The Enduring Mystery of the One-Boot Cowboy

Every so often we, as humans, come across places, ideas or thoughts that astound and upset what we think we know with regard to the ways of the world.  Questions that we wrestle with in the wee hours of wakefulness fueled by an inescapable uncertainty. We reach out in the dark, grasphing for answers to those things left unresolved in the light, replaying scenes and circumstances in our head like an animated gif on repeat. It might be an odd turn of phrase we heard a under a friend’s breath, a moral or ethical quandry we are facing at work, an inexplicable series of events that form a fateful chain of improbable outcomes, or more immediate and pressing, your inability to discern whether a slurring man on the street was asking for directions to the pawn shop or the porn shop.  They are the experiences and encounters where our monkey-brains come up short. Where we must take pause, consider and question what we may not know, or why the fuck are my keys mising so goddamned always.

Most of the time the answers to these questions are elusive or speculative; beyond the immediately knowable and entering into the academic realm of theory and probability.  We struggle as humans to ascribe our situation to our understanding, to massage our worldview into a shape that fits the wisdom of common-sense and the rigor of scientific method.    I mean, my keys can only be in a set number of places, right?  Do they only exist when I can physically see them? Are these Schrodinger’s keys? No.  NO.  We reject these mishapen mental obstacles as outliers in a predictable pattern.  These great mysteries of our time which scholars, amateurs and psychics make their money predicting, modeling and sleuthing have sent countless truthseekers down the proverbial dark rabbit hole, often with little explanation and/or no results.

Such is the hole I have occupied for many months now.  I have no answers.  There are no ships on the horizon of logic, delivering cargos of reason or purpose.  No smoking gun; just an endless landscape of grassy knolls.  As of late, I have a a standing reservation at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

What’s worse is I stumbled into this black hole of doubt purely by accident.  Like a witness to a murder that goes to trial, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with irrevocable consequences for my emotional and psychological well-being for years to come.  I might as well have been a bumbling janitor who walks into the wrong room at CIA headquarters during a Top Secret meeting discussing the communist infiltration of our water supply.  I’ve seen too much.  And now I’m not sure what to think anymore.

Now that you have a glimpse as to my state of mind, let me tell you how I got here. It’s a simple story:

My wife and I were attending a stadium concert many months ago.  About an hour and a half into the performance, just tip-toeing into purple-ish hours of the evening on an otherwise pleasant outdoor music experience, the two of us sat blissfully unaware of our impending doom.  Our seats were about two-thirds up from the first row of a large section of fixed stadium seating.  My eyes were on the stage slightly to my left, when out of that very corner came a man wading across a row further down in our section, going left to right.  He was passing through the complete row as if he had started down the wrong row and decided to just steam ahead to get to the other aisle to my right.  But as he finished his awkward amble across the row of upset concert-goers, I noticed something in his hand.  Something…large.

Was it beer?  No.  He was holding it much too casually for a beer that size and undoutable heft.  Maybe a souvenir or some swag? Again, no. And then an unmistakeable silhouette came into focus against the backdrop of a young twilight.

It was a fucking boot.

A solitary leather boot, embroidered and emblazoned with all the shit-kicker finery one would expect from a circa-1994 boot-scootin’, 2-steppin’ country western dance hall.  Just one boot, held in the palm of this mysterious man on a mission.

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Descending into madness

He made his way across the entire section with the airs of a squire carrying a sword or lance to their knight in arms at a joust tourney, with a hurried pace in his steps and urgency in his stride.  Someone needed that boot and they needed it now. Or so it seemed.  But alas, as the bootman descended down the aisle and reached the end of the section, opening onto the field, he encountered resistance.

An enormous, round mass of unsculpted blob-muscle that could qualify as a dwarf planet spun off-axis into the aisleway, swinging the entiriety of its incredible gait outwards into the path.  The security guard, who I shall name henceforth Ham Planet, shot out a stiffarm and a furrowed, unfriendly brow towards our intrepid bootman before bellowing something to the effect of “who goes there?”  I know this because I could see his face as he questioned the man, facing the crowd and our seats further up in the stands, far enough away to read his expression, but not his lips.  And though I may never piece together what words were exchanged, these things I know:

  • The bootman pointed several times to the boot he was carrying, and then in the general direction of the field
  • The men discussed the situation at length – maybe a minute or longer
  • A second security guard, sporting ice-blue mirrored shades and whom I shall refer to as Iceman, entered the fray to provide assistance
  • Wild guestures were exchanged, but in an oddly respectful manner
  • Ham Planet stroked his wispy facial hair several times as if pondering the matter with prudence of King Solomon
  • Iceman pulled Ham Planet to the side for a brief tête-à-tête, after which the dramatic tension seemed to dissolve
  • At some length Ham Planet finally threw up his meaty arms into the air in a show of resignation, turning counter-axis away from the bootman and resuming his regular position drifting in orbit to the side of the aisleway as Iceman withdrew to the opposite side.

Channeling the spirit of Moses parting the Red Sea, the bootman sprang foward into the opening, clearly irritated by the delay imposed by cosmic forces working against him.  He bound up a few steps onto the field and immediately began casting his eyes towards the human horizon of concert-goers who had assembled onto the field.  He stood there perhaps taking in the enormity of the throng of people in front of him, scanning left to right and back slowly, with attention and scrutiny rivaling that of a T-800 Terminator looking for Sarah Connor.

Up until this point, I’ve been telling you what I saw with my own two eyes and from my point-of-view, and I wish I could spin the  narrative camera around for a reverse shot of my face throughout this whole episode.  About at the point our sole-full sojourner made it onto the field, I began noticing a dryness in my mouth.  It occurred to me then that my mouth had been hanging open for several minutes, agape in disbelief and befuddlement.  I blinked, almost audibly, for what may have been the first time in minutes and realized I probably was making a scene with my slack-jawed mouth- breathing. Without taking my eyes off of the bootman, I leaned in towards Nicole and asked “Are you seeing this? This guy with the boot?”  No answer.  I turned to look at her and saw her transfixed, blazing eyes were also riveted to something on the field.  I started to ask again when her hand flew up to quiet me, while she pointed with the other hand, finger outstretched  “Look!  He’s moving!”

Nearly snapping my neck back to the field and the spot where our hero once stood, I panicked, thinking I had lost track of him.  I frantically searched a visual radius of 50 some feet, darting my eyes over every boot-like feature and trying to mentally calculate the average footspeed of a boot-laden north-american male.  The bootman might as well have been wearing a red and white striped hat and wearing a camera and glasses; he somehow immediately blended into his surrounds more effectively than Trump at a White Nationalist weenie-roast.  I squinted, hard, in a dramatic attempt to screen out the inevitable concert haze of vape-clouds and people holding up their phones to record their shitty concert videos which no one will ever want to watch ever again please stop taking them and put your phone away.

And then, for a fleeting moment, the frenetic limb-flailing subsided, creating a small window to within the crowd where a boot suddenly emerged. I locked onto it with laser-beam focus and let out a quiet “I see you” under my breath.  First the bootsman’s arm, and then gradually the rest of his frame emerged from the mob as he made his way in and out of the crowd, wading in at times and then coming back out.  Clearly, he was looking for someone, searching through this haystack of sweaty young adults for his proverbial needle.  All the while he held that boot firmly, switching hands occasionally but never held above his beltline, always parallel to his body, and always in a casual fashion, as if a fucking boot was a standard concert accessory:  “Did you forget your boot, Mike?”  “Aw shit, man do you have an extra?” “What are you new here? Of course, I always keep an extra solitary boot around as a backup.  You never know when you might score some tickets to some fresh jam. What would I do with my hands if I didn’t have this boot around to carry?”

Gradually, the bootman wandered further afield then my eyes could follow, merging as one man with a boot into the pulsing mass of patrons, vanishing into the cosmic ether of uncertainty.  My eyes circled the last point of contact for a long time as night came to the stadium, desperately searching in vain for a glimmer of that boot.  But like a seaman tossed overboard admidst the endless, unknowable depths of Poseidon’s wrath, the bootsman would never return.  Wherever he was going, whoever he was carrying that boot for, whatever his intentions or his final destination – all of the answers had ambled away from where I sat there in the stands, a bewildering tumbleweed of disquiet.  Nicole and I had witnessed events so slight and temporal that they barely existed at all, and yet the enduring registry of questions haunted our thoughts for the rest of the evening and well beyond.

Who was the bootman?  Why was he in such a hurry to deliver (?) this boot to someone?  Was something in the boot?  Who was he looking for?  What did he say to Ham Planet and Iceman?  Why oh why did he happen to pass my way and drag me down in this downward spiral of endless questions.  I will never know – I …. I know that.  I do.  But alas I do not accept it.  I can’t.  Because Nicole and I are the sole custodians of this knowledge, the only witnesses to this glitch in the matrix.  We are the Zapruders of the Enduring Mystery of the One-Boot Cowboy.

I wish you, gentle reader, could have seen it with my eyes and formed with me a fraternity of mutual bafflement and discomfort, if only so I wouldn’t feel so alone in this world.  My hope in writing this is that, should you ever see a man carrying a single boot somewhere, you might follow that man and seek the truth that he holds.   You can set me free from this prison.  I’ll be here.  Waiting.  Searching.  Until the end of my days.

On the plus side, I did find my keys.

 

 

Meeting Minutes

Have you ever had that feeling during an important meeting like you’re not sure why you were all called together or why you are there? Like when you are called together for a meeting but then the organizer and everyone else you would normally recognize isn’t there, so you just sit there as a group and raise eyebrows at each other, wondering who everyone around the table is until someone finally says something like “well.. i’ll guess i’ll start us off.” Yeah. So long story short I walked into the wrong meeting room and accidentally took part in a meeting about frogs.

I wasn’t brave enough to step out of the meeting once we got going. Learned a lot.

Journey to the Infinite Part 4

At or around hour eleven of our journey I got a rough sort of feeling.  I’m not sure if it was the liquid heart-squeezers (5-Hour energy drinks are a helluva drug) keeping me awake or the fact that I had consumed nothing but jerky for half a day, but either way, my body was in the middle of a labor dispute. It seemed the quality-control department in the basement was up in arms about what management upstairs had been green-lighting for consumption. I phoned Nicole that we needed to stop for some “real” food.

By “real” I mean FDA-sanctioned non-toxic edible food-like substance commonly available to consumers at over 35,000 locations worldwide. I’m speaking of course of one of the few institutions available during the witching hour for the desperate travelers of the interstate, McDonalds.  I pulled the Beast into the drive-thru after checking the clearance signs and stared at the menu with half-open bloodshot eyes, reviewing the offerings as if it was my first time at a McDonalds restaurant. Big Mac? The fuck is that? Oh BIG mac.  Wait do they even sell Big Macs at this hour? The fuck time is it anyway? The  clock on the dash read 5:37AM. That can’t be right. Wait. My phone. my phone has a clock. Fuck’s my phone? Maybe I should call it. Call it with what? I know. I’ll call Nicole and tell her to call it.  I went on in my delirium without realizing that the intercom had started making noises.  Human talking noises.

I put my own inner monologue on mute for a moment, startling myself with a louder-than-necessary “WHAT?”

“WELCOME TO MCDONALDS. CAN I TAKE YOUR ORDER?” she replied, matching my accidental intensity.

My mind stalled; I had not come to this drive-thru prepared for questions.  I looked at the intercom for a few seconds blankly, like you might look at someone’s mouth in anticipation of a punchline when you just don’t get the joke. She followed-up with a “Sir?”as I blurted out “BIG MAC,” then a more composed “Big mac. One big mac. If you are selling Big Macs I would like to purchase one Big Mac from you.” 

“The meal or the sandwich?” replied the intercom.  

Now let me reiterate: at this point I’ve been awake for more than 24 hours, 11 of which have been staring into the animated ass of a Prius on our way across half the country. You could have asked me my name and I might have easily replied “Orange.”

And so this simple question about my order became the most beguiling metaphysical question to plague mankind since the heydays of the Acropolis. I could hear myself trying to come to terms with the what she was really asking: The meal or the sandwich? Isn’t the sandwich already a meal?  Or the meal a sandwich? If I say yes to sandwich do I not get a meal? For our purposes let us imagine the Big Mac as existing in a quantum mechanical superposition between two states that were equally true until eaten by the consumer. I was caught up in the kind of profound intellectual quandary usually reserved for teenagers after a massive bong hit.

“Sir?”

“Yes.” I said, with an increasing assertion.”Both.”

“Huh?”

I clarified at some length my desire for at least one Big Mac without onions, one large order of french fries and one large orange drink, all of which would comprise the  hypothetical “meal” I wished to order for purchase from the restaurant in exchange for currency of a predetermined amount agreed upon by both parties involved in the transaction.  I’m not sure exactly how long it took me to hash all of that out with her, but eventually she asked me to pull forward to the last window. Sidenote: why do they even have the first window anymore? They never use it anymore. It’s like a kid’s room room after s/he goes away to college.  They should just turn it into a craft room with a daybed.

As I reached the second window I saw an arm shoot out haphazardly with a hand preemptively opened to collect payment for the goods about to be received.  I drew up parallel to the hand and threw it in park, looking down from on high at the young woman.  The look on her face was a cocktail of I’m tired, a jigger of fuck this shit and a dash of this is the last time I cover for Brenda. She repeated the total, hand still outstretched as I fumbled around for my wallet while managing a weak, unreturned smile. After nearly handing her the whole thing I plucked out a card and strained to reach down to her.  She snatched it out of my hand and withdrew back behind the closing automatic window.  Not 10 seconds later she returned with card.  “This is a bus pass, sir.”

“Oh did it not go through?” I responded.  Then, slowly catching up “Oh right. Ha ha. Sorry. Uh ..here.” I traded with her using a better-looking piece of plastic.  “Here you go.” She examined it quickly before following the trajectory of her own deep eye-roll back inside, giving me a moment to think.  Wait. Did I order a meal or a sandwich? Did I ask for no onions? If she asks me about condiments I am so fucked. A minute later she returned with a receipt, the card and a brown bag, wordless as she reached up for the hand-off.

“No onions, right?” I asked. 

She just looked ahead, or maybe through me, still holding the bag in the air with a thousand-yard drive-thru stare.  Was she asserting through her silence that the order had been fulfilled as requested?  I just stared back, looking for some expression of affirmation.  It was quite a scene. The two of us, frozen in motion with eyes locked, the gentle gestations of the Beast rumbling against the chirps of newly awoken birds greeting a new day. I don’t know how long we were caught there like that.

She finally doubled down on the silence with an eye-widened, eyebrow-raised jut of the head in my direction as if to ask well? I repeated “No onions?” To which she finally responded in a quit your bullshit tone “They all made the same way.” She jostled the bag in her hand, beckoning me to grab it and get gone. 

I hesitated, slowly reaching for the bag with a puzzled look on my face. They all made the same way? They’re all made without onions? They’re all made with onions and I have no control over onion deployment, sir? Before my hand even reached the bag she repeated with more insistence, “THEY..ALL..MADE..THE SAME ..WAY.”  I took the paper bag, receipt and card back reluctantly as she recoiled back into the restaurant and the service window snapped shut.

I shrank back into the cab of the truck, bag in hand.  I opened it up.  Inside were two breakfast burritos and a hash brown. After confirming that they were not in fact two burrito-shaped Big Macs, I closed the bag and laid it on the passenger seat next to me. Turning back to the sunrise straight ahead I sat idling in place for a moment, hands on the wheel, trying to make sense of it all. But there were no answers. Not anymore. Not for me. Not until this place was long behind me. 

Somewhere behind me a familiar car horn confirmed it was time to move on with my life.  I popped and rolled the Beast out of park and didn’t look back. The universe was all out of Big Macs and I needed to accept it. Daylight was burning along my pilgrim trail to salvation.  I ate the fucking breakfast burritos. Angrily. They all made the same way.

Canadians Abroad

I left the country for my honeymoon only a few days after the 2016 presidential election.  My friend Matt sent in a congrats and fairwell:

Matt: Hey, congrats again and have a safe flight!

Nick: Thanks man! Feels good to get out of this fucking country.

Matt: Stay safe over there, the less said the better.

Nick: We’re Canadias. Not sure what you mean, eh?

Matt: …are you really?

Nick: Sure, eh?

Matt:

fry

Nick: He looks like he had one too many maple syrup donut-holes at Tim Hortons, eh? Hockey canadian bacon Labatts Molson mounties super polite socialism, eh?

Matt: Keep repeating that. Memorize it. Don’t stray from it.

Nick: Will do, you yankee hoser.

My tenure as a Sex-Ed Teacher

So one night while I was working as a Summer RA for a youth camp comprised of about 300 middle-school aged girls and boys, I get this knock on my door. I open it to find my friend Ben with an exasperated look on his face. “Some kids are having sex. All the campers are talking about it. We gotta find them!” My mouth is about to drop when he sprints away, hellbent on catching the offenders in the act.

I throw on some shoes and rush after him. We spend a good 30 minutes wandering outside and in, ears to every suspect dorm room door. Nothing. I wander into one of the corner lounges and overhear a couple of the campers talking about the incident: “Man, it was beautiful. I mean they were really going at it. I think I know who she is too.” I surprised them and proceeded to put the kibosh on their hormone-addled revelry by sending them to their rooms.

By then Ben had gone off on his own investigation, and I wandered the hallways for a bit longer with my imaginary sherlock hat and pipe in tow, trying to pick up on the slightest perceived sounds of pre-pubescent snogging. Finding nothing, I returned to the main desk of the dorm, where the other RAs had gathered to make sense of the rumor. Or so I thought. As I approached they all looked up at me, including my friend Ben who took a few steps forward. I stopped dead in my tracks as he looked at me with a profound gravity. “Nick. You couldn’t have shut the curtains?”

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The words just hung in the air for a minute somewhere between the two of us, until my eyes caught the sight of my then girlfriend through the window, walking back to her dorm after a short visit with me, moments before Ben knocked on my door. It was then I realized my room’s over-sized window looks out onto a sweeping vista of beautiful Bellingham Bay and more importantly, the entire basketball court only 20 feet below where at least a third of the youth campers had gathered to be witness to the splendor of adult intimacy.

To this day I have no idea how many kids saw us. I was incredibly lucky in that apparently none of the kids connected the dots that it was one of their counselors. In fact several of the silverback male-grubs claimed the act as their own doing (which I did not discourage) and I made it the rest of the summer with only myself and the other RAs knowing the real identities of the phantom fornicators.

I’m only telling the story now as a cautionary tale to you young RAs out there. So be safe. Be smart. Close your curtains if you live on the 2nd floor of Nash Hall. You could be disrupting the otherwise natural process of kids discovering their sexuality at their own pace and accelerating them into feelings they do not have the capacities to deal with as a developing juvenile. Still. I bet a lot of kids had good dreams that night.

When The World Fell Apart

A lot of people think the worst day of your life is the day when you have to see a loved one or someone close to you die.  But it’s not.  It’s the next day.  It’s when you realize that the sun has risen with the nightmare still playing out and you have to live in a world that’s been broken.  Think back for a minute to the dream we’ve all had of forgetting to study for a test, or the dream where your teeth fall out. Remember the relief you felt when you woke up from those dreams. Now imagine never getting that relief. Imagine never waking up. Not completely. Not ever. That is what it felt like for me on March 30th, 1993.

Like a lot of boys, I was closer to my mother than anyone in the world.  And so the scene of her demise in a shitty two-bedroom apartment in Sacramento was as gruesome and gut-wrenching as anything I had or have ever faced. It was confusing and terrifying and surreal. But what came after was far, far worse.

Most of the time in the days and weeks after she died, I felt like I was walking on a razor’s edge between not wanting to think about my mother and having to deal with it out in the open.  One of the worst moments for me was coming back to school, knowing that others already had heard the bad news.  I didn’t want to look at the curious, quiet faces of the other students.  I didn’t want to hear the tone of condolence and care from teachers and staff. Every well-meaning attempt was another lump in my throat. Every kindness another reminder of what I had lost. And I did lose it, almost every other hour; behind trees on school grounds, in the bathroom alone, or quietly straining in front of classmates to keep my glassy eyes from welling up any more.  

Being forced to confront death in front of your peers as a child was humbling to say the least.  But I got through it with the help of people that tried to help me feel normal.  My best friend called me up to come over and play, never asking, but always knowing what I was going through.  My science and home room teacher minimized the spotlight on me during class by simply welcoming me back and then going about the regularly scheduled program.  My dad and brother and I were all lost, and rallied to each other at different times, the three of us trying together to map out this world with less light. All this is to say I wouldn’t have gotten very far without any of the people around me.

Over the years I’ve seen some terrible shit drop down unto the lives of those around me.  Occasionally I’ll get hit with something myself. And almost every time whether or not the calamity in question impacts me or someone else, the last thing I really want to do is talk about it, like everyone says you should.  Words can be as cutting and painful spoken as they are heard, and having to bear your wounds can feel like a disrobing of your soul. It’s embarrassing, awkward and a little scary.  But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s a necessary leap.  Stepping off the edge of the knife is the only way you can let go of real pain.  

My hope in writing this is that whenever you, the reader, are forced to live through a loss, you remember a little of what I’ve written. More importantly: the most useful book about how you should grieve is the one your friends and family will help you write. I hope by sharing my story maybe a few people will feel a little less alone and can possibly relate to my experience. If you ever need someone to talk to, please reach out.

The Natural Laws

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One time while I was out camping with my dad, I had gone to sleep early and my dad stayed up by the fire, drinking beer and staying warm. He soon noticed a raccoon nearby in the bushes, and being the resourceful man he was, decided to use his nearly empty beer can as a projectile to deter the raccoon from coming any closer. It worked, but in his retreat, the raccoon grabbed the beer can. The next night it happened again, except there were two raccoons this time. The third night, three… and so on until on the fifth night there were about a half dozen raccoons shoulder to shoulder, waiting in the bushes for their cans of beer. I laughed about it when my dad told me, but now as an adult looking back I can see clearly that we were turning those raccoons socialist.