I’ve written fan letters to authors and gotten back a note of thanks. That was the end of it. This time I commented about Barrus on a blog and suddenly found myself corresponding directly with him. After two years of nearly daily emails, I became trusted enough to be able to post with him and his guyz on their blog. I had two younger brothers and my mother always said, “Take care of your little brothers.”

The book for which Barrus received the prize in Taos was “The Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams.” Originally it was a collection of essays about the SW reservations. It wouldn’t sell. He shifted the point of view to first person, slipping into the personas of the people he knew well, and suddenly it sold. Frankly, part of the reason for it selling was the “talking dog” principle: it was incredible but desirable to think that a person who had endured so much abuse and attended schools where he was lucky to learn to read could write at all -- much less that well.

I believe in “talking dogs” myself and have spent years trying to entice and coerce Blackfeet into writing. A few have. Fewer have published. There are many reasons, but one of the keys is fear of the bitter quarrels about Native American literature, and another is that if one is assimilated to mainstream American culture enough to attract publishers, one is not very Indian anymore.

I’m retired at the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation where I came to teach in 1961. Tim Barrus is self-exiled to Paris -- or maybe Tokyo -- or maybe Naples -- or some place back in the States. The book of his I read first was the second one in his Nasdijj trilogy, but it was the truest one. The facts were real and the events are the core of the Barrus inner dynamic: to save young men even if their death was imminent. He’s done this all his life. The journalists never explored this, partly because Tim was protecting those guyz.

This friendship with Tim is not about romance. Tim is married, has been for the past twenty years. He is no more gay than he is Navajo. He is like Walt Whitman: he contains multitudes. And so do I. This friendship is about words, images, stories. It's not that I want the truth, or that I even think that truth is knowable beyond a kind of Platonic understanding of paradigm. What I'm after is intimacy, but a sort of literary intimacy of expression and recognition, a dialogue, walking into the book to ask the author something.

When Tim suggested that we write a book together, I knew at once what he meant. It was totally preposterous for a retired old English teacher/Unitarian minister in Montana to write a book with a scandalous international bad boy who uses bad language and is accused of S/M black leather pornography. The very unlikelihood might uncover some truths, not the journalistic kind, but the human kind and maybe some of the literary kind.

I do not make assertions about books I have not read. So I ordered “Anywhere, Anywhere,” and “Genocide” and did not find them pornographic. Over and over Barrus writes about a big brother struggling to save a little brother/lover in the context of Apocalypse, prompted by the AIDS pandemic. It’s a story that goes back to Gilgamesh and the Old Testament. It was not a mistake that Pilgrimage, the Journal of Existential Psychology reprinted a piece by “Nasdijj.” They are sophisticated enough to look at the message without killing the messenger.

When Barrus says "kickstart," he means making a powerful motorcycle leap onto the asphalt at great speed, hurtling out and away, reaching for the horizon, getting the fuck out of Dodge again. When I say "kickstart," I mean sitting up high on my horse and signaling it to go through wet prairie grass early in the morning, not too fast and not too far away so we can be home for lunch. This book called “kickstart” is an exploration of journey, sometimes painful lurching and sometimes plunging through the night naked on a Harley and once in a while under a reading light with a book.


Art Durkee said...

I don't know if either of you have ever read any Gary Paulsen. He's best known as a writer of young adult fiction, mostly for boys. His most famous book is "Hatchet," a tale of wilderness survival based on a true incident. (There are a couple of sequels now.) Paulsen has also written adult fiction, and memoir; his memoir of running the Iditarod is a real page-turner.

Anyway, I mention Paulsen because I'm getting the vibe that you're entering similar territory. I mean that in a complimentary and positive way. I guess one thing this excerpt made me think of is Paulsen's memoir about riding a Harley cross-country at age 60. It's hard to avoid evoking Robert Pirsig, also.

Anyway, this is just random, and probably the associations are just in my own mind. Don't let my ramblings derail you; as if. I look forward to reading more.

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Art. I do know about Paulsen, but I don't think Tim does. I didn't know about the memoir. We both know about Pirsig. I sat in the same classrooms that Pirsig had at the U of Chicago. Tim would know more about his son who was killed in San Francisco.

Both Pirsig and Paulsen have Montana connections.

But the main thing is this business of addressing what is worth pursuing and then DOING it. I know you're doing the same.

Loved the Columbia Gorge photos on your website. I grew up in Portland and in good weather the Gorge was our Sunday drive.

Prairie Mary