Topic 5 Posts


Crazy as a Loon

Midway through 2017, John Prine came into my life. Trump was playing golf, I was working late — I was feeling enormously citified and wishing I was back on the farm. Out of nowhere, “Spanish Pipedream” hit me over the head, and I went dizzy for a few weeks.

Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try an’ find Jesus on your own

It ran through my head all summer. As I walked the city at night, I would wonder whether we should move back to Goldendale. My job was grueling, and I was surrounded by a hustle I didn’t quite know what to do with. I tried to decide whether to fit in or get out, and I squirmed through the meetings either way. Working late, alone at the office, I’d listen to Fair & Square on the company speakers.

That town will make you crazy
Just give it a little time
You’ll be walking ’round in circles
Lookin’ for that country rhyme

A year later, I quit my job and took another one where I felt a little more like myself. I built a boat, did a little fishing, and traveled around with my sweetheart. Sarah and I decided to stay in the Tri-Cities, and we decided to have kids, in spite of ourselves. We thought we were busy, and that the world was stressful, and I suppose it was. You never know what’s coming next, but it’s amazing how the ordinary bits shine in the rear-view mirror.

Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
Looks just like a diamond ring

John Prine.

In 2019, I became a foster dad. My ‘Chicken Nugget’ was the giggliest, cutest, most serious and sassy little girl I’d ever met, and she wiggled her way into my heart like nobody else could. Sarah and I stayed up late with her, checking every time her breathing changed. What was supposed to be a few weeks became a few months, and then became more than a few years. We never knew how long we’d be together, but every day felt like the best one, the worst one, and the funniest one yet.

I bronzed my shoes and I hung ’em from a rearview mirror
Bronzed admiration in a blind spot of regret
There was all these things that I don’t think I remember
Hey, how lucky can one man get?

The day John Prine died, it was a Monday. We had a social work meeting that morning. It was the third week of lockdowns in Washington state. It was the feast of the Annunciation. I didn’t get much done at work. I checked his Pickathon concert, planned for the summer. Tickets were still available.

Mama dear, your boy is here
Far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred coal
That burns inside of me

Death is never warm to sit with, but people can sure get numb. Perhaps that’s the real tragic part — not being able to cry. Once you’ve heard a few friends of friends die, you’ve heard them all? Some people only have four grandparents; some people have a dozen. All depends on how you count.

I hear a lot of empty spaces
I see a big hole in the view
I feel an outline that traces
An imaginary path back to you
This ain't no ordinary blue

Chicken Nugget’s big brother, Bubbies, came to live with us, too. We were all locked down in our house that sizzling, smothery summer. We spent a lot of time outside, or at the skatepark, or by the river. Bubbies learned how to jump his bike. Sarah and I planted a huge garden, and our pumpkins took over the block. I spent long hours walking the city at night. The washer machine flooded the basement with a half-inch of water. It all happened so fast that even now I have a hard time remembering how it all felt. At the time, it felt like a carnival ride you’re too dizzy to understand, and some days that’s how it still feels. There were sad days, and scary days, and goofy days — and in the end, it was something.

That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
You’re up one day and the next you’re down.
It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.

As the year went on, it felt like the whole world was shuffling around. Friends I used to talk to all the time became passing acquaintances. Passing acquaintances became good friends. Sarah’s huge dinner parties became more intimate ones in the backyard. Old stores closed down, old friends passed away, some grandparents ordered their food on delivery, and some grandparents traveled the country. Everybody was trying something new.

It’s a mighty mean and a dreadful sorrow
It’s crossed the evil line today
How can you ask about tomorrow
When we ain’t got one word to say?

John Prine (2016).

My life got busier. Chicken Nugget and Bubbies had a baby brother born in 2021, and sleep left me for good (for now). Li’l Man spent his first summer soaking up the giggly chaos around him, the better to dish it back in spades. The garden had another good year. Friends grew fewer but closer, and my nightly walks got shorter.

And down on the beach, the sandman sleeps
Time don’t fly, it bounds and leaps
And a country music band that plays for keeps
They play it so slow

These days, it feels as if the world is paused in turbulence. Nothing’s changing exactly, since change is the only constant. This year, the garden languished, but we spent the summer outside. Every few days there’s some horrible news, but when has it ever not been that way?

Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us we’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven

My nightly walks are less frequent now, but my dog Hank never gives up hope. Will it be tonight? Will it be down by the river, or through the cemetery? Will we pee on the Tahitian bar sandwich sign, or on the all-year Halloween decor? It takes a lot for the world to surprise me these days, and it takes a lot to scare me. At home it’s another story — every scraped knee is scary, and every crayon picture is surprising.

Someday I’ll take it all in stride.

The fundamental story
Of the contemporary man
Is to walk away and someday understand

Originally appeared in Tumbleweird.

The Ibis At Dusk

Originally written in 2018.

Oliver and I are in a valley in Gitega Province, Burundi, surrounded by fields. We're walking to visit some fish ponds we were told about. Valleys here have completely flat bottoms. The streams have been re-routed into channels, and an intricate series of dams funnels water into different canals that feed the fields.

A man shows us his fish pond. It's the middle of three, and his is perhaps the largest one. He is carefully adjusting the inflow with a plastic bottle fashioned into a sieve. I attempt to ask how big the fish are. He nods.

We pass a Hadada Ibis feeding, its long curved beak poking into the mud along a canal. Its piercing squawk fills the valley, but it continues feeding, absentmindedly talking to itself in shouts. From here, it looks like a large burlap-brown dull bird, long legs in the mud, long beak in the mud, feathers blending into the mud, yelling. It notices our stares and lifts off up the valley, showing off its brilliant green shoulders in the sunset. As it lands far in the top of the valley, we hear its protestations as clear as ever.

There are no large predators in Burundi, and perhaps no large wild mammals at all. We are told they were all shot in the last war. In their palpable absence, birds thrive.

An African Pied Wagtail sits in the path in front of us. These birds don't say much, but quietly hop along the ground in constant motion. They look like cartoon prisoners, in white and black stripes. Perhaps their constant wiggling is because they are always about to make a dash for it.

We head back across the hospital, towards the housing complex where we've been given an apartment for our stay. Large trees surround the houses, pines, locusts, eucalyptus, broadleaves, miombos. Caleb says the pines were introduced by the Belgians. The higher slopes of these wooded mountains are densely colonized. The sighing of the wind through their branches reminds me of the Ponderosas back home.

The trees near our apartment are filled with birds, making their presence known loudly. Each has an incredible song. There's a deep "dee-dwoip" which wakes us early, as if someone is blowing into a jug outside our window. A shrill "ke-ke-ke-ke-ke-ke" never ends during the day, its owner the smallest and dullest chatterbox. The tangle of voices changes and morphs after sunset, speaking less often but with more mystery. Most of the birds you see are silent, while the birds you hear are invisible.

Gerard shows us pictures of owl chicks he's found, recently fallen from their nest. One has died, but the other hisses at him from under a bush. The mother watches from a tree nearby.

The dirt here is a deep orange-red clay. Most everything is cultivated, but the margins grow short grasses that poke up between various basalts. I have been warned of bugs that crawl under your toenails, but everyone here, including myself, wears flip-flops. The soil smells sweet.

We don't see many pets here, dogs or cats. Napoleon has a dog, Simba, a tawny bitch with pointy ears. She looks like a cattle dog from back home. Friendly and quiet, she smells our weird western behinds with curiosity. Many of Napoleon's neighbors have pigs in their yards, with tall woven fences that are green and lush.

On our way to dinner, we see two hawks fighting over a carcass stuck in a tree fork high above. One hawk is eagerly ripping its meal, shaking the tree branch in his haste to gorge. The other hawk looks on, loudly complaining, while the carcass gives faint whimpers less and less frequently. Perhaps this is the end of the other owl chick.

Pied crows are everywhere, the insufferable pranksters of every gutter, tree, and trash pile. One in particular has earned notoriety for swallowing a pill bottle which has now grown out of its neck. Nobody knows how it's survived, but the bottle has been protruding haphazardly for over five years now, earning one crow instant fame and recognition by the humans.

In Bujumbura, two tame Grey Crowned Cranes stare blankly at flowers, picking daintily across a low wall on gangly legs. They stare out over Lake Tanganyika, their top-knots outlined against the bright fog. After a few turns on the wall, the taller bird gets bored and hops down to pirouette in the grass until suddenly sprinting across the lawn. It appears that the cranes take "living in the moment" quite seriously, aimlessly carousing without a care.

Later, in Uganda, we are visited by Marabou Storks while drinking coffee on the shore of Lake Victoria. The storks are silent, but their huge wings beat a drumroll announcing their arrival. These are the storks who went to seed, spending a little too much time in the sun, or perhaps had disastrous careers as pyrotechnicians. They seem to smile at their own joke, waiting for someone to catch the drift. After waiting in vain for me to chuckle, they swoop up into a tree to drop gifts on unsuspecting walkers.

On our way back from the village one night, Oliver fills me in on an english teacher's experience. While staying in a hut in Africa years ago, he was visited by strange sounds and voices. A skeptic, he investigated but could find no cause. The screams and shouts tormented him. I search Oliver's tone to find any hint of sarcasm. It's too dark to see if he's smirking, but I am not easily unsettled. Our conversation is abruptly interrupted by an incredible screeching howl from up ahead. It sounds vaguely like a child yelling or a woman screaming a long way off. My heart leaps up.

A few steps further, and we see a huge shape glide across the road. At least four feet wide, it floated in perfect silence, suspended as if weighing nothing. It floats into the trees to our left.

As we train our flashlights into the trees, we hear the screech again from our right. The flashlight darts back, to shimmer in the eyes of a moulting, screeching baby owl that sits a foot tall on the top of a wall. It hunches and yowls, annoyed by our light.

We find the mother in the tree across the road, and keep her in view as we walk past her to our apartment. She's huge, most likely a Verreaux Eagle Owl, four feet tall. She could easily knock us out. Her "ears" follow us down the road, and she hoots, pleasantly, as if to apologize for her screeching youngster.

A large brown toad crosses the road as we turn in. Perhaps he's using the opportunity to sneak past the owls, the nocturnal abazungu, and their flashlights.

The NICU at Kibuye Hope

I wrote this post in 2017, in Kibuye, Burundi after visiting the NICU ward at Kibuye Hope Hospital.

For decades, premature babies have been born at Kibuye Hope Hospital. Many of them haven't survived, but recent developments have started to even the odds..

These hand-made incubators were designed here at Kibuye to take advantage of cost-effective local resources. Made of eucalyptus wood, they are manufactured by a woodworker in Gitega, a city of 40,000 about an hour north of Kibuye. The incubators are equipped with a thermostat and a pair of sixty watt light bulbs. The light bulbs are mounted in a compartment underneath the incubator bed, warming the enclosed space to just the right temperature.

The NICU is a well-lit, narrow ward with tall ceilings. The beds stand in rows along one wall and single file against the other. The room is full to capacity. We follow the doctor and medical students into the space between the beds for their morning rounds.

In Kirundi, each mother in the ward is called "Mama". Each Mama watches the doctors closely, looking from face to face, as the medical team discuss the baby's progress in English. The NICU is under the supervision of a medical student and nurses during the day, with an American doctor performing rounds every morning. When the American doctor has questions, they pass through translators. "Mama, is the baby nursing well?"

A mama with a pair of premature twins sits on two beds pushed together. One baby is very small, only 1,100 grams. Mama nurses the smallest while the doctors consult. The larger twin sleeps under blankets on the second bed. A supplemental formula is prescribed.

Another baby is much larger, a three-week old admitted for jaundice. The overseeing medical student has proscribed light therapy. The teaching doctor presses the student for alternative proscriptions. Mama looks on, while gently tightening the baby's swaddle.

In any hospital, the NICU is a profound place. The freshest and most vulnerable children struggle for life, surrounded by concerned family. Healthcare workers seek solutions within narrow margins. It's a place of intense joy and loss, together.

Two days after our rounds the twins are discharged, both healthy and growing.

Cutting Trail Above Pestriak Point

My machete drips
Green foam
My boots crush pulp of
Devil’s club, fireweed,
Roses, elderberry,
Pushki spraying sap,

From below,
The new mountain path
Winds up slow.

I rest my juice-covered arms.
The sea is pinned taut.
Chest-high green
Slopes double black
To a wall of spruce.
An eagle
A tiny prick of black and white
Below us, above the bay.
Flies stick to my machete.

Stilled, I turn to again.
Here, we gather wrack
From an ancient

Originally appeared in Hawk & Handsaw: Journal of Creative Sustainability


A row of pigeons nestle on a streetlight, all in a line like muddy popcorn on a string – a dumpy Christmas decoration. From the office window they look warm in the cold fog. The whole scene would be better with snow, but the snow hasn't come yet and the cold damp reigns in mist over the season.

The pigeons are greeted by a friend who jumps into a small gap in the ranks, rustling his wet feathers and nodding to his mates. One large and grizzled pigeon on the sloping arm of the streetlight takes off. Perhaps there is a pigeon rule for the polite number of cooing friends per streetlight. I'd like to meet whoever spends their life trying to figure that out.

The traffic grinds past below the pigeons. In typical fashion, I am at the office past rush hour. The pigeons look down on the traffic like cameras, judging the poor taste of lonely commuters, unloading on all the Range Rovers, glad to be out in the weather and happy together instead of cramped in traffic and large cars alone.

I am stuck halfway up the stairs staring out the office window at a back alley, a streetlight, and traffic, halfway between the snack I just grabbed and my desk. Instead of finishing the stairs, I am finishing pigeon thoughts to myself, lamely pretending the pigeons are sizing me up from their damp perch.

The stairwell door opens below me and I start, taking my eyes off the birds and my feet up the stairs. Perhaps the birds will sit on my shoulders now, cooing their haiku into my ears as I work, encouraging me with small reminders of my insignificant workaholic flailings, reminding me to change my shirt tonight, to look up, to wonder.

Originally appeared in Nature Writing