Sneak Peak

The author on the beach in Cabo Pulmo

On the beach in Cabo Pulmo

After I stopped working in science in March 2005, I didn’t think I’d ever publish another academic article. However, when I was asked to contribute an essay to the the November edition of the online journal Anthropologies, despite some misgivings related to the academic nature of much of its content, I agreed. While The Challenges of Community-Based Conservation is a far cry from the peer-reviewed scientific articles I once published, it describes, in very short, somewhat antiseptic form, the complicated and painful story of my experience conducting a community-based conservation project in the village of Cabo Pulmo in Baja California Sur. It is essentially the Cole’s notes version of the memoir I am writing minus the surfing, sex, and adventure. 😉

I hope you’ll take a peek and that the story will pique your interest in reading my memoir. I’d love to hear your impressions of whether this is the basis for a good story.

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Mercy

Artword by Erika Ashley

The following is an excerpt from the memoir I am writing about my first three years living in Baja, Mexico.

It was a cool April evening in 2002 and I was visiting with Kani and Barry in their palapa-covered living room when the bell at the gate announced someone’s arrival. Out of the dark Angeles, the woman from the palapa restaurant on the beach, appeared, an anxious expression on her face.

Buenas noches,” she said, a little out of breath. “I am sorry to interrupt you,” she said making eye contact with me, and then to Kani said, “But do you have an injection I can give my cat?”
Kani and Barry looked from Angeles to each other and back again with confusion. “An injection?” Kani said, “what kind of injection?”
“You know, the kind that will put it out of its suffering. Juanito’s dog Chaquira got my cat and I think he’s broken his back. He’s suffering and I want to give him an injection to stop it.”
“Oh!” Kani said, understanding that she wanted to euthanize her cat, “oh no, we have nothing like that. It isn’t legal for us to have it.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment clearly written on her face, ”someone said you had it, from when your cat was bit by the snake.”
For some reason I interjected, “I can come and look at him for you if you like. Then we can decide if he can be saved or not.”
A look of hope flooded her face and she smiled, “Would you? Yes, please I would appreciate your help.”
Angeles and I walked back to the lot where her family’s house sat, unfinished grey concrete, the lot defined by a barbed wire fence with posts made from the branches of native trees. The moon was almost full that night and lit our way. When we entered the property Chaquira brought Juanito out of the house with her barking. He carried a flashlight and called to ask who was there, his eyes not yet adjusted to the semi-darkness. Angeles responded and he joined us next to a pile of old tires covered in tarps and some pieces of old carpeting. Angeles pulled back a tattered blanket to reveal her cat beneath it. Even in the poor light I could see he was very old. His bones were visible under his dull coat and he felt fragile like a baby bird when I reached out and touched him. I asked them to describe what the dog did and with some gentle prodding and manipulation I could feel where his spine had been broken two-thirds of the way down his back. He moaned a couple of times, the deep pathetic sound of an animal in great pain who can do nothing to retreat.
I asked Angeles if anyone in the village had a gun. While it is illegal to possess firearms in Mexico, there is an exception for ranchers who need them to protect their livestock from the ubiquitous coyotes and occasional cougar.
“Yes, my uncle – he has one.”
She wrapped the cat in the blanket taking great care as she lifted him into her arms and together we retraced the path we’d just covered a few minutes before.
At El Caballero Angeles called to her uncle and spoke to him in Spanish. Pelon, as he was known, or Baldy, had a coarse face with a crooked and hooked nose, presumably the result of run-ins with bulls, horses and perhaps, I thought, the occasional man. He wore blue jeans, a white collared shirt, cowboy boots and a belt with a shiny silver belt buckle. In one hand he held a can of beer and, I noticed as he came to the doorway from which Angeles had called him, he was not too steady on his legs using the door jam to steady himself. He regarded me suspiciously, with a look that I interpreted as, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?”
Angeles explained why we were there and he barked an order to a young tall boy in the restaurant, who scurried off and quickly returned with a rifle. We were soon joined by another man, with a greasy and pitted complexion and a soft chubby body visible under his ill-fitting white t-shirt and cotton pants. Pelon remained in the doorway appearing strangely aloof in his drunkenness and continued to bark orders at the two men and Angeles. I had no idea what he was saying.
It occurred to me that as the owner of the cat Angeles should not be present when the men killed her cat. It would be too traumatic and it suddenly occurred to me, what if they weren’t successful with the first shot? I suggested that she leave and promised I’d stay there until the deed was done and would return with the cat so she could bury him. Her face flooded with relief. She related the plan to her uncle, placed the cat in a curved depression on a broad tree trunk that was growing along the ground and left.
Pelon issued another order to the young man standing there in the semi-dark who now looked overwhelmed and intimidated by his charge. He held the gun out to the chubby man, who sat on the crooked tree trunk next to the semi-conscious cat. The chubby man shook his head drunkenly and dismissed this idea with his right hand. Then he said something that sounded like words of encouragement and pointed at the cats head.

The young man cocked the gun and pointed it gingerly at the cat’s head. The muzzle moved up and down uneasily. Pelon barked at him again and laughed. His laugh was a harsh and cutting sound. Bullied to proceed, the young man pushed the muzzle up against the side of the cat’s head. I steadied myself for the retort, stepped back in anticipation of the noise.  He pulled the trigger.

Pffflluut! came the flaccid sound of air pressure released. The cat moaned. This was not the loud bang of a rifle cartridge.

It was nothing but a pellet gun.

The realization horrified me, but before I could try to intervene, Pelon was issuing more commands. And by the way he was waving his arm toward the cat, he was telling the young man to shoot it again. The look on the young man’s face indicated he was as horrified as I, but Pelon persisted and the cat moaned again. Perhaps out of compassion for the cat, he hunched his shoulders and cocked the gun, pushed the muzzle against the cat’s head, and pulled the trigger. Another moan, this one slightly higher pitched – the cat was clearly in great pain and each attempt to put an end to it was only making matters worse. Pelon and the chubby man were now both egging the young man on to try again. I couldn’t let this continue and begged them to stop. “Alto! Alto!” I pleaded. They regarded me like a fly. The chubby man now stood and took the air gun, cocked, pointed it, and pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. The cat moaned and then began to yowl a wail that pierced my heart. I was on the verge of tears. The poor animal was still not dead despite the five pellets sitting somewhere in its head. The men shrugged, Pelon turned, and with the chubby man in tow, walked back into the light of the restaurant. Only the young man remained, looking uneasy, but with a hint of compassion in his dark eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something to put the poor animal out of its misery. How much more life can it have left in it? I thought.

As gently as I could, I took his skinny neck in my hands and squeezed. The young man regarded me curiously. I’d expected the cat to go limp in my hands, for the life to drain from him effortlessly, for his body to jerk slightly as he gasped for the breath I denied him. His neck felt so skinny, I could have used one hand. But I miscalculated. This cat, despite a broken back and head riddled with pieces of metal, still had life in it. He did not “go gently into that dark night.”

As I tightened my grip, his muscles contracted, and his neck seemed to expand against my hands. The cat sputtered. Had his body not been destroyed, it was clear he would have fought me, but he had no body to fight with. I knew I couldn’t stop. It had to be done. After what seemed like a very long time, the muscles in his neck relaxed and I felt him go completely limp. I didn’t release my hold on him right away. When a good minute had passed and it was clear he was truly gone, I finally let go, relief washing over me. My hands and fingers ached with the effort and I squeezed them closed and open again. As I did so, I looked up saw the young man looking at me with concern. He said something quietly that I interpreted to mean, “It’s done.” I nodded and proceeded to wrap the cat in the blanket. I stood and walked back into the darkness along the dimly moonlit path towards the road that would take me back to Angeles’ house.

I called to her out of the darkness when Chaquira’s barking made me stop short at the gate. In response to Angeles’ wrinkled brow, I told her it was done.

“Do you think he suffered?” she asked.

I lied. “No, it was fast. He didn’t feel any pain.”

It was a cool April evening in 2002 and I was visiting with Kani and Barry in their palapa-covered living room when the bell at the gate announced someone’s arrival. Out of the dark Angeles, the woman from the palapa restaurant on the beach, appeared, an anxious expression on her face.

Buenas noches,” she said, a little out of breath. “I am sorry to interrupt you,” she said making eye contact with me, and then to Kani said, “But do you have an injection I can give my cat?”
Kani and Barry looked from Angeles to each other and back again with confusion. “An injection?” Kani said, “what kind of injection?”
“You know, the kind that will put it out of its suffering. Juanito’s dog Chaquira got my cat and I think he’s broken his back. He’s suffering and I want to give him an injection to stop it.”
“Oh!” Kani said, understanding that she wanted to euthanize her cat, “oh no, we have nothing like that. It isn’t legal for us to have it.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment clearly written on her face, ”someone said you had it, from when your cat was bit by the snake.”
For some reason I interjected, “I can come and look at him for you if you like. Then we can decide if he can be saved or not.”
A look of hope flooded her face and she smiled, “Would you? Yes, please I would appreciate your help.”
Angeles and I walked back to the lot where her family’s house sat, unfinished grey concrete, the lot defined by a barbed wire fence with posts made from the branches of native trees. The moon was almost full that night and lit our way. When we entered the property Chaquira brought Juanito out of the house with her barking. He carried a flashlight and called to ask who was there, his eyes not yet adjusted to the semi-darkness. Angeles responded and he joined us next to a pile of old tires covered in tarps and some pieces of old carpeting. Angeles pulled back a tattered blanket to reveal her cat beneath it. Even in the poor light I could see he was very old. His bones were visible under his dull coat and he felt fragile like a baby bird when I reached out and touched him. I asked them to describe what the dog did and with some gentle prodding and manipulation I could feel where his spine had been broken two-thirds of the way down his back. He moaned a couple of times, the deep pathetic sound of an animal in great pain who can do nothing to retreat.
I asked Angeles if anyone in the village had a gun. While it is illegal to possess firearms in Mexico, there is an exception for ranchers who need them to protect their livestock from the ubiquitous coyotes and occasional cougar.
“Yes, my uncle – he has one.”
She wrapped the cat in the blanket taking great care as she lifted him into her arms and together we retraced the path we’d just covered a few minutes before.
At El Caballero Angeles called to her uncle and spoke to him in Spanish. Pelon, as he was known, or Baldy, had a coarse face with a crooked and hooked nose, presumably the result of run-ins with bulls, horses and perhaps, I thought, the occasional man. He wore blue jeans, a white collared shirt, cowboy boots and a belt with a shiny silver belt buckle. In one hand he held a can of beer and, I noticed as he came to the doorway from which Angeles had called him, he was not too steady on his legs using the door jam to steady himself. He regarded me suspiciously, with a look that I interpreted as, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?”
Angeles explained why we were there and he barked an order to a young tall boy in the restaurant, who scurried off and quickly returned with a rifle. We were soon joined by another man, with a greasy and pitted complexion and a soft chubby body visible under his ill-fitting white t-shirt and cotton pants. Pelon remained in the doorway appearing strangely aloof in his drunkenness and continued to bark orders at the two men and Angeles. I had no idea what he was saying.
It occurred to me that as the owner of the cat Angeles should not be present when the men killed her cat. It would be too traumatic and it suddenly occurred to me, what if they weren’t successful with the first shot? I suggested that she leave and promised I’d stay there until the deed was done and would return with the cat so she could bury him. Her face flooded with relief. She related the plan to her uncle, placed the cat in a curved depression on a broad tree trunk that was growing along the ground and left.
Pelon issued another order to the young man standing there in the semi-dark who now looked overwhelmed and intimidated by his charge. He held the gun out to the chubby man, who sat on the crooked tree trunk next to the semi-conscious cat. The chubby man shook his head drunkenly and dismissed this idea with his right hand. Then he said something that sounded like words of encouragement and pointed at the cats head.

The young man cocked the gun and pointed it gingerly at the cat’s head. The muzzle moved up and down uneasily. Pelon barked at him again and laughed. His laugh was a harsh and cutting sound. Bullied to proceed, the young man pushed the muzzle up against the side of the cat’s head. I steadied myself for the retort, stepped back in anticipation of the noise.  He pulled the trigger.

Pffflluut! came the flaccid sound of air pressure released. The cat moaned. This was not the loud bang of a rifle cartridge.

It was nothing but a pellet gun.

The realization horrified me, but before I could try to intervene, Pelon was issuing more commands. And by the way he was waving his arm toward the cat, he was telling the young man to shoot it again. The look on the young man’s face indicated he was as horrified as I, but Pelon persisted and the cat moaned again. Perhaps out of compassion for the cat, he hunched his shoulders and cocked the gun, pushed the muzzle against the cat’s head, and pulled the trigger. Another moan, this one slightly higher pitched – the cat was clearly in great pain and each attempt to put an end to it was only making matters worse. Pelon and the chubby man were now both egging the young man on to try again. I couldn’t let this continue and begged them to stop. “Alto! Alto!” I pleaded. They regarded me like a fly. The chubby man now stood and took the air gun, cocked, pointed it, and pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. The cat moaned and then began to yowl a wail that pierced my heart. I was on the verge of tears. The poor animal was still not dead despite the five pellets sitting somewhere in its head. The men shrugged, Pelon turned, and with the chubby man in tow, walked back into the light of the restaurant. Only the young man remained, looking uneasy, but with a hint of compassion in his dark eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something to put the poor animal out of its misery. How much more life can it have left in it? I thought.

As gently as I could, I took his skinny neck in my hands and squeezed. The young man regarded me curiously. I’d expected the cat to go limp in my hands, for the life to drain from him effortlessly, for his body to jerk slightly as he gasped for the breath I denied him. His neck felt so skinny, I could have used one hand. But I miscalculated. This cat, despite a broken back and head riddled with pieces of metal, still had life in it. He did not “go gently into that dark night.”

As I tightened my grip, his muscles contracted, and his neck seemed to expand against my hands. The cat sputtered. Had his body not been destroyed, it was clear he would have fought me, but he had no body to fight with. I knew I couldn’t stop. It had to be done. After what seemed like a very long time, the muscles in his neck relaxed and I felt him go completely limp. I didn’t release my hold on him right away. When a good minute had passed and it was clear he was truly gone, I finally let go, relief washing over me. My hands and fingers ached with the effort and I squeezed them closed and open again. As I did so, I looked up saw the young man looking at me with concern. He said something quietly that I interpreted to mean, “It’s done.” I nodded and proceeded to wrap the cat in the blanket. I stood and walked back into the darkness along the dimly moonlit path towards the road that would take me back to Angeles’ house.

I called to her out of the darkness when Chaquira’s barking made me stop short at the gate. In response to Angeles’ wrinkled brow, I told her it was done.

“Do you think he suffered?” she asked.

I lied. “No, it was fast. He didn’t feel any pain.”

My First Custom-Made Surfboard

In September 2002, six months into learning to surf Cremin announced, “I think it’s time for you to get your own surfboard. I’m ordering one for myself and I think you should get one custom made as well.” My heart leapt at the thought. Then my finances reared their head.
He seemed to read my mind when he said he could probably get me in on the “bro deal” with his shaper and that it would cost around $500. I’d just made $700 that week renting Kent’s casitas, so I let the promise of a custom surfboard carry me away. 
Cremin discussed the design with the shaper and they agreed on the shape and length the board should be. I had no idea what kind of board to get, but I knew I was in good hands.
The day before he drove to town to pick up our boards, I passed Cremin on the road. “Tomorrow’s the big day! Come over around five to get your board,” he yelled through his open window. I walked on air the whole next day. At five o’clock sharp I pulled into his driveway in my pickup truck. I called to him as I disembarked and he whistled in reply. I heard the creak of the screen door, the whack as it closed and then the flip flop of his sandals as he made his way down the stairs. He had a twinkle in his eye, a gentle smile on his face and said nothing as he disappeared into the garage. With my right hand I squeezed the fingers on my left, shifted from one foot to the other and back again.
He returned with her in his outstretched arms. She was the whitest, shiniest board I’d ever seen. So new, so unblemished. I reached out and ran my hand down the length of her – smooth, slick and fragile. She was long and wide with a gradually pointed nose and a squared-off tail – eight feet six inches long by twenty two inches wide and two and a quarter inches thick. Cremin said it was a “fun shape,” not a longboard, yet too long to be a shortboard. He said it would allow me to transition from the tank I’d been riding gradually down to a shorter board.
I took her in my hands and marveled at how light she was compared to Cremin’s huge blue board. I turned her over to examine where three translucent green fins adorned her underside. The shaper’s brand name was scrawled in royal blue cursive on both sides a quarter way down from the nose – Downhome. Over the stringer near the tail T-BOY 2002 was penciled in capital letters.
T-Boy is the nickname of the shaper, Tom Gaglia, whom Cremin had come to know in the 60s during his days on Maui. When the surf in Hawaii got too crowded they ended up in southern Baja following a wave of big name surfers like Flippy Hoffman, Micky Muñoz, Pat Curren and Mike Doyle.
Over the course of the next couple of days several surfers from the village came by to see my new board. They shared my excitement and even offered to take me down to get her wet for the first time. Her baptism turned out to be in tiny two foot surf I’m almost reticent to waste ink on, but the following spring when the southern-hemisphere swells arrived, she made my surfing better by degrees. 
Two years later I was ready for a shorter, narrower board and contacted T-Boy with my request. With the arrival of the new board, I tucked the 8’6” in the wall rack and all but forgot about her.
Today her glass is yellowed and brittle with age. When I run my hand over her underside, her once smooth surface is now riddled with pock-marks and scars. A line of bumpy white resin runs twelve inches long and one inch wide from her nose towards the tail, evidence of the first of several run ins with the rocks at low tide. I still remember the crack and hiss of the glass and fabric ripping, how my stomach lurched and my chest contracted at the sound. I jumped off to one side, but too late. As I bobbed in the water next to the huge barnacle-encrusted rock, I pulled her back to me and inspected the damage. It was like someone had taken a chisel to her and dragged it through her insides.
I run my hand along her squared tail and then reach up and feel along the right side of my scalp. There is it – the scar that she gave me in return.
It was first light and the sun was just cresting the horizon, deep fading to brighter orange. The water was dark grey flecked with liquid silver, shimmering in the pale light. The faces of the waves averaged six feet. I paddled her out and sat waiting in my usual spot, just outside the rock boil at the third peak.
The rising sun dazzled along the horizon making it difficult to see the waves in their march towards shore. Suddenly, I saw a perfect one rising and coming towards me, giving barely time to decide. At the last possible second, I took a few strokes forward to meet it, then spun the board around to go. I stroked hard twice and felt the wave begin to lift me, but I was too late for the take off and it pitched me over the falls. I didn’t sink down into the depths like usual, but popped up to the surface like a cork. Just then my board, thrown into the air right above me, ricocheted back out of the sky, one corner of the tail smashing onto the top of my head. The force of the impact crumpled my neck to the right with a disconcerting crunch, so that at first it was my neck I was most concerned about. I raised my head gingerly, moved it left and then right – everything seemed to be working. I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention to my head. I reached up to feel the spot where the board had connected and discovered a lump the size of a rather large plum. Looking at my hand, I wasn’t surprised to see a considerable amount of blood. 
There were more waves coming. I was sitting in the impact zone and I had get out of there. I grabbed my board and paddled out through two more waves. Once the waves passed, I called my friend Mario over to take a look at my head. “How bad is it?” I asked him.
“I can’t tell. There’s too much blood. Wash it off in the water.”
I leaned forward and swished my head in the water, rubbing it gently with my right hand. That’s when I became aware of a throbbing sensation. I lifted my head and, where I had dunked it, the radius of a dark red opaque circle expanded before my eyes. Then several silvery and yellow-tinged fish came flying out of the depths, darting back and forth through the blood stain.
This made Mario laugh, “Wow! Look at that! You chummed the water with your blood!”
I didn’t find it amusing and moved closer to him so he could look at my scalp. “Enh, it’s not that bad,” he said.
“Do you think I need stitches?”
“Nah, but you better go in or you’ll attract sharks.”
At home I took a shower to clean the wound and get the blood out of my hair. It was incredibly painful and I felt my face getting hot as I rubbed gently all around the cut. After I towel-dried my hair ever so carefully, I decided to see if I could get a look at the cut. Leaning over the bathroom counter I turned this way and that until I could see the back right-hand side of my head in the mirror. My hair lay on top of the cut, so I tried to pull a section to one side, but when I heard a sucking sound that made my stomach lurch and my knees go weak I stopped. That sound was my scalp pulling away from my skull.
I drove to Cabo Pulmo where Doc Raley and his wife Nurse Carol stitched me up and gave me a place to rest until the dizziness wore off. Turns out I needed six stitches and had a mild concussion.
It occurred to me when I pulled the truck into the garage that evening that I hadn’t inspected my board for damage. I wondered which was harder – my head or the board’s glass job. On the right corner of the tail was a spider web of cracks with several strands of brown hair sticking out from the center. 
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Working Out

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There’s been a transformation and it’s got everything to do with my writing. For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about my writing. First and foremost I have the Stanford Online Creative Nonfiction Writing class to thank for this. It has kicked me in the butt and made me write write write! While it may be a tad trite, it is true that, “Writers write.” Yes, well, this writer hasn’t been doing enough of that, and this course has done wonders to turn that around.
Firstly, we had to commit to writing for five minutes first thing every morning.  I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again, I’m not much into the discipline scene. But I decided to commit. It doesn’t matter that my decision to commit was probably born of some deep seated need for approval, the need I’ve always had to kiss the teacher’s ass. What matters is the results, right?
The course structure and content have also given me the direction I needed to get over the huge speed bump that had grown up in front of me because I felt lost, not knowing how to get to the next step, how to keep moving forward, get more words on the page. The instruction I’ve received on how to conduct research (What’s that? You say? Research? It’s a memoir isn’t it?) has been instrumental in getting me moving, making progress, driving me on to find the next detail that I’d all but forgotten about.
And like all good little Type A, codependent personalities, the encouragement I’ve received from our instructor and fellow students hasn’t hurt either.
Low and behold, I’ve discovered that if I make myself sit down and write for five minutes first thing in the morning that I am still there several hours and many hundreds of words later.  I know, what did I expect? But seriously I’m sitting here in wonder as I realize that I’ve written over 15,000 words in the past 13 days. [In the name of honesty, technically it’s not first, first thing. Writing happens after I pee, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on the obligatory facial sunscreen, get dressed, let the dogs out, give them pats and a get my huge mug of tea. I don’t think I’m splitting hairs here, am I?]
Some days I really do only write for five to ten minutes and then I get up and go do something that I would normally fill my morning with, like yoga or more often than not surfing. Strangely enough, I think that while following this regimen, I’ve actually surfed more in the past two weeks than I have over similar periods for the past two years. And yet, I’ve managed to write so much! The only thing that is probably suffering is my yoga (and by extension, my lower back).
Before I started the course, I wrote here about following Andrea Mauer’s advice and kept a time journal for about ten days. As soon as I started it, I saw how much time I wasted messing about on the internet, reading emails, checking Facebook updates, randomly conducting searches on anything that popped into my mind. I spent a ridiculous amount of time recording my caloric intake on the Livestrong.com website (it’s still a great web site, I just don’t have time to be going on there three or more times a day to try to find the ingredients to everything I eat). She helped me recognize how much time I was wasting and the writing course has made me prioritize. I guess I needed the combination punch to wake the #$@% up!
So, finally I feel like I’m over the hump. I’m 118 pages and 56216 words into my goal of having a first draft of my memoir written and it no longer feels like a weight attached to my backside and dragging along in the sand behind me. I’m excited about it, can’t wait to read the next journal entry or email that will prompt my memory so I can write the next section. I’m planning interviews to get others perspectives, reading the research and articles that first grabbed my attention and made me want to do the work. I’m finding where my outline is confused and confusing and have started to repair it. And I even think I feel the right side of my brain growing, blossoming, generating more neurons and synapses as I sit here plugging away at my computer. Someone once said, “The brain is a muscle. You’ve got to exercise it.”  It might not be the cerebral equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but my brain’s been bench-pressing 1000 words daily.
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