Uniform = Homogeneous

When I went into the U.S. Air Force in the summer of 1969, I was assigned to Offutt AFB near Omaha NE. At the base I took the place of a physician who had been my chief resident when I was in pediatric training. I also bought his uniforms at a significantly reduced price, since we wore the same size and he couldn’t wait to get out of town. Wearing a uniform was one of the things that I enjoyed about Air Force life. It was much like having a valet who picked out each day what I was going to wear, relieving me of that tedious duty. I would simply get up and put on clothing exactly like what I wore the day before.

Twice yearly this outfit (summer/winter) changed, and I was told when that happened as well. There were never any worries when I got to work that I would not be dressed appropriately, or that somebody else would outshine me in the couture department. We all had the same valet.

I don’t think that I need to tell you that I looked magnificent in my blue uniform, with its single decoration, which was a Viet Nam service ribbon on my chest that indicated that there was a war going on somewhere in the world, even though I wasn’t in it. Rumor has it that our enemies quailed, yes, quailed, whenever they were shown my photograph during the time that I was on active duty. Such a powerful adversary as this, they were told … was typical of the U.S. armed forces.

Viet Nam service ribbon

I quickly learned all of the military courtesies needed when walking about outdoors. If I met someone who outranked me I would whip out a snappy salute and say “Good day, sir.” If that person was of the same rank that I was, a salute and “Good morning” were all that was needed. If they were subordinates, I would return their salute with a firm “Good morning, underling.” No undue familiarity here. I was an officer, and there were distances to maintain. After all, one day in the future in our Pediatric Clinic I might have to send one of those people into a room where they would face a furious two year-old with a mouthful of new and razor-sharp teeth. Without proper discipline being maintained, they might very well just tell me to take the proverbial hike.

The other thing that I liked about being in the service was lunchtime. There were 42 physicians stationed at the base hospital. Thirty-nine of them were draftees like myself. The other three were Air Force careerists. Each weekday at noon we draftees brought our bag lunches to the lunchroom, where between bites of tuna and egg salad sandwiches we complained steadily for the entire hour about being in the armed forces. Every weekday. What a joy those sessions were, 39 malcontents kvetching to their heart’s content. I’d never been so happy, nor felt such kinship with such a large group.

One day a family doctor named Merritt wasn’t there for lunch, and I asked if anyone had seen him. Merritt was the only black physician in our group, and one of the most creative of all of us in describing his disenchantments with military life. Several of the others present developed troubled looks on their faces, and finally George the neurologist related this tale.

Merritt was working a shift in the Emergency Room the night before, when a master sergeant brought in his wife to be seen, a woman who was ill with complaints of a gynecologic nature. The couple was ushered into a room, and Merritt took a careful history. Then he said that he would leave the room so that the patient could undress for an examination.

At that point the lady’s husband rose from his chair, obviously angry, and announced to all present that “No black bastard is going to touch …” He never finished his sentence due to the fact that Merritt hit him with what was described by onlookers as a first class right cross.

Now this set off a kerfuffle, to be sure. While an officer may be able to order a man into battle, where any number of bad things could happen to him, that same officer is not allowed to punch out that subordinate. Not in an emergency room. Not in Nebraska. Merritt was now eligible for a court-martial.

On the other hand, a sergeant is not allowed to call an officer a “black bastard,” either. Just think of what might happen if servicemen and women were allowed to express themselves this freely toward their superiors. It’s pretty much a certainty that discipline would collapse, and it wouldn’t be long before we’d have generals needing to get their own damn cars from the damn motor pool. No, no, couldn’t have that.

The exact details of what compromise was eventually worked out were never revealed, but Merritt was never court-martialed, and he finished the rest of his two years in the USAF without knocking any more people to the floor.

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From The New Yorker

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Last Friday evening was the first time since Covid hit the country running that Robin and I had gone out to a theater, actually a community playhouse. The Evans’ had graciously invited us to have dinner at their home and then go with them to a performance of “Mash.” Dinner was delicious and the performance … well … how can you go wrong with rehashing a story so well known and so beloved. It was like looking at family videos.

“Hey there’s Hawkeye, and Trapper, and Hot Lips, and Col. Blake, and what the heck is Radar doing over there?”

The actors did a fine job, the audience laughed when they were meant to laugh, and there was just the right amount of coolness in that auditorium on an 85 degree night outside.

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If you own a cat, sooner or later someone will refer to you as “a cat person.” This doesn’t happen with canine owners. They just own dogs. I have no idea why there is this difference in terminology, or what it means. Not knowing what I am talking about, however, has never stopped me from giving my opinions on a subject.

It is as if appreciating what interesting creatures members of the cat family can be automatically makes one a member of a suspicious subset of humans. This because the “normal,” of course, is to prefer the company of animals that slaver on carpets and floors, eat the arms from your sofa, try to have intercourse with your legs, and have such poor toilet habits that their owners cannot walk them about town without carrying the paraphernalia needed to pick up their poop. Which they then have to carry home.

I will mention here that I have owned several dogs in my lifetime, many of which had an unfortunate genetic trait that caused them to ignore the reality of automobiles, thus shortening their lives considerably. I have also owned gerbils, hamsters, turtles, lizards, mice, several species of tropical fish, parakeets, a horse … but no one has ever named me after one of these creatures.

It happens only with cats. Personally I suspect that people who use this phrase may have a variant of ailurophobia, or fear of felines. Since it’s an irrational thing (except in the case of uncaged lions, tigers, leopards, and the like when they are in the room with you) such people would not be able to understand why those who don’t have the fear would keep them around at all.

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Tried something that was new to me in the food department, and loved it. I saw the recipe in the NYTimes one morning, and had it for lunch that same day. It is an Afghan cold soup, made from a mixture of buttermilk and yogurt to which you add just a few ingredients. We always have kefir around the house, so I used that instead of buttermilk, and since one of the ingredients called for was Persian cucumbers, we had to substitute another variety. (although later I discovered that the “mini” cucumbers sold at City Market were called “Persian” elsewhere.)

But here is the original recipe, in case your interest has been piqued. Chilled Buttermilk Cucumber Soup

(I know that a recipe entitled “Afghan cold soup” doesn’t sound attractive to many in the Norwegian-American contingent of Minnesota, my beloved home state. I am talking about the people who have only two seasonings – salt and pepper – in their cupboards and think that Tabasco sauce is something you use to play tricks on others, where you pour it onto their food unobserved and then sit back gleefully to watch them suffer. Some of these folks are developing more venturesome palates these days. At least that is what I hear.)

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Snap.

I have been an admirer of photography since the Civil War, which occurred during my formative years. I remember as a child listening to men newly furloughed from the front sitting on the porch on a summer’s evening and singing “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground.” Very moving.

But I digress already.

Matthew Brady’s photographs brought to life that dusty and bloody time in a way that reams of written words could not. They were all stills, of course, and the pix could be divided into basically two sets. The living were in one group of photographs, and the dead in another. There were lots of dead, as it turned out, to serve as subjects. Somewhere between 620,000 to 750,000 of them.

The dead at Antietam

But I’m not talking about that war, as important as it was, I’m talking about taking pictures. Now I am going to divide (we anal-compulsives do so love to organize) the photographic universe into two groups for this purpose. One huge group is People With Cameras, the other much smaller contingent is True Photographers. True Photographers are folks like Jim Brandenburg, a personal favorite of mine. These men and women are artists who fully understand their instrument and what the interplay of light and darkness and color can do. They know in advance what they want in a particular photograph, and then arrange the world (or wait for the world to arrange itself) to take the pic.

Brandenburg had been so successful in his work that a few years ago he set himself a challenge. For ninety days he would allow himself to take only one picture per day. At the end of that time he would collect those photos and publish them in a book. The book was Chased By The Light.

It contains ninety photographs of such beauty and artistry that if I had taken any one of them I would be showing it off to every person I met from that day forward. I would have it blown up as big as it could reasonably get and plant it over the fireplace. I would use it as my Christmas card picture. There would be T-shirts.

Jim Brandenburg

I would do all these things because I am in that larger bunch, that of People With Cameras. Every once in a great while I take a photo that is special, at least to me. But between these rarities there are a whole lot of not-so-special ones. My talent, if you can call it that, is to at least recognize those moments when quite by accident I am standing in a place where if I can just get my camera out there is a worthwhile picture to be taken right there in front of me. It’s the stumble across school of photography rather than a planned and/or truly creative one.

The digital camera has been a boon to people in my category. We can snap away like the bozos that we are and later sort through the resultant mess for one that has value, at least in our own eyes. It’s like panning for gold, where you can go many days without finding a single small nugget. The cost of all this “wasteful” snapping is minimal, since we are freed by technology from the need to pay for photographic film and its processing.

(We can also check each bunch of pics instantly if we so choose, and go on to take another hundred if we don’t find one we like. It ain’t an elegant or uplifting approach, and that’s a fact, Jack.)

One of those nuggets was today’s header photograph. Robin and I had traveled to Lima, Peru to visit daughter Maja, and we were staying with her at her apartment, along with granddaughter Elsa. One evening toward sunset Elsa and Robin were standing at the apartment window and looking out at the Pacific Ocean while they talked quietly together. Where they were standing was in front of a bamboo curtain, with part of the window completely open to view and part obscured. It was those silhouettes that caught my eye. Later when I studied the pic I liked it because while I knew both of the people in the photo, it could also have been of any two persons on the planet, as there were no faces seen. So what appealed to me was that the photo was both specific and universal at the same time.

A greatest boon to People With Cameras has been the smartphone. Since millions upon millions of us have decided that we are so important that we must be in constant contact with the rest of the world and carry a communications device with us wherever we go, and since the manufacturers of these tools have developed surprisingly good “cameras” to add to these phones as apps, the sound of snapping pics is now the background white noise of our times.

Selfie, anyone?

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From The New Yorker

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I’ve been thinking deep thoughts lately, and have come to sort of a plan. I have embraced Buddhism, as I may have mentioned, but there is that nagging little thing going on in my head … what if any of those other guys were right? Guys like Jesus and Muhammad and Yahweh? What if instead of being one of the wisest people ever, Buddha was really just a guy who came out of the forest after a long fast and was so tired that he sat down under a bodhi tree to rest. A largish branch broke off that tree and as it fell to earth struck him a glancing blow. Not enough to do him in, mind you, but just enough to do some serious work on his thought processes.

So he wakes up and cries “I think I was struck by lightning!” And the other guys in the neighborhood thought he said “I’ve been enlightened!” and decided to go along with him rather than risk a confrontation.

But just in case I picked the wrong horse (wouldn’t be the first time) I have come up with this plan.

  • I will immediately stop doing anything that Christianity considers a sin. No drinking, no smoking, no telling fibs, no watching anything but PBS … nothing but behavior from now on that is so refined that it would give St. Augustine a chill.
  • I will also stop doing anything that Islam considers wrongful, because it appears to me that they have all the same sins that Christianity has and a whole raft of others of their own.
  • When it comes to Judaism, I’m not so sure of what to do. They have a different concept of sin, but I plan to consult both a rabbi and a yenta. Between the two of them we should be able to come up with something.

I think that in being proactive I will have my cosmologic bases covered and be squared away with a good shot at a comfortable eternity. I welcome suggestions for betterment of my plan.

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From The New Yorker

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On Friday we hit 100 degrees here in Paradise. Late that afternoon it was like smacking into a physical barrier each time I ventured out of an air-conditioned space, and I began to wilt immediately on each occasion that I did.

I know that others have worse weather than we do.

I don’t care.

I am ready for a whopping dose of moderation. Can we vote on this, or what?

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What would Sunday be without a sermonette? And here is a dandy, written by William Saroyan as the preface to his play “The Time of Your Life.”

In the time of your life, live – so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.

Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart.

Be the inferior of no man, nor of any men be superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret.

In the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.

William Saroyan: The Time of Your Life

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Note: the music today is all from the Civil War era. John Doe’s voice on “Tenting Tonight” sounds little changed from the time when he fronted the punk band “X.”

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Lawrence of Montrose

Those who know me well know that my favorite movie of all time is “Lawrence of Arabia.” It jumped to #1 the moment I first saw it in 1962 and has yet to be displaced. I am not shy about sharing my opinion with others, and introduce this fact into the conversation at every opportunity. Sometimes on the most threadbare of pretexts.

Other Person: Man, is is hot today!
Moi: Hoo Boy, if you think this is hot, you should see them sweat in Lawrence of Arabia, it comes off in buckets.

O.P.: Sometimes I wish I didn’t own such a big dog. I swear he’s eating me out of house and home.
Moi: If you think that’s bad, what if he was a camel, like in Lawrence of Arabia? Think of that pet food bill!

O.P.: You seem thoughtful today, is anything the matter?
Moi: I was thinking about the final scene in Lawrence of Arabia, where everything has fallen apart and Lawrence’s work has come to naught.
So sad.

So when I ran across these video comments by two of the larger talents in the movie industry, I had to share them with you. Because you can exist in only three possible states:

  • You never saw the movie. WHAAAAAAAT! Just do it. What kind of mother did you have anyway?
  • You saw the movie, but it was a long time ago. What are you waiting for? It’s time for a re-viewing. Treat yourself. You know you want to.
  • You saw the movie recently. Come over for coffee and we’ll talk about it until you can’t stand it.

***

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If you’re teetering, be aware that it is available for streaming on Amazon Prime for the measly price of $2.99. Less than three bucks for one of the best films ever! In the safety of your own home! Where the popcorn is so very reasonably priced!

This scene alone is worth the $2.99 to watch on a bigger screen. Okay, that’s all I have to say today.

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From The New Yorker

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The recent change in recommendations for mask-wearing seems to have sent a lot of people right to the crazy department. In order to put some perspective on the situation, I’ve asked Ragnar to chime in. Wearing facial covering is old hat to this gentleman, he’s been doing it for centuries.

Dear Ragnar: I know that you’ve been paying particular attention to our behavior during the pandemic, and have just finished a fact-finding tour of the U.S. Do you think we should be wearing masks these days or not?

Ragnar: Well, first of all, let me tell you when I wear one. When I go to war. Simple as that. It protects my face from contacting annoying things like swords and clubs. Back in the day we didn’t worry about the kind of stuff you’re dealing with, like viruses, because they hadn’t been discovered yet. Not that it wouldn’t have been handy to know about them. Could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble when we were sacking cities and burning monasteries and all.

Dear Ragnar: But now that you do know about viruses, what do you think?

Ragnar: It’s pretty obvious that my old mask wouldn’t be worth beans today against Covid. Although it was awfully ferocious-looking, and the sight of it would sow fear and confusion into the hardiest of English hearts, the present pesky coronavirus particle would sail right through the holes and get me every time.

Now this mask would be better for what you’re dealing with today, but forget about sowing fear and confusion. No one’s afraid of the Minnesota Vikings. Also you can forget about it guarding against anyone lurking around town with a halberd that has your name on it.

Dear Ragnar: So we should continue to wear masks as we have in the past? Is that what you’re saying?

Ragnar: You know what I think? That the good news and the bad news are the same thing here – I think you are all going to do what you want to do, no matter what anyone says.

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The cicadas are coming, the cicadas are coming! But not quite yet. Apparently it’s been chilly in the part of the country where Brood X is due to emerge, and the actors in this drama are waiting for that sunny day. I can completely empathize with them.

Think about it. You’ve been looking at nothing but dirt for seventeen years. You are on the brink of your big moment in time – when you will pop out of the ground, shed your old clothes and put on beautiful shiny new ones, sing your “I’m lonely here” song for all the world to hear, mate with the love of your life, and then … die.

Why rush into it? Why not wait for just the right day? I know I would.

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Size Matters

I am very much a fan of folly … human, that is. A really good piece of silliness can make my whole day. This morning I was picking out a couple of eggs to cook for breakfast from a carton labeled “Large Eggs.” I noticed that they were at least 1/3 smaller than those in the last carton I purchased, which were also called “large.”Obviously the eye of the beholder comes into play here, but there is just too much spread … there is way more egg on the one hand than the other.

It doesn’t make so much difference if you’re scrambling up a breakfast, you can simply make an an adjustment based on how hungry you are and how much egg you’ve tossed into the pan. But how about when you have purchased two cartons of eggs from different suppliers to make deviled eggs for a picnic and one set looks like the tiny bastard children of the other?

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And how about olives? Here is one chart dealing with a naming system commonly used in the U.S. It is composed entirely of superlatives! There are no medium or small olives at all, instead we have “fine,” or “bullets,” or “brilliant.”

On the other end, outside of the wacky world of olives, how would you ordinarily rank Jumbo, or Colossal, or Mammoth? Which would you say is biggest?

Size apparently matters greatly in the olive business. So much they created extravagant nomenclature for it.

.

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Recently an educated and otherwise sensible-seeming woman here in Paradise was overheard to say that she had done her research and had decided not to receive the Covid vaccine. I had to wonder … where could she possibly have done that research? Fox and Friends? Gilligan’s Island reruns? The National Enquirer? This is folly of the most dangerous, unfunny sort. People like her are the reason that we will still be wearing our masks at this time next year. Perhaps in 2023 as well.

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The Oscars have come and gone and this year we didn’t watch the ceremony at all. But one of our favorite films of the year, Nomadland, did well, which gladdens us. There were no car chases, no shots fired, nor any of the blood-spattered excesses of the Tarantinoid variety in this quiet movie about nearly invisible people.

It is a movie that turned the lights and camera toward a part of America that I knew very little about. In a way, it reminded me of an old story that I have told here before, I think. No matter, repeating myself is an everyday thing.

There was a beloved and wise old man who lived in a small village. He was so poor that he had only a single possession, an earthen jar in which he carried water each morning from the village well to his little hut. The townspeople recognized him as a spiritual being, and loved and respected him very much.

One morning, as he was on his way to get water, he tripped on a pebble and fell. The jar flew from his hands and fell to the street, where it shattered. The other villagers were horrified and rushed to console him, but were amazed to see the most radiant smile upon his face.

“At last, I am free,” he said.

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Say What? … She What? … But I Just Talked To Her …

On Monday a friend of Robin’s, a lady of 87 years, was perky and going through her regular routines and looking forward to Zoom Bible Study on Tuesday, but that evening she passed away. Quietly, no fuss, no drawn-out or painful rite of passage. Two eyes closed in the evening and the last chapter in her personal story on Earth was written.

As always the finality of death was shocking, even when it comes to someone at that stage of her life. You can’t shuffle off this mortal coil at 87 without disturbing everybody you know, not even then. Her friends weren’t yet ready to say goodbye. For me it has always been that irreversibility, that complete resistance to petitioning, that refusal to listen to reason that has sometimes greatly pissed me off about death. The absolute lack of recourse.

Along came this piece by Margaret Renkl in Wednesday’s NYTimes, describing the role of poetry in helping people deal with hard places in life. This help comes at those times when we have run out of words to describe what is happening to us or how we feel. It comes when our own store of language fails us. Knowing that the poet could not have written what they did if they hadn’t seen what we are seeing. And if they survived, why, so might we.

I recall as a very young child overhearing my parents having a serious disagreement. Voices were raised and harsh words were exchanged. There were two things that were my takeaway that night. One was the terminally scary thought that mom and dad might separate and then where would I be? The other was that even while I was feeling so small and terrified, the people I could see through my window out there on the street were going about their own busy-ness, without a care for my troubles. How unfeeling they were! How unfair it all was.

If I’d had someone else’s words to lean on, I might not have felt so alone and powerless on that turbulent night. But hey, I was just a kid. Who writes tragic or even thoughtful poetry for six year-olds? Here is the huge advantage in being an adult. There are places to which we can turn for support, if we will. Poetry is one of those.

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From The New Yorker

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The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Musée des Beaux Arts

by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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Icarus

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We are off later this morning for a four-hour drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Camping there with the Hurley family. I’ve dusted off the camper, put the proper amount of air in its tires, and checked the supply boxes. The daytime weather is predicted to be good, but the nights are all scheduled to be below freezing so we’ll be wearing our socks to bed and bringing out Mr. Heater for those nights. I look forward to rolling up like a hedgehog in the bottom of my sleeping bag and wearing all of the clothes I brought. It’s one of those recurring situations in life that go like this –

“Why do you keep hitting yourself?”

“Because it feels so good when I stop.”

We’ve been to this park a couple of times, and if you’ve never been, it is pretty amazing. You drive along the highway and it is nothing but mountains and the lovely San Luis Valley and then all of a sudden – what the hey? – gigantic sand dunes, hundreds of feet high, piled up against those Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Be prepared … we may take photos.

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The Hero

Like Sam Elliot? Who doesn’t? Last night Robin and I stumbled across a little movie in which he stars, rather than supports. Title: The Hero. It’s got what you might call a short dramatic arc, but it crams a lot into that space. Fatherhood, aging, death, poetry, the often baffling elements of love. It may not be a great date movie, nor it is aimed at the adolescent mind (whatever that bewildering thing was … sheesh), but if you want a quiet and lovely film with Sam in it, and a fine performance by a lady named Laura Prepon, it’s on Hulu right this minute.

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Did somebody say poetry? Two of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems are featured in the movie. The first one I knew, the second one, I didn’t. Why didn’t I know the second? And why do I know almost nothing about Edna St. Vincent Millay? There’s no excuse, it is because I’m a philistine, and there you have it.

*

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

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Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

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But not everything in the world is so solemn. Some of it is beautifully silly, like this moment on the Conan show. Where a perfect man with turkey legs can wish things were different.

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A member of my family who has been hospitalized for two months returned to her apartment in Lima, Peru this week. She still requires help in many things, but the direction is clearly toward getting better. Those of us who have watched and waited at a distance are very grateful for the recovery she has made, and look forward to seeing her in person later this year.

There have been many times in this life of mine that I have been forcefully reminded of just how fragile a “normal” existence really is. And what a mistake it is to take any day for granted, when all it takes is a phone call to turn a sunny day into a tragic drama in which we are the players.

Sometimes the metaphor that occurs to me is the proverbial thin ice. Sometimes it is that of a marionette and all those strings it takes to keep matters going well. Drop even a single string and it’s a brand new day.

One that you didn’t see coming at all.

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Is Half A Wit Better Than No Wit At All?

Last evening Robin and I revisited an all-time favorite film of both of us. For me, it is at #2 in my lifetime ranking, with Lawrence of Arabia still at #1. What movie is that, you ask? … Stand By Me, I answer.

To me, it is just about a perfect movie. Sweet and sad and funny. A reminder of what it was like to be a twelve year old boy, that is to say, a barely civilized human being. When it was over, and the credits were rolling, it occurred to me that I had never read the source material, which is a novella by Stephen King entitled “The Body.” Hey, I can fix that, says I, and it is now my night-time reading.

Here’s the final scene from the movie. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” What a great line.

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From The New Yorker

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Wednesday morning I spent sitting in the service area of the local Subaru dealership, having a trailer hitch installed on our car. The new vehicle will tow twice as much weight as our old one (and I’m not quite sure why there is such a difference). But one thing that we use the hitch for the most often is to carry a rack for our bikes. We’ve been fans of the platform-type racks for a couple of decades now. Their big advantage for us is that lifting the bikes onto the device is easier. And you can haul basically any bike with these things, no matter what it’s crossbar looks like. Or even if it doesn’t have a crossbar at all.

The only problem with them is that they are among the more expensive racks. More hardware and more engineering equals more expensive. Oh well, nothing’s perfect.

What I keep looking for is a rack and car combination that no matter where I go, my bicycling journey is always downhill, and the car is waiting for me at the bottom.

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The Republicans continue to surprise and entertain me with their seemingly unquenchable appetite for featherheadedness and self-destruction. There is no blather too ridiculous and no position too mean-spirited for them. The crazier the better seems to be the hallmark of today’s GOP.

At present the party is having a lot of trouble distinguishing between Abraham Lincoln and someone like Marjorie Greene (photo at left) as a person to admire and emulate. I would put my money on Greene, if I were a betting person. She’s the farthest away from thoughtful of any member of the present Republican class of half-wits. Which makes her practically a shoo-in.

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A Little To The Left … Ahhh … That’s It …

I realize that there are those among my readers who think that I am making it up when I complain about my confrontations with the physical world. Perhaps you don’t share my animistic beliefs, or think that I am taking life all too personally, and that my small existence is of little matter to the gods. But only listen a moment to an ongoing complaint before you pass judgment.

There is a place between my shoulder blades that is absolutely unreachable with my bare hands. If a major blood vessel were there and opened up I would positively bleed to death in moments, not having the ability to put my finger on the leak. But the Fates didn’t put a big artery there, what they did locate in this completely unattainable space is an itch. Not just any itch, mind you, but the kind that makes one want to scratch it with garden implements or an orbital sander.

My life is now divided into two parts. One is when that spot acts up and drives me mad, and the other is when it is perfectly quiescent. It never flares up when Robin is around to come to my aid. It never blooms when I have access to the tool below, which I call the Brass Defender.

If the itch comes upon me when I am outdoors I must seek out a rough-barked tree and rub against it like any hoary bull in a pasture would do. Or the corner of a building. Or a flagpole. Or a mailbox. Or sometimes a passer-by, which has its own set of risks, as you might imagine. I would think that this all happened by chance but for two things. The almost imperceptible chuckle I can hear at the worst of these times, and the simultaneous soft rustle of one god’s elbow nudging the ribs of another nearby deity.

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On Friday we attended a film opening while sitting in our living room. The Dig, a new Netflix movie, was screened that day for the first time. Whether the rest of the audience liked the movie or not, we don’t know yet, as they were all at home as well. But we loved it. It’s the kind of movie that, if you’re lucky, you get to see once a year.

A film without car crashes, explosions, overacting, or tedious explanations of everything that’s happening. Instead you get acting lessons from two of the best professors out there, Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. You also get thoughtfulness, honesty, subtlety, beautiful cinematography, and a movie that trusts the viewers intelligence, with a fascinating true story at its heart.

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On Friday we retired our Subaru Forester with full honors, trading it in on a Subaru Outback. The Forester had served us well, but it had reached a point only a handful of miles short of 100,000 on the odometer, was making a clanking noise in the steering that boded ill, and we were facing some unavoidable statistics. Even though the newest of vehicles can break down on occasion, the facts are that the higher the mileage on a car the more likely you are to spend some time stranded by the side of the road.

And at this point in life, I would like to do what I can to avoid being put afoot in these mountains in bad (or good, for that matter) weather.

So we have made the leap, and this is what the new vehicle looks like.

Of course it’s blue. We’re Democrats.

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Memento Mori Department

Cicely Tyson’s passing at age 96 reminded me of the debt I owed her for her part in the movie “Sounder.” Here’s a portion of Roger Ebert’s review.

“Sounder” is a story simply told and universally moving. It is one of the most compassionate and truthful of movies, and there’s not a level where it doesn’t succeed completely. It’s one of those rare films that can communicate fully to a child of nine or ten, and yet contains depths and subtleties to engross any adult. The story is so simple because it involves, not so much what people do, but how they change and grow. Not a lot happens on the action level, but there’s tremendous psychological movement in “Sounder,” and hardly ever do movies create characters who are so full and real, and relationships that are so loving.

Roger Ebert.com

If you missed it back in 1972 when it made the rounds, the entire film is available on YouTube, right now, for your viewing pleasure.

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Wow. This nightmare view of California’s Highway 1 near Big Sur could give a person a chill. Friday it washed out during a rainstorm. Whole highway. Gone. Apparently no one was driving on the section at the time that it went where all good roads go when they die.

My, my, that would have been a ride, though.

In this photo provided by Caltrans, a section of Highway 1 is collapsed following a heavy rainstorm near Big Sur, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. A drenching storm that brought California much-needed rain in what had been a dry winter wound down Friday after washing out Highway 1 near Big Sur, burying the Sierra Nevada in snow and causing muddy flows from slopes burned bare by wildfires. (Caltrans via AP)

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Hail To The Chief … And To Us

Wednesday’s inaugural ceremonies were everything that we could have wanted. Inspiring, straightforward, respectful, historic, and normal. There was not a single psychopath anywhere that I could recognize. Everyone who came to the mike spoke of love of country and of their fellow man. Lady Gaga walked to the podium and gave us one of the best renditions of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever heard. A slender girl wearing a coat the color of sunflowers read us a stirring poem that she’d composed for the event. Mr. Biden gave a speech that will be remembered for its nearly perfect application to the day and to our times.

And over and over I thought – good on us. We made this happen.

One thing – he promised to always level with us, and I believed him. I think that we are fortunate enough to have the kind of commander who will wait to see that his men are fed before sitting down to supper himself.

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I finally got that flag put up that we’ve been meaning to install for months. Most of the stars and stripes on display here in Paradise are around the beds of pickup trucks, and flown by local yahoos. We’ve decided that they don’t get to have the flag all to themselves. Lefties get it, too.

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I read yesterday that the QAnon people are in disarray. Their Fearless Leader has gone away without arresting even one pedophilic cannibal from Hollywood and bringing him or her to trial. Something’s wrong with their world, and they haven’t figured out what it is as yet.

Sufferin’ Succotash! What a pleasure to finally walk away from an arena where one group is loonier than the next. I suspect that the Qs will be like one of those Christmas lawn display animals that are held up by air pressure from a compressor. Turn off the electricity and they collapse on the dead grass.

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I loved that a poet of only 22 years of age was selected to read her work at the inaugural. I loved that there was a poetic reading at all, because that is not a given. This has happened only five times before in our long history. And her performance, for that is what Amanda Gorman gives when she reads, with lovely and expressive movements of her hands and arms, demanded your attention. Here is the text of her work, “The Hill We Climb.”

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain.
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it

Amen, Sister Gorman, you tell it as it is.

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Resistance

Robin gave me a small book by Pema Chodron for Christmas, which I am finally in the process of reading. Sister Pema is a Buddhist nun who writes simply and clearly on matters of the mind and spirit, all from a Buddhist perspective. I enjoy her books because I am very fond of simplicity. I dote on it. It suits me. Early in Chapter Four I ran across this passage:

The Buddha spoke a lot about the importance of working with one’s ego. But what did he mean by “ego”? There are various ways to talk about this word, but one definition I particularly like is “that which resists what is.” Ego struggles against reality, against the open-mindedness and natural movement of life. It is very uncomfortable with vulnerability and ambiguity, with not being quite sure how to pin things down.

Welcoming the Unwelcome, by Pema Chodron, pp 30-31.

What an interesting definition for “ego.” It was one of those times when I read something that rang so true that I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen it for myself. Then I remind my self that original thinking is not a strong suit for me, I am much better at being the enthusiastic follower. But “that which resists what is” …. yep, yep, yep, yep, that’s how my own ego busies itself. Rarely for better, occasionally for worse.

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[Continuing this thread, below is a sort of “present moment” piece by our Poet Laureate.]

Praise the Rain

by Joy Harjo

Praise the rain; the seagull dive
The curl of plant, the raven talk—
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity—
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep—
Praise the mist, the warrior name
The earth eclipse, the fired leap—
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food—
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down—
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all—

Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

I particularly like that next-to-last stanza. Put me in the group that praises both crazy and sad. My tendency is to praise happy and joyful, giving the crazy/sad category shorter shrift than it deserves. Life presents all these to me, why should I promote one set and resist another?

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You may not have thought about the fact that there is a Buddhist theme running through rock music. My particular favorite is by Joe Walsh, and it is Life of Illusion. But how about Lennon’s Instant Karma, or the Rolling Stones’ The Last Time? Or a group calling itself Nirvana, for goodness’ sake? I found a light-hearted article on the Rolling Stones’ contributions which I pass along to you.

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Grateful for the little things. Our local paper, right here in the middle of Cluck County, prints the Doonesbury comic strip. Go figure.

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Mea Culpa, Already

It is a fact that I pilfer regularly from the archives of cartoonists, principally those who draw for the New Yorker magazine. In my defense, I nearly always attribute them properly, and in a way my larceny is a form of respect. You don’t ordinarily steal what you don’t value.

I wouldn’t have to do this if I were able to draw. But my attempts at even the crudest sketching would have been rejected by the original people in charge of the Lascaux caves as being unworthy. Any child’s sidewalk scribble outshines me. I have a clear memory of art classes in first and second grades where for years I would draw the exact same thing and turn it in. I don’t recall my teachers as ever calling me on it, and I was very happy when by the third grade we no longer had to do this activity.

This was the piece that I drew over and over. Part of a house, part of a tree, and the sun. Occasionally I would add a few blades of grass, but that was it.

No people or animals. The sun, the tree, the house. This was my best work. I look back at it fondly.

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So whenever I have need for something graphic to add life to my blog pages, I must resort to piracy. I am quite sure that you readers would quickly tire of the dismal artistic triad shown in the drawing above, and be less forgiving than my early childhood teachers were. In uncharitable moments you might easily refer to it as pathetic.

But here we go again …

From The New Yorker

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On Thursday I once again sallied forth to do a little stream fishing. In brand new boots. What I failed to mention in a post a few days ago is that I had outgrown my old boots to the point where walking about in them was uncomfortable and gave me insight into the ancient Chinese practice of binding feet. There are so many jokes that Mother Nature has in her repertoire, and one of them that I hadn’t heard of until I experienced it was that while aging shortens so many things, including one’s height and memory, it lengthens one’s feet. Yes, they keep growing. I imagine that if I lived long enough, eventually my baseball cap would rest upon a huge pair of shoes, and inside that cap would basically be me.

At any rate the new footgear performed flawlessly.

There was something odd, however, that happened on this particular Thursday. I hooked two trout. This was completely unexpected, and both times it caught me so off guard that I allowed them to escape. In all of my lifetime of hours spent angling upon the waters of this great land of ours, I am rarely interrupted by fish.

This has been especially true of fly fishing, something that I had barely tried before I moved to Paradise. But the attraction of these beautiful mountain streams was too strong, and so I purchased the basic equipment and now I try to go to places where it is unlikely that I will be observed in my flailing.

Initially I took a few lessons, one of which involved turning over rocks in the streams to see what grotesque creatures were clinging to them, the idea being that this would give me an idea what the local fish had available for eating. I could then choose what flies to tie on, thus greatly improving my chances of catching something. Since those early days I confess that I have not turned over a single stone. I will admit that I am beginning to think that my poor performance in streamside entomology might have something to do with my regularly empty creels.

But hey, this way I don’t have to worry about the size, number, or variety of the fish I don’t catch. If I wish to embellish a story or two, there is no evidence to the contrary. I always practice catch and release wherever I go, even when it is not required, sez I to questioners.

[So here is a photo that I did not take of a fish that I did not catch. No matter.] Landing this behemoth was such a struggle, you wouldn’t believe it . There I was, all alone in the wilderness, when the vicious thing lunged at me even as I stood on the shoreline. The gnashing of its razor-sharp teeth was a horrible thing to hear … its murderous eye enough to strike fear into the heart of the bravest man … .

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From The New Yorker

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I have a plan. After P.Cluck is impeached for the second time, he should then be tried in the civil courts for his numerous offenses against man and God. Once this process is over, his sentence would include lifetime housing for him and his noxious clan in this luxurious but drafty thirty bed bungalow. There would, of course, be no internet access or electricity, and I would give him the new title of Permanent Goatherd and Latrine Orderly.

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Is There Life Without Bacon?

[Only slightly edited version of a conversation inspired by comments made at yesterday’s lunch,
where cream of broccoli soup and a simple greens salad were the déjeuner du jour. ]

J: You know, I could go vegetarian today, and never look back. Look at this nice meal, and after I put away a meatless meal I always feel good, I never have that heaviness and the ‘Oh lord I ate too much again’ feeling.

R: You could, eh?

J: Yes, and I think that it would be easy. There would be a transition where we’d have to make a serious effort to acquire a repertoire of vegetarian recipes, though, because my head is already full of meat meals that I’ve been eating all of my life. I’d have to learn ten ways of cooking brussels sprouts, for instance. Like I learned ten ways to cook a pork chop.

R: Would you give up dairy?

J: … No, I don’t think so. While it is true that the cows are being exploited in dairy farming, no one would be killing them. The same with chickens and eggs. So I would be an ovo-lacto-vegetarian. That’s it … no beef, no pork, no chicken, no turkeys … that would make a personal impact, wouldn’t it?

R: How about fish?

J: You know, I could probably continue to have fish in my diet. I admit that I don’t have the same feeling about fish that I do about warm-blooded creatures. As long as I watch for bones and don’t eat too many from mercury-laden pools, I would be alright. So what would I be … ovo-lacto-pisco-vegetarian?

R: What about bacon?

J: ……………………………………………………. Okay, I would be an ovo-lacto-pisco-baco-vegetarian, and that’s it! Gawd, I feel better already!

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Recipe for the soup that inspired the dialogue.

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Robin and I have watched two movies in the “Christmas” genre in the past week, both of which we can recommend. I think that I already mentioned Klaus, the really superior animated film on Netflix, but the other night we tuned in to Jingle Jangle, a musical. This movie has a couple of production numbers which were so energetic that I had to lay back on my fainting couch to rest for an hour after viewing them.

It is also on Netflix. Both of these films are suitable for kids. And adults.

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Sunday Morning

I don’t know who picks the Poet Laureate, but they did an awfully good job this last time when they selected Joy Harjo. Spirituality, earthiness, magic, and reality have all found a home in her work.
Each one of her poems is like a prose work condensed to its absolute core. The one I reproduce here is a novel in which we already know all of the characters.

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Perhaps the World Ends Here

by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Joy Harjo is the present Poet Laureate of the United States.

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It seems that there is no escaping the fact that Neanderthals and modern humans dated way back when, and occasionally went all the way. DNA archeology has shown some small amount of neanderthal DNA to be present in most of us, and if a person is curious a few dollars spent on a lab test would show them just how much they owe to these folks. For myself, I think I’ll skip that step.

This is a scientific reconstruction of what a neanderthal man looked like, as found in a diorama.

This is a photograph of my great-great-uncle Trygve Einar Flom, taken on his 35th birthday.

It may be my imagination, but there are some subtle similarities here, enough that I don’t think that I need to spend the money on lab work.

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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The Small Screen

Robin and I watched an excellent movie the other night, entitled “Mank.” It’s a biopic about Herman Mankiewicz, who was a brilliant screenwriter with a strong self-destructive streak. He’s the man who wrote the screenplay, along with Orson Welles, that became “Citizen Kane.” Some people think that “Kane” is the greatest movie … ever.

On Netflix. The superb Gary Oldman plays the title role. ‘Twas two hours well spent. I will watch it again one day soon.

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Thursday night we had a lovely snowfall that began around suppertime. Now when I call a snowfall “lovely,” I am not talking about the kind that catches you out on the highway and turns an ordinary drive into a white-knuckle enterprise. Nor am I referring to the sort that howls around your home and rattles the shutters, obliterating everything beyond two feet in front of your eyes.

Nope. I am talkin’ ’bout the variety that produces those big flakes that drift slowly down in the yellow light of a streetlamp. Where the total accumulation amounts to little more than a quiet inch or two of snow on the streets and sidewalks. Everything gentle.

Just enough to change the way the world looks and sounds.

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From The New Yorker

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What a horrorshow out there in Washington DC. If my father were still alive, I think he might take that old GeHa bolt-action shotgun of his, load it with buckshot, and go hunting Republicans. He never had much love for the way members of that party used to behave, way back before they outed themselves as the spineless and blatant enemies of democracy that they are today.

I wouldn’t let him go, of course. He’d just get himself into a whole lot of trouble, and he was never a very good shot, anyway.

(If you’re reading this, Dad, I love you, but … let’s be straight here … your strengths were many, but marksmanship was not one of them.)

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These days we are living in a world where all manner of ugliness has been unleashed.  Where we find the foulest words coming out of the mouth of the person who lives just up the block, where public servants are threatened for doing their job, where our basest impulses are encouraged. A world where lies so big we should be laughing at them are taken seriously by thousands, perhaps millions. 

It’s fascism of a neo-Mussolinic variety that we thought was dead, but have now found that no one had driven a proper stake through its heart because here it is on the street again in all of its violence and vileness.

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Honor, honesty, truth, courage, compassion … these will win the day once again, but it will not be without a painful struggle.  Now that this assemblage of demons and succubi have been released it will be the very devil to put them back in their box.

 And then … what do we do with this new knowledge we’ve acquired about some of our neighbors and “leaders?”  Those people who have been willing to go along with or enthusiastically support these last four years of monstrous behavior?  Can we ever trust them again?

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Sacrifice For The Good …

There are a lot of frustrating moments involved in reading the Times of New York on a regular basis. It’s worth it, of course, because then you are able to say “I saw in the NYTimes this morning,” a phrase that immediately stamps one as a person of culture, discernment, and general superiorness (at least to one’s own way of thinking).

But you have to wade through quite a lot of dross to sort out what you came there for. You have to read about hundreds of plays that you will never see, poetry readings that you will never attend, restaurants where you will never be seated, and excellent-looking movies that will never make it across the Rockies.

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You end up reading all-too-frequent love letters to NYCity written by residents of NYCity who really can’t imagine why the rest of the country has to exist at all and what kind of dullards would ever live anywhere but NYCity? There are the stories about weddings that you missed where the couple was too charming for words, real estate that only the 1% could aspire to owning, and a food column that is at least one-third about the intricacies of which wine you should be buying at which shop (wine may be a lot of things, but it isn’t food).

So when I say “I saw in the NYTimes this morning,” I hope you all realize the sacrifices that I make in reading this newspaper just to be able to name-drop an article or two each week.

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There is a song by the group Talking Heads that deals with those of us who don’t live in NYCity. It’s called “The Big Country,” and the chorus goes like this:

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I wouldn’t live like that, no siree!
I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.

The Big Country, by Talking Heads

I have liked the song since first I heard it, snobbish little ditty that it is. It is almost perfect in its attitude, and helps keep my sense of humor honed.

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I saw in the NYTimes this morning that there are people lining up to be upset about Joe Biden’s cabinet picks. Of course they are. They should be. We really aren’t simply divided into red and blue factions, but to all shades of those two colors, each with its advocates for a point of view.

So when Biden picks a retired four-star general for Secretary of Defense, he stirs up any shade of blue that thinks the man is not as civilian as he should be to hold this post. After all, we have a long-established principle involved here, the control of the military by civilian authority. I think personally that this principle is a good thing, and find it helpful to be reminded of it through the present controversy.

Whoever Biden picks for whatever cabinet post will not please all of us. It’s possible that when they have all been selected that each will be a disappointment to you, or to me, in some way. From then on, we will watch to see what they do, won’t we? I wasn’t happy when Robert Kennedy was chosen by his brother as Attorney General, even though I liked JFK. I thought – NEPOTISM – in all caps. But in his abbreviated career his actions pleased me in too many ways to count.

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It’s not common knowledge but my navel is off slightly more than one centimeter to the right. And I lay it all off onto the medical/industrial complex.

When I was retiring from practice, I had excellent health insurance, so I decided that before I left for parts unknown that I would have as many of my defects repaired as time would allow and my insurance would cover. It turned out that I had a hernia in many of the places that a person can have one, and they totaled three. So I visited a surgeon of good repute and we made the required arrangements. One of those defects was at my umbilicus, where during the repair the physician would tunnel in and patch the problem area with … I don’t know … some burlap or pieces of recycled radial tire belts.

The surgeries were all small ones, and I went home a happy man. Until I took a shower later on, and noticed that I was no longer symmetric. Either my navel had shifted to the right or my entire body had shifted to the left, but something unplanned had happened. At my first post-op followup visit, I brought this up to the surgeon.

I don’t know if you noticed, doctor, but my umbilicus is askew.

Why, so it is. Has it always been that way?

No, not until my surgery.

Have you proof of this?

Yes, many photos in my family albums show an admirable centering.

Well … ?

I didn’t want to talk bout legal action, but I remember reading about a woman who had a similar problem after plastic surgery, and she received a handsome settlement.

I know of the case. Of course, she was an attractive woman in her forties, while you are a rather plain man in your sixties.

Your meaning, sir?

There’s not a jury in the country that will think that the proposition that you are less attractive than you were holds any water. In fact, the case could be made that you are now more interesting than ever.

So I should be grateful?

Indeed you should, especially since there will be no additional professional fees involved.

Thank you so much, doctor, you are exceptionally kind and considerate.

Don’t mention it. On your way out, could you send in the next post-op patient? He’ll be the one whose right ear flops about something terrible.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

All of us who love movies, we who have been lucky enough to sit in darkened theaters of an evening and were changed by what we saw, can draw up a list of those films that were transformative for us. In my own case, these were films that went beyond being entertaining and taught me something powerful through the artistry of the army of people who contribute their talents to such an enterprise. One of those was Judgement at Nuremberg, which was released in 1961.

The other day I learned a new number, and it was 545. This is the number of children who were separated from their parents by immigration personnel and who have still not been reunited with their parents. As Stephen Colbert said it in the clip I posted on Thursday: “Cruelty was the plan.” It is a shameful number and the size of that number stands out. But the shame and the unnecessary suffering began with the first child who was treated in this way. With the first family that was deliberately divided by policies of our own government.

It called to mind a scene from the movie I mentioned above. Spencer Tracy plays an American judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Burt Lancaster plays a German judge, a man who in his official capacity went along with some of the Nazi injustices. Who believed that by going along over here you could prevent greater harm over there. When I first saw this scene I was stunned, and left the theater not ready to talk about it until I had some time to process what had been presented to me.

It changed the way the 22 year-old man that I was looked at life. As it turned out, that change was permanent. So much for a simple night out at the movies, eh?

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The above is an example of the randomness of how we learn and what we learn. Perhaps I should use a different pronoun, to stop using the “we” and substitute the “I,” but I suspect that many of you might have found it to be true in your own lives as well. A small part of my moral education was acquired in churches and during talks with my parents, but the greatest part of it was from movies, books, and the slogans I read on T-shirts in the Sixties.

My world view was pieced together like a tuna casserole from the ingredients at hand and baked at idiosyncratic temperatures. The result is me. A hodgepodge of ideas and prejudices and pronouncements, both good and bad, that embedded themselves into that pudding I carry around atop my neck. Did I set out to learn about personal responsibility when I bought the ticket to “Nuremberg?” Nope. Was I seeking a lesson on the fragility of life and the importance of childhood relationships as I watched the opening credits roll on Stand By Me? Not on your life. Did I have any idea when I picked up Kazantzakis’ novel Freedom or Death that it would color my landscapes from then on? No way.

In fact, if I had suspected that any of these things were going to happen, I might well have avoided all of these works, and looked harder for something completely mindless. Mindless has always been my default position.

So what lesson? What goes in through our eyes and ears may take root in our brains, whether that’s what we intended or not. That old aphorism in the computing world of Garbage In – Garbage Out! holds as true for people as well as for machines.

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My old home state of South Dakota is out there in front of the pack with regard to new cases of coronavirus. For this you can give Governor Cluckette a lot of the credit. Even as the groans of infected people keeling over on the streets of the capital city of Pierre are keeping folks awake at night, she still insists that all citizens need to do is wash their hands and remember to floss.

She relays the Cluckian message of no-mask to her underlings, and when anyone says “Cluck” to a Republican, as we have abundantly observed, it cancels out normal brain activity and that person will now accept any old basket of horse-apples as a tasty dessert.

I do feel sorry for the innocents in that excellent state, those being the Democrats and Independents who have very little to say in its governance. I also feel sorry for any sensible South Dakota child over the age of eight years, who can look at what is happening and easily see that their lives and fortunes are in the hands of fools.

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When was the last time you worried about polio? Did you ever? The first form of the vaccine came out in 1955, and the oral form in 1962. So if you were a toddler during that period of history or later, you grew up without ever hearing it discussed at the dinner table, nor would your parents have ever had to tell you that there was no more going to the swimming pool at the park this summer. The polio boogey-man had vanished from the Western Hemisphere.

He was on the brink of disappearing from the entire world more than 15 years ago, and would have been but for fears raised by anti-vaccine hysteria in Africa and Asia. Just yesterday an article on CNN brought up the concern that with our focus on Covid we stand to let polio back into the Americas because of declining immunization rates. The wild form of the virus is still out there, and the only thing standing between us and its recurrence is our vigilance.

Yes, dear friends, when it comes to infectious diseases we have to be able to chew gum and walk. Just because we are hunkered down in our homes this year because of Covid worries doesn’t mean that we can ignore our other problems. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we do have people we can turn to for advice and help … they are called ID (Infectious Disease) experts and they use something called science as a powerful tool against such potential plagues.

All we have to do is let them do their job and help them where we can.

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More Stuff About Trees And Chicanery

Friday Morning

Daughter Maja will fly back to the Twin Cities later today, after having given us the chance to show her a bit of how Fall arrives here in Paradise. We spent much of our time together chatting on the small deck out back, under an ash tree that somehow managed to contain all of the leaf colors possible in a tree in October, and then Wednesday a wind came up that tore half those leaves loose and distributed them around us as we sat out there lost in conversation. A lovely moment.

Robin and I took our ballots down to the drop box Thursday afternoon, and that little container was a busy place to be at 4:00 P.M. Apparently the flow of completed ballots this year has been much faster than usual. We’re going to assume that this is a good thing. If Republicans hate it when lots of citizens vote, then what we saw must be making some of them uncomfortable. Members of that party deserve a good whaling for their four years of ignoring anything that didn’t make them richer or attempt to cement their power. They should be ashamed of themselves, but of course we have all seen how incapable of shame they are, many times over.

Does this mean that there are no miscreants who are Democrats? That they are incapable of doing embarrassingly self-serving things?

Nope.

In their case, however, it’s usually individuals who are the perps, rather than the entire party giving itself over to their worst impulses, as has happened lately. I look forward to a day when we will see reasonable and fair people once again leading the conservative opposition, people whose advice we could take and combine with progressives’ best ideas to use in the necessary work of America at home and around our planet.

Is that really possible? It’s a question that I ask myself occasionally, one to which I admit I don’t know the answer. It all reminds me of a line from the song by Mary Chapin Carpenter: “It’s too much to expect, but not too much to ask.”

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It seemed like a good time of year to play Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album. So I took myself out back and listened to it for perhaps the hundredth time. Here’s the blurb from Apple Music about the album:

There’s never been anything like Astral Weeks—not before or since. Parting with the straightforward, R&B-based rock of his past, a young Van Morrison embraced his love of jazz, blues, folk, and poetry all at once. The thrillingly transcendent journey finds him mixing bittersweet childhood memories and in-the-moment reveries like a folk-rock James Joyce. His soulful voice soars over a constantly shifting, almost impressionistic landscape of fluid, jazzy lines, gentle strumming, and shimmering orchestrations. The magic Morrison created here is as otherworldly as the title suggests.

If you’ve not listened to it for a while, it holds up beautifully. A love letter from 1968.

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After basically spending the summer lounging around our back yard, our old friend Poco has taken up wandering in the neighborhood as he used to do, especially along the irrigation canal that runs behind our property.

To find him all I usually have to do is walk up about 100 yards and call out his name while standing in front of a particular thicket. There will be an answering meow or two, and then out he comes. Above is a pic from September 2007, when he’d just arrived at our home, demanding admission and attention. He easily achieved both.

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I mentioned our first youth poet laureate several months ago, when she first appeared on the national stage. Her name is Amanda Gorman, and her work provides abundant proofs of the revolutionary power of poetry. In the video below she recites her work Fury and Faith.

Now this woman is way too young to be this wise, but there you are. Among these stirring lines there was one that stood out to me, and it was “The point of protest isn’t winning, it’s holding fast to the promise of freedom …”. This so reminded me of words from the last speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave the day before he was assassinated.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I think we haven’t heard the last from Ms. Gorman.

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Travelers

I’ve noticed that without any intention at all my musical selections over there in the sidebar have more or less settled into a mellower groove. There is so much noise elsewhere these days, so much shouting over one another – verbal violence to match the more physical variety being played out in the streets. Most mornings I have no wish to add to the tumult. However … I make no promises. I could break into something raucous at any time.

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I’m still making my way through the book White Fragility, page by painstaking page. I believe that I have found my sorry little self in every chapter, if not on every page. It turns out that reading it is akin to having a mental boil lanced, and that is a tender process. But I have confidence that when the probing stops I will be the better for it. Or at least I will understand more than I do today. People of my seasoned years may seem irrelevant to what it happening out there … but perhaps not … as long as we can vote, march, picket, and give aid and comfort to the enemy. My old and dear friend (who has never met me) Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of saying, if you want world peace, be peace. And one can do that at any age.

As long as the barricades aren’t so high they trigger my acrophobia I may be of some use in the struggles ahead of us. Ahhh yes, friends, there are some dandy struggles to come, even if Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are solidly victorious in November. The cruel hearts of those rough beasts that slouched their way into Washington will still be beating, and dealing with them will require our best attention.

And to address systemic racism, troubled economics, a very nasty virus, not to mention climate change and working once more with the rest of the world … I think Joe and Kamala will not want for things to do.

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Poor Mr. Yeats, I keep trotting out his poem (or parts thereof) on so many occasions. When I first read it, the imagery was so striking to me, and it still is. If he is watching us: I apologize, Sir, for overusing, and quite possibly repeatedly misapplying, your bit of verse, but I find that I cannot come up with a better one on my own. Whenever times are troubling it seems such a good fit into matter what the cause …

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W.B. Yeats, the Second coming

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We’re expecting a guest in a couple of days. Daughter Maja is flying from Minnesota to social distance with us, and has come all the way from Peru just to do it.

Well, that’s not completely accurate. She needed a few weeks away from Peru’s hyper-rigorous lockdown, but the borders were closed. So she had herself crated up and placed in a container ship, the box having been labelled as some of those famous Peruvian textiles. Once in America, she chewed her way out of the box and thumbed rides all the way from San Diego to Mankato, having many adventures along the way. One of them involved a Maltese cat and a sack of onions … but it’s her story, and perhaps she should be the one to tell it.

So we are looking forward to debriefing her when she arrives in Paradise. In these uncertain days, learning new travel skills may come in handy down the road … who knows?

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A recommendation. Midnight Diner, on Netflix. Japanese, with subtitles. It has such … umami.

Each episode is under 30 minutes, so would it hurt you to watch at least one?

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Someone told me that they are not going to vote this year, because they abhor P. Cluck and they don’t like Joe Biden. I hope they rethink their strategy.

It would be great if our choices at the ballot box were as clear as between an awful candidate and a glorious leader, but how often does that happen in life? Sometimes in order to avoid the election of someone particularly distasteful, we must hold our nose with one hand while making our “X” with the other.

P. Cluck’s malfeasance may not yet have risen to the level of a Hitler or a Mussolini, but do we want to take even the most minuscule chance that he will be allowed to remain in office? Really, do we? And that’s exactly what not voting does. It improves his chances by one hair.

That’s not okay.

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Wildness

I thought the latest New Yorker Magazine cover was so arresting that I had to stop and stare at it for quite a while when it arrived.

Its title is “Say Their Names,”. Clicking the link takes you to a media story about the illustration itself.

The same artist is also featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in the July issue. He’s having a good month, wouldn’t you say?

If you’ve a few moments to spare, and Google the artists’ name, Kadir Nelson, you can browse through the many images that come up. Quite a talent. Good stuff.

But I can stop talking now, because here’s the man speaking for himself.

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Do you sometimes feel as I do, that we are suffering a metaphoric death by a thousand cuts? And of course I’m talking about P.Cluck and his traveling circus. Every single day we are assaulted in some way by their words, their actions … their trashing of things we cared about and other worthwhile items that we might not have even known existed before they ended up broken and strewn about the floors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

When he is finally shown the door, it will take a while just to do repairs. I don’t think that my psyche has an unbruised spot left on it. But it will be a job worth doing and one that will be truly joy-filled after this long dark season.

Can’t wait.

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Alas, New Yorker Magazine has made it harder for me to steal cartoons to embellish this scanty effort of mine. I used to be able to easily search their archives but this week when I looked for that little magnifying glass icon in the “Archives” section, it was gone.

Oh, I can still page through more than fifty thousand images if I so choose, but they are arranged randomly and so far I can’t find any way to filter them. I’ve written to the magazine as an aggrieved larcenist, but have received no reply so far.

Crime does not pay like it used to.

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From The New Yorker

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I don’t know if this news item is the last word on the Christopher McCandless story, but it is a turning point of sorts.

McCandless is the young man who wandered into wilderness Alaska on a personal quest and died there, in an abandoned school bus. His story became the book “Into the Wild,” and a movie of the same name. It was a good tale – personable man of privileged background looking for a place away from consumer America, makes a series of poor choices, becomes very ill and eventually perishes in the wilderness. Dramatic. Romantic.

That old bus had become a touchstone for many other young adults, who traveled far to visit it, even though the way could be difficult and dangerous. Some of those pilgrims died on their trip or had to be rescued.

So this week, to try to put an end to the deaths and injuries, the Alaskan National Guard hoisted the bus below a huge helicopter and took it away. Perhaps we’ll find out where it is later on, when authorities have found a suitable location for it.

End of story?

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Semi-Summer

We are basking, here in Paradise, in 80-plus temperatures. Everything out there is dry as toast and waiting for a substantial rain to make things right. When you walk on our lawn the crunching sound is loud enough to wake babies. Fortunately our nearest neighbors haven’t any of those little creatures around, so they are not complaining.

It’s been interesting reading about how Sweden is coping with Covid-19. They basically tried to shelter all of the aged while letting the virus otherwise rip through the country. The hope was that the younger population would handle it fairly well and eventually the virus would find new victims unavailable and eventually disappear.

Unfortunately, they didn’t protect those older citizens as well as they might have and as a result there are many fewer old Swedes today than there were two months ago.

There’s an important defect in this plan, I think, and that is posed by the tactics of Norway and Finland (and most other Western countries), who are doing the shelter-in-place thing. The virus won’t be as quick to leave those territories, so even if the Swedes get their wish at home, they can’t go anywhere.

It’s still all theoretical, of course, we don’t really know what this pest is going to do or how our personal and herd immunities are going to develop, or even if they will. We are in that uncomfortable place where the science is developing at its steady pace while our expectations and hopes are racing far ahead.

Patience is easier to come by for those less troubled.

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Leonard Pitts Jr. comes through once again in his latest column. His admonition is “Control what you can in this time of madness, and don’t forget … breathe.”

Unless your equanimity is already perfect, you might benefit from a read here. The man is a powerhouse of common sense and thoughtfulness.

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Joy Harjo has been given a second term as poet laureate of the United States. Here is one of her works. I wish I could say it is reprinted with her permission, but it is not. On the other hand, she didn’t forbid me to do it, either, so there is that.

Our poet laureate is blissfully unaware of my existence. It’s all part of the plan.

Once The World Was Perfect

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.

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This morning I was watching Poco drinking at the outdoor waterer. I noticed his fur was sort of scruffy, his posture a little hunched. I also know he can’t jump nearly as high as he once could, and believe him to be arthritic. There are moments when he seems forgetful, maybe confused about where he is and what he’s doing there. Followed by times when he seems as clear as ever.

I was feeling a little wistful on his account, when I had this thought. Does he look at me and think the same things?

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Ducks In A Row

I will go out on a limb here and say that Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are awfully poor examples of their professions. This disreputable pair sold their souls to the Devil and Oprah Winfrey long ago, but all they got in the deal was a tawdry sort of celebrity in the world of the suggestible.

(Robert Johnson allegedly made the same trade-off but became a terrific guitar player and bluesman as a result of his own arrangement with Old Nick.)

Phil/Oz have popped up recently on FoxNews weighing in with blatherous pronouncements and opinions about Covid-19. We knew that it was only a matter of time before those lips for hire began their dreadful flapping. It’s a perfect marriage of shoddy network and shoddy professionals.

Lord help us (and thank you again, Oprah, for your hand in getting them started).

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Ran across these on The New Yorker. See ’em, love ’em, share ’em, is my motto.

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When I read of the new Youth Poet Laureate, at first I felt badly because I didn’t know the former one. But then I learned that there wasn’t a former one. Amanda Gorman is the first.

Watching the following video made me somehow proud. Proud to be a tiny part of a country that gives people like Ms. Gorman a chance to have their voices heard.

Here she is on CBS’ Sunday Morning show, reading one of her works. The production is a little schmaltzy, but y’know, I can use a little more schmaltz these days.

Her words are inspirational, and what do you think about her performance? – to me she sounds like Maya Angelou, rapping.

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Almost everybody we know here in Paradise is Zoom-ing these days. All that was needed was a platform that was a little easier to use than its predecessors, and off went America into video-conferencing. Yesterday morning we connected with daughter Maja in Lima, and we were going to catch up later in the day with our grandchildren in Denver but that was postponed, because they were all Zoomed out for the day, having just finished an hour online with some other folks.

Robin meets with her church committees and book clubs in this way, and we both attend virtual AA meetings, all of these using the free version of the app. Pret-ty cool, I’d say, to be able to so easily fill in some of the gaps that geography and Covid-19 create.

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If you look closely, you will see that there is a duck, a mallard to be precise, in our front yard. He showed up Monday morning. This has never happened before, and personally I took it as an omen.

My only problem is that I don’t know what it predicts, or augurs. I have consulted all of my learned books, which are sadly silent on the subject of ducks. But it really bothered me, as who wants to begin any serious enterprise if it’s all for naught because the celestial plug has already been pulled … you just don’t know it yet?

So I turned to the only person I knew who might shed light on the subject – Ragnar the Imperturbable.

Dear Ragnar: Do you know anything about ducks in the yard? Is there any cosmic significance?

Ragnar: Ducks? You wake me up for ducks? By Freja’s golden hair I’ll …

Dear Ragnar: Really, I do apologize, it’s just that we’re all dithering out here, not wanting to do anything to mess with the gods’ plans. But again, anything at all?

Ragnar: Of course we have duck stuff. The only problem is sorting through it, there’s so much. I need to ask a couple questions of my own, first.

Dear Ragnar: Of course. Go right ahead.

Ragnar: Was it just the one … duck, that is?

Dear Ragnar: No, there was a hen, but she isn’t in the picture.

Ragnar: And what sort of bird was it? Could it have been a Mandarin duck? Or a Baikal teal?

Dear Ragnar: I’m sorry, we believe it to have been a common mallard.

Ragnar: And was it wearing anything … like an item of clothing … or spectacles, perhaps?

Dear Ragnar: No, nothing at all. It was very plain.

Ragnar: Was it up to quite a bit of quacking? More than a duck might usually be expected to do?

Dear Ragnar: It was a singularly quiet waterfowl.

Ragnar: Might it have been mute? That would narrow things down considerably.

Dear Ragnar: We really couldn’t say. We heard nothing.

Ragnar: Alright, here we go then. If a person finds a duck (or ducks) in their yard, nude, mute, and not wearing glasses, there is a very good chance that it might rain before twilight of that same day.

Dear Ragnar: That’s it? It might rain?

Ragnar: Well, what do you want? I don’t make this stuff up on my own, you know. It’s all there in the Book of Aqvavit, one of our most important sources to consult on weighty matters.

Dear Ragnar: Who in the world would bother about such an omen?

Ragnar: Well, let’s say you were planning on hanging out some laundry in preparation for pillaging England …

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Obligate

A little bit about viruses. They are very extraordinary things, these tiny particles, which usually cannot exist outside of the host (in the case of this new coronavirus, the host is us) for more than a few hours or days. And their only true place of residence is inside of our cells. The technical name for them is obligate intracellular parasites, which is a mouthful.

Someone coughs in my direction and a viral particle sails toward me, eventually coming to rest in my respiratory passages as I breathe in. Once there it grabs onto a cell and burrows into it. Now the virus commandeers the machinery of that cell, pushing aside all normal operators, and turns the cell’s activity to … guess what? … making more virus.

Our present Staying in Place restrictions have a good chance of breaking up this pandemic, or at least limiting the harm. Theoretically, since we are the virus’ only “food,” dividing us up into small groups should work well. If by mischance I somehow contract the viral agent and bring it home with me, basically there is only Robin to give it to, as long as I am following the guidelines with regard to human contact. So poor Robin becomes ill, we both recover (Oh Happy Day!), and that’s it for our particular branch of the tree. We are now immune. We don’t pass it along. We have become a dead end.

So for the present – no restaurants, movie theaters, church services, major league baseball … basically no amusements that involve large groups of people. I can live with that.

A couple of days ago I read of an evangelical pastor who was, by God, not going to let coronavirus keep him from spreading the Word on Sunday mornings, so services were being carried out as usual.

Not a terrific idea, to say the least. The odds are pretty good that his congregation will be a younger and smaller one when this is all over. But it will also be a smarter one. Because the brighter lights among the faithful will have stayed home as they knew they should.

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Robin came across a site claiming to have links to forty of the greatest essays of all time (No hubris at all, is there?). The very first one was by David Sedaris, who is a favorite of both Robin and I.

It’s title is Laugh, Kookaburra, and I’ll bet even money you will smile repeatedly as you read it. You may also chuckle, but probably not guffaw.

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I am an absolute sucker for articles written about wolves. Especially those with an encouraging outcome. Each time I visit Ely MN for a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, I spend some time in the International Wolf Center there, being totally caught up in what I am learning about these creatures.

Wildness is what they bring to the conversation. A sense of what was and should be if our own species was not so voracious.

So when I found this piece this morning in the Times of New York, I fell upon it like … wolves. It’s about the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

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A Fine Kettle of Fish

Okay, I admit that Willie Nelson can basically do no wrong. Drink too much? … he used to do that. Smoke pot by the hundredweight? … continuously until he couldn’t breathe well. Famously forget to pay his income taxes? … you bet. And yet somehow he transformed himself from a man who was (and is) simply a very good songwriter with a couple of bad habits to a national cultural institution and treasure.

I would really like to know how he did that so I can get started on my own monster legacy. I do have a hurdle or two to get past, if I am thinking of following in his footsteps. I can’t play guitar, I can’t read or write music, I can’t sing, and I’m a lifelong sufferer from charisma deficiency syndrome.

But today we’ll look at a new generation of Nelsons as they perform duets with the old man. Here’s a pair of videos, one involving son Lukas and the other daughter Paula.

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The sound that you hear is that of multiple apples falling not far from the tree.

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Friday night we’re going back to St. Mary’s Church for the Fish-Fry once again. I called to see if by chance they were calling it off for viral reasons, and the secretary seemed puzzled that I would even ask such a question. Apparently NOTHING interferes with the fish-fry, other than perhaps an inferno-style grease fire in the kitchen itself.

We’re attending with another couple, and I’ll have to admit that getting together in a public space these days where there will be scores of other people gives one a bit of a frisson. I may wear my Indiana Jones fedora for the occasion. Would packing a bullwhip be too much … ?

Actually, being at a Catholic Church dinner where a killer virus may be lurking doesn’t give me as much pause as attending services at a local Lutheran church would, the one where there is an old dude who openly carries a sidearm on Sunday mornings. The danger is random in both cases, but I don’t think that being 3 feet away from a gun-toting and paranoid septuagenarian provides nearly enough of a safe distance.

[Follow-up note: St. Mary’s is cancelling the rest of the Fish-Frys for this season due to concerns centered on COVID-19. An instance where the virus may actually have saved lives.]

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On Thursday afternoon, it being a lovely sixty-degree day and my having run out of excuses not to do it, we took our bikes out for the first time. The city has recently added 2.5 miles to the riverside bicycle/hiking trail and it is really beautiful now. Slight uphill going upstream, the opposite when you turn around.

It’s a nice workout, and the only problem I have each year on the first few rides is some lower-body discomfort located not where the rubber meets the road, but where the denim meets the saddle. Since we covered about 12 miles Thursday, I am still walking slightly askew today.

However, I am no longer visibly wincing.

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A concession to the times we are living in. I truly enjoy shopping for groceries. Part of the fun is getting bargains and part is exploring new foods, some of which I may never have heard of before.

But we’re going to experiment with something called ClickList, at our local City Market. Here you shop for your food online, and then at a designated time, drive to the store and a stockperson delivers your order to your car. The only human contact is with that man or woman, and you avoid the herd inside the store. There is a charge for this service (at least partially offset by the lack of opportunity for impulse buying).

Now, I would much prefer to be in that herd, but will accept that this route may be the one to take until the crisis passes. After all, as Robin gently reminds me, I am in a different risk group these days.

Odd to imagine oneself as situationally fragile, but there you are.

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Ups & Downs

We of the Empire do feel sorry for the citizens of the United States. They are for the most part good people, but in the back of my mind I keep hearing that accusatory saying: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

If that is so, one has to wonder what the Americans ever did to deserve swimming around together in the political chamber pot they occupy today.

Not that those of us in the Empire are above reproach, not at all. We’ve had our own ups and downs, although none of our downs have … but enough of this. Our neighbors are resourceful, and have dug themselves out of worst scrapes in the past.

Imagine being sentient and reading the newspapers in 1954 as Senator Joseph McCarthy went about his daily rounds ruining lives and fouling the nation’s waters. The US of A got through those times and came out the better for it.

Could happen again. We Imperial citizens sincerely hope that a sweet relief for our friends comes rapidly.

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Monday morning an article in the NYTimes told a story that was like … I dunno … a plot for a “B” movie starring Melissa McCarthy and Adam Sandler. Officials finally cleared the Westerdam, a cruise ship, in the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and hundreds of passengers disembarked to go sightseeing or shopping, while scores more jumped onto planes to continue their vacation travels.

The Westerdam

And then of a sudden one American lady triggers the thermal scanner, and later tests positive for coronavirus. But all these other passengers were out there doing their thing, some of them carrying their viral load to the far corners of the earth. An epidemiologic nightmare, nest-ce pas?

Imagine that you’re on a plane somewhere in the world on Monday morning, reading the Times story, while somebody across the aisle from you is telling the guy next to him how he had been quarantined on a cruise ship and just got released the day before in Cambodia and what a mess that had been. And then the guy coughs a couple of times.

Make you nervous just reading about it, doesn’t it?

Bill Burr might not be your favorite comedian, but while I was reading the Times piece I flashed back to his solution to the world’s population problems, and it involved cruise ships. Here’s a shortened version of that bit, from Conan O’Brien’s show.

Like I said. A “B” movie script idea if there ever was one.

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I found this animated GIF on the New Yorker site. It’s hypnotic. I keep waiting for something to happen … a dog running into the frame, or the bicyclist’s head to turn. But it never changes. The cyclist just keeps pedaling, the snow falls forever.

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The Boy Scouts of America have filed for bankruptcy as their sexual abuse lawsuits continue to pile up. This has become another sad and sordid story about yet another institution that didn’t do its job, didn’t protect the children under its care. Yet another group that had to be taken to court and forced to admit that it failed in its primary duty. Make room on the Bench of Shame, Catholic Church, here comes the BSA.

Is there a de-merit badge that the adults in scouting responsible for the offenses and/or the cover-up could be sentenced to wear?

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I do have a positive Boy Scout story for you. When I was working in Yankton, a teen-aged Eagle Scout came into the office with the complaint of pain in his chest.

He had been backpacking at the Scouts’ Philmont Ranch in New Mexico, leading a group of younger boys. On the second day out, he suddenly developed chest pain and shortness of breath. In spite of this he finished the trek, which meant another day in the mountains carrying a full pack, and then a day traveling home.

My examination and workup quickly showed that his left lung was nearly completely collapsed due to a spontaneous pneumothorax. It happens – a lung springs a leak and collapses, just like the inner tube on a bicycle. A physician then inserts a tube which sucks out the air from the space where it isn’t supposed to be, and the patient is usually good as new.

This kid, who was a Type AAA personality if there ever was one, hadn’t let a little thing like a collapsed lung get him down. He finished the job and then sought care days later.

As a person who feels that he should not be expected to walk whenever his little toe is aching slightly, I remember being suitably impressed.

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