Anyone Need Their Savage Breast Soothed?

A few months ago when I discovered that half my digital music collection had silently and irretrievably gone south forever, I did not lose my mind. Getting the info off the guilty eternal disc drive might have been possible with professional help, but the costs were prohibitive.

And yet I am still nearly sane and quite happy. It’s not the tragedy it would have been a few years ago, because in the digital era, especially with subscription music services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, I can listen to music all day long for a few bucks a month. This includes every tune that I lost, and all for less than the price of one album. So I have let the episode go, decided it was a good lesson learned and joined the millions of people who say: music collection … why would I even need such a thing?

I had a fairly large vinyl collection once upon a time, but when compact discs hit the market I went with them immediately. (I am obviously not a vinyl romanticist, and do not ascribe magical qualities to any recording format.) I will let the purists argue over whether digital music is better or worse than the analog stuff on those old LPs. Arguing either viewpoint is just not interesting to me. Only the music is interesting.

Perhaps if I were younger I would care more. If my hearing were better and I didn’t have any of that blasted tinnitus, I might perceive meaningful differences. But with the ears I have, an mp3 is more than adequate to please me these days.

I have chosen Apple Music as the service to use, but not for any good reason. I would have been happy with any of the others, I am pretty certain. And as time passes I am becoming more skillful in getting out of it what I want. It is really a treat to be able to double down on a particular artist and explore all that they have recorded without needing to purchase anything and then having to store it somewhere.

Of course, if the apocalypse arrives and I don’t have the internet I won’t have any music to listen to. However, I suspect that in any apocalypse worth its name the power would go out and I wouldn’t be able to play what I had on the shelf, either. It’s sort of in the nature of apocalypses to be a drag, it seems.

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It amuses me to listen to the discussions about the wonderfulness of vinyl records. While they were the best music source of their time, they were not without their issues. I had turntables that would apply a stylus weight of just a gram or two so as not to carve away any microbits of plastic with music on them. And yet they still did some of that carving, just more slowly.

And then there was the regular necessary cleaning of the disc surface with products designed just for that job. Heat could warp the discs, they were brittle in cold weather, and even if you did everything exactly right in trying to preserve their contents, there are fungi all about us that eat vinyl for breakfast that were ready to settle on your records as soon as you brought them out. Meaning that even unplayed discs were slowly degrading in their envelopes as these tiny creatures chewed away.

Vinyl albums also had mechanical limitations in their playback. You could only listen to one side and then had to get up and flip the disc over. You could only play the cuts in the order they had been recorded, and this included having to listen to that tune you hated located in the middle of side B (unless, once again, you got out of your chair and walked over to the turntable to move the arm). You could not mix artists, which is why making our own mixtapes became so popular when good quality cassettes and Dolby recording technology finally came along.

Those mixtapes provided us the opportunity to make our first playlists, where we could set up an evening’s listening the way we wanted it. And which we now take for granted, as if they’d always been there, courtesy of ol’Thomas Edison hisself.

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Continuing our raking through the ashes of movies made about those madcap Tudors, Robin and I watched a film from the seventies called Mary, Queen of Scots. It starred Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, two acting powerhouses if ever there were any. The original story itself is quite a dramatic one, with schemings and plottings and beheadings enough to satisfy most people.

But we thought the movie was a dud. Redgrave played the role of the doomed Mary, and she came across as a dimbulb who became infatuated with nearly anyone in pantaloons who came within reach. By the time she was marched to the block and the axe fell, we were ready to be rid of her, truth be told.

But what a story the history books tell. Elizabeth (here played by Jackson), was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, another decapitee of note, and became one of the premier queens of all time. But she had no children, so that James, the son of Mary (whose head Elizabeth had caused to be lopped off) became king of England upon Elizabeth’s death. You couldn’t make this stuff up, folks. For a movie to take such tantalizing material and make it all seem dull and irritating really took some doing.

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We had friends over Thursday for the evening meal. They have a daughter now living in Lima, Peru, and had made a trip to visit her just a month ago. We insisted that they bring their pictures of the trip with them, since our own visit to that city several years ago had been such a memorable one.

Now, I ask you, how often do you get asked to show pictures of your vacation? For myself, the answer is never. It may be because I was once famous for never throwing any photograph away, no matter how poor it was. Which made the showing of the vacation slides an event to be dreaded and avoided at nearly all costs. Here is what a sample of my voiceover for any slideshow in the past might have sounded like:

So here we are in … wait a minute … where is this? This picture doesn’t even belong here, it’s from another trip, for goodness sake. Here we are. This is a picture of me and Robin on a quaint street in Santa Fe. Can you see us back there … if you look closely … see, over there by the pillar? Here’s another one and I apologize for the blurriness, I tried to take it while driving the car and shooting out the window. This next one … well, you’ll just have to use your imaginations … it’s the entire cast of the movie Dirty Harry. Too bad the only shot I had was of them walking away down the block … there … that tall one … that’s the back of Clint Eastwood’s head.

Now let’s get back to Thursday evening. We decided upon a laid-back country-style meal, and we settled on meatloaf, a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, and enough steamed broccoli to have sent that famous brocco-phobe George HW Bush straight to the ICU.

Now, when we decided to feature something as homely and comfort-foodish as meatloaf, we felt we needed to find something a little special in that department. Something out of the ordinary. On the web I ran across a recipe for this dish that had a charming backstory. It was called the Market Street Meatloaf, and if you’re interested you can read that story here.

To be brief, the dish was a roaring success. It was almost embarrassing what with all of us trying to stab yet another slice of the loaf while trying not to become a victim of all those pointy implements converging on it from all directions. Words were exchanged that may require months for the wounds to heal, and Robin saw a side of me that was better kept under wraps. But we finished the meal without serious injuries, and that’s always a good thing.

When the evening was over, and our guests had gone home, what was left over from what had looked at first like a week’s worth of meatloaf was only enough for one sandwich. We’ll try to be civil about it tomorrow, but there is only that one sandwich possible …. .

I will share the recipe with you, but if you ever serve it to a group, make sure that the rules of engagement are clear before the meal begins. Better done that way, I think.

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Saturday was nearly a record warm day for Paradise. So we decided to take one of our old standby hikes up at Black Canyon National Park as the first real test for Robin’s new knee. It turns out that we rushed the season a bit, because the trail was half snow/half mud. But we did two miles of it, puffing as we always do when we first exert ourselves each year at altitudes over 8000 feet.

And the verdict on the rebuilt knee – it worked very well, indeed.

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Dally Ho!

I’ve decided that if I can’t live under a patriarchy, I don’t want to live under any system whose title has the letters “-archy” in it at all. Certainly not a matriarchy, although that may be what is coming soon. I am afraid that the paybacks that would follow such a seismic turnover would consume the remainder of my time on earth, ending up with my spending my last days wearing a babushka and disguised as a woman while hiding in bombed-out basements and supporting myself by selling baked potatoes on street corners. “Get your nice hot Murphys here.”

I’d rather not have an oligarchy, either, although it’s possible that we may be there already and I’m just too oblivious to notice. Nope … no “archies” at all, thank you very much. Here is a short list of some others I would rather avoid at all costs:

  • Ecclestiarchy
  • Heresiarchy
  • Plutarchy
  • Anarchy
  • Monarchy
  • Nanarchy
  • Futarchy
  • et al

I don’t trust the –archies because there isn’t a single one of them other than patriarchy that would have me as a member, and I am highly suspect even there because I don’t hunt, drink, or watch football. The ecclesiasts would be after me because I wasn’t religious enough, the heretics because I hid Easter eggs for my kids when they were very young, the monarchists wouldn’t take my plebeian calls at all, and the plutarchists couldn’t be bothered with anyone driving such a modest car as a Subaru.

So how many uninhabited islands are there on the planet? I wouldn’t need much. A clean and abundant fresh water supply, pleasant climate, good soil for growing things, no Komodo dragons, and high-speed internet. That would do it for me. Oh, and regular visits by a supply boat for incidentals.

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The latest news from CNN has been awkward, to say the least. Apparently a couple of years ago, responding to rumors of hanky and panky among upper echelon management, investigators placed spy/janitors on each floor of the headquarters building in Atlanta. These men and women worked in shifts round the clock and were instructed to watch for anything suspicious. They were equipped with camera mops, periscopes, poison pills to swallow should they be detected, guns disguised as cans of Lemon Pledge, and devices that were sensitive to traces of latex and lubricants in the air. Turns out that most of these janitors were former Mafia in a witness protection program operating out of Bayonne, New Jersey.

Almost immediately the alarms started going off, the cameras started clicking, and before long massive dossiers were collected on basically everyone above the level of the runners who rounded up the coffees for morning staff meetings.

So far there have been only a couple of resignations, but it is anticipated that before long all of the occupants of the 23rd and 24th floors will have to be let go. The official line is that there has been a sharp drop in rectitude and a drastic increase in turpitude among these personnel.

There is a problem which surfaces in situations like these, and that is determining the acceptable level of adultery and other sexual wanderings in the journalistic professions. Purists say that the level should be zero, but there is a sense that this stringent standard would severely impact future hirings and a more moderate position will have to be taken.

It’s all reminiscent of the FDA deciding what levels of rodent hairs and insect parts were acceptable in cereals. There was no way to get the level down to zero, not when dealing with natural products such as grains, so they had to make choices. How much was okay, and what was just too ugly? It’s a reality I choose to ignore each day at breakfast, and I take the same approach with who is dallying with who at CNN.

Look At Miss Ohio, by Gillian Welch

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Well, we did it. On Wednesday we experienced on of our rare snowfalls of the season. One of those beauties with flakes as big as dinner plates slipping toward earth and covering everything you see while clinging to the branches of the plants and trees making the world magical. Robin and I turned to one another and said as one: Zhivago.

Such an evening was perfect for our triennial re-watching of a movie that features snow and ice and visible breath at least half the time. And the running time is a generous 200 minutes. So if you pick the right moment you can get a snowfall looking out the window and the same thing on the screen in the living room. This double dose could conceivably give you hypothermia even while sitting on your own couch.

There is this, however. We can’t stay up late enough to watch the whole thing at one sitting. To attempt this would be to miss most of the second half, even if our eyelids were propped open with toothpicks. So Wednesday night our viewing took us to the intermission, and Thursday evening we finished it off.

The interesting thing for me was that I remembered nearly everything that happened on screen. But then I thought … well, sure … I first saw it when I still had a memory worthy of the name. Back when what my eyes took in was actually recorded in those little electrochemical packets somewhere in my nervous system. If I saw it for the first time today, in two months if anyone asked me if I’d seen the film, I would have to turn to Robin and ask her if we had. And her response would be – “was that the one with the Russians?”

But oh … the movie, you ask … what about the movie? It was splendid, as usual.

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Here’s a Sunday morning treat. thirty photographs from around the world of children playing. Different photographers coming up with expressions of the joy that children are fully able to find for themselves. Often the best gift we adults can give our kids is to stand back, take our hands off, and let them do their very own thing.

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Pardon My Dribble

On Saturday afternoons, I am finding out, there are often scheduled basketball tourneys for middle school players in the field house section of the recreation center. If I am unwise enough to choose one of those afternoons as the time for my exercise session, I need to wade through a great number of newly formed adolescents to get to the places I need to be.

Sometimes I take a moment to watch and I am pleasantly surprised by the ball-handling skills these younger players already have developed. Dribbling behind the back, through the legs, blind passes … these were rarities when I went to high school, and none of the players on the Sibley Warriors (my HS team) did any of that stuff. In fact, among the eight teams in our conference there was really only one player who did.

His name was Dale and he played guard for South Saint Paul High School. His dribbling and passing were way beyond anything the rest of the players could aspire to. In fact his passes were so sharp and quick that often a teammate found himself quite unexpectedly in possession of the ball as if by magic, and then had to decide what to do with the gift he’d received.

Now Dale might have been one heck of a basketball player, but he was not an honor student. He was also not an honor citizen. Dale was twenty years old and this was his senior year. Rumors had it that he used (gasp) more than one variety of what we now call recreational chemicals, that he’d crossed a few lines when it came to private property ownership, and that a major reason for his advanced age in high school were the months spent in juvenile correctional facilities.

But rumors aside, when he came down the court he did so with a cool nonchalance that said it all – that he knew this was only a game and about as unimportant as anything could be in the scheme of things and that nothing in his future depended on what happened tonight but By Damn he loved basketball and he was the best man on the court and we were all invited to watch and see how the game could be played.

Dale did not suit up every time that South St. Paul came to play us. His particular personality brought him into fairly frequent conflict with coaches and school authorities. Suspensions and expulsions were all a part of everyday life for him. But I loved to watch him when I could, even though in the zero-sum game that was high-school sports – when everything went well for Dale it meant that my Warriors lost.

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From The New Yorker

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In the wintertime … especially at night … when those big snowflakes are falling … if I wanted to fantasize it would be that I am this guy. Dr. Yuri Zhivago.

And the fantasy would always be the same – face wreathed in a cloud of one’s own breath, gloves cut off so that fingertips are exposed, wolves howling outside the completely frosted-over windows … sitting in an icy room and scribbling away about Lara or Tonya or the war … so many topics to fire the imagination of a freezing poet.

Ahhh, that’s the life my alter ego, the doomed romantic artist, might live. Holed up in an abandoned and ice-festooned dacha, burning the furniture in vain attempts to stay warm, hiding from the many warring parties in the Russian Revolution, scrabbling for what was left of last year’s harvest (tonight we’re having carrots and potatoes, and for variety tomorrow’s supper will be potatoes and carrots). Trying to figure out why it is that although I have a lover in each of two adjoining villages, I can’t seem to make either one of them happy.

We own a copy of the movie Dr. Zhivago, and every few years will sit down and watch it over again. It’s a thing of beauty. A great cast, grand cinematography, beautiful musical soundtrack, and a story told against the background of one of modern civilization’s truly convulsive heaves. What’s not to like?

Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago

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From The New Yorker

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The year that Robin and I moved to Paradise there was a local scandal that erupted (I hasten to add that it had nothing to do with us). One of the two funeral parlors in Montrose had been indulging in some hanky-panky involving sale of body parts and careless handling of the clients’ remains. To the point where if you received an urnful of ashes from their crematorium, they might very well be a strangers’ remains. In fact, they might not be human ashes at all, but plaster dust.

For whatever reason, this situation has still not been resolved in the courts. Every few months there will be yet another piece in our local paper showing some dejected-looking citizen holding an urn whose contents are being disputed. Families all across the Western Slope are still looking for that unicorn of emotional health … closure.

Now there are some spoilsports and ne’er-do-wells who point to this seeming impasse as a perfect example of why we should really give up the notion of looking to the justice system for justice. If it can take more than seven years to decide whether a crime has been committed and who did it in the case of Where Are Grandpa’s Ashes, Anyway, what hope is there for the rest of the mess?

Prosecutors often don’t even pursue the death penalty against the rich — think O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Phil Spector, and John du Pont (of the chemical du Ponts). You needn’t hire a Johnnie Cochran or a Clarence Darrow to get the treatment. An analysis of Georgia cases showed that prosecutors were almost twice as likely to ask for the death penalty when the defendant couldn’t afford a lawyer. Nationwide an estimated 90-plus percent of those arrested for capital crimes are too poor to retain experienced private counsel. In Kentucky, a quarter of death row inmates were defended by lawyers who were later disbarred (or resigned to avoid disbarment); other states are similar. A few states have offices dedicated to providing a proper defense for capital defendants, but a Texas jurist summed up the attitude elsewhere: “The Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake.” 

Cecil Adams, The June 30, 2006.

When the doors of a courthouse clang together behind you after you’ve entered, you find that you are a hapless player in a game where all of the rules are made up by the attorneys themselves in a system so obtuse and convoluted that only they can find their way in it. This has led to a rich trove of jokes and puns describing the relationships of ordinary humans to members of the legal profession. I will reproduce three of them here. The first one fits our problem of the funeral home awfully well. The other two are … well … delicious.

What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer? A bad lawyer might let a case drag on for several years. A good lawyer knows how to make it last even longer.

An attorney was working late one night in his office when, suddenly, Satan appeared before him. The Devil made him an offer. “I will make it so you win every case that you try for the rest of your life. Your clients will worship you, your colleagues will be in awe, and you will make enormous amounts of money. But, in return, you must give me your soul, your wife’s soul, the souls of your children, your parents, grandparents, and those of all of your friends.” The lawyer thought about it for a moment, then asked, “But what’s the catch?”

What does a lawyer get when you give him Viagra? Taller.

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The music of Warren Zevon popped into my head as my earworm this morning, music which is always welcome no matter what the circumstances.

His live album Stand In The Fire (which still absolutely slams) was in constant rotation back when I was saving up tuition money for my admission to AA University. Zevon was a smart songwriter in a sometimes crude industry and one of his biggest fans was another smart man, David Letterman.

When he was near the end of his life, a victim of mesothelioma, he made his last appearance on Letterman’s show.

On October 30, 2002, Zevon was featured on the Late Show with David Letterman as the only guest for the entire hour. The band played “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” as his introduction. Zevon performed several songs and spoke at length about his illness.

Warren had been a frequent guest and occasional substitute bandleader on Letterman’s television shows since  Late Night was first broadcast in 1982. He noted, “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years.” It was during this broadcast that, when asked by Letterman if he knew something more about life and death now, he first offered his oft-quoted insight on dying: “Enjoy every sandwich.”He also thanked Letterman for his years of support, calling him “the best friend my music’s ever had”.

For his final song of the evening, and his final public performance, Zevon performed “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” at Letterman’s request. In the green room after the show, Zevon presented Letterman with the guitar that he always used on the show, with a single request: “Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it.”

The day after Zevon’s death, Letterman paid tribute to him by replaying his performance of “Mutineer” from his last appearance. The Late Show band played Zevon’s songs throughout the night.

Warren Zevon, Wikipedia

So in deference to today’s ear worm, I will share with you two of my personal favorites. Lawyers, Guns, and Money is from the live album I mentioned a moment ago, and Keep Me In Your Heart is from his last album, The Wind. It’s a lovely goodbye.

Lawyers, Guns, and Money
Keep Me In Your Heart

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Several years back I put together a stream of photos with a soundtrack. Many of you have seen it. But over time and after posting back and forth with the old YouTube algorithms, the quality had deteriorated badly. So here is a new version of the same video, with a few added slides. If you think you recognize anyone in the video, it’s your imagination. These are all paid actors.

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Fiddling

The passage of time does some strange things. This morning I am grateful to former president Cluck. It is similar to the situation in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, where the rabbi is asked if there is such a thing as a blessing for the Czar.

I am grateful that since he was going to become our bigot-in-chief and a traitor (isn’t that what he is, really?) to our democracy that Cluck wasn’t any better at it than he was. His narcissism prevented him from looking much further ahead than any day’s newscast, and his careless tossing aside of one aide or staffer after another kept him perpetually weaker.

Weaker, say, than another would-be-autocrat of the past, Richard Nixon, who was potentially more dangerous because he aligned himself with two capable lieutenants in Haldeman and Ehrlichman. This trio could have gone on to do even more harm than they did to our Republic if they hadn’t developed the unfortunate habit of telling fibs and being caught at it.

What we are seeing finally on the national stage is the slow unraveling of the noose that Republicans tied around their own necks, where one of them after another is finally finding the drawer where they had put their backbones and the ragged remnants of their integrity and saying “No, that’s absolutely wrong,” to His Perpetual Orangiosity. Gratifying, at long last, to hear.

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As long as I’m tossing video clips at you, here’s another from “Fiddler.” As it begins, the milkman Tevye has just been told that daughter Chava has eloped with a Russian man and married outside of Judaism. What follows is for me one of the most moving passages in any movie I’ve ever seen.

There is much wisdom sprinkled throughout this film. This passage, however, is purest heartbreak. “If I bend that far, I’ll break.”

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The old Washington Avenue bridge across the Mississippi River had no cover and a rather easily scaled guard rail. The “new” one has a plexiglass cover from one end to the other. Walking to campus from the West Bank was much more pleasant using the new one, since the wind and whatever was falling from the sky couldn’t get to you until you were across and on campus, where ducking into warm buildings became a possibility.

There was one added benefit of that cover in that it made jumping off into the frigid waters of the river impossible. Why bring this up now? Because in the old uncovered days February was statistically the month of the jumpers. I never had a problem understanding this, because who isn’t sick of winter in Minnesota by February? If one’s mental health was a bit shaky in November, it was not benefited by seemingly endless gray skies, sooty snow everywhere, cars that wouldn’t start, repeated episodes of frostbite, and having been shut into small spaces by the cold for many weeks. So suicide by freezing leap was somewhere between commonplace and unheard of in frequency.

Sometimes when I was crossing the bridge to campus, collar turned up against the wind that seemed to be forever howling down the river in the winter, I would look over the railing into the dark brown water at that strong current and say to myself no way. To spend my last moments of consciousness even colder than I was at the moment I was peering over the rail … it was never going to be my choice for ending it all. If push came to shove I would always opt for something more genteel and above all, warmer.

Theme Song from the movie M*A*S*H, by Johnny Mandel

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Robin and I just finished watching Women of the Movement, one of Hulu’s offerings for Black History Month. This limited series dealt with the lynching of Emmett Till, and of his mother’s life after that horrific tragedy. Her name was Mamie Till.

I won’t put in any spoilers here except that by the end of the series if you could pass through that television screen and get at the killers and their smarmy protectors … you might be tempted to commit a couple of felonies yourself. The state of Mississippi in general does not come off well as it is portrayed in 1955, when the murder and subsequent trial of the killers took place.

When this incident was front-page news and that news reaching even as far North as Minneapolis, I was fifteen, only one year older than Emmett was when he died. And yet back then for me it was a dark story coming out of what I saw as another country altogether, the South. I had a lot to learn and a long way to go.

Retracing the events in the series, when Till’s damaged body was returned to his mother in Chicago, she declared that there would be no closed casket wake for him. She said “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Tens of thousands of people filed by the casket over several days. Millions of people saw the photographs of the body that journalists were asked by Mamie Till to take. As I relive the whole thing now through this series, it resembles nothing so much as scenes from some ancient play, where a mythic woman accompanies the corpse of her slain soldier-son as his funeral cortege rolls into Rome, or Athens.

About a hundred days after the funeral, Rosa Parks took her stand.

In Montgomery, Rosa Parks attended a rally for Till led by Martin Luther King Jr. Soon after, she refused to give her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked a year-long well-organized boycott of the public bus system. The boycott was designed to force the city to change its segregation policies. Parks later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”

Emmett Till, Wikipedia
My Name Is Emmett Till , by Emmylou Harris

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I’m being a good boy with regards to my visits to our local recreation center. Robin gets me moving and we’re out the door in the dark for a cold car ride to the gym. Once there I run the gantlet from machine to machine, sometimes with the numbers on the weights used being embarrassingly small. But hey – I’m moving, just the same.

Yesterday I visited all but one of my self-assigned torture devices, missing only the abdominal crunch. This was because the apparatus was occupied by an ancient citizen who seemed incapable of movement. Alarmed, I checked him only to find that he was indeed breathing and conscious to boot, but he required the passage of an eon between reps of the exercise. I finally gave up and went home. If I go back today, it wouldn’t surprise me if he is still there, laboring to bend the machine to his will. I gave him a perfect 10 for determination, and a lesser score for execution.

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Let us finish this today with some self-observation. In Tuesday’s Science section of the NYTimes was a piece which began with this paragraph:

It’s a dubious distinction in the fossil record: For the first time, a vertebrate has been found with fecal pellets where its brain once was.

NYTImes, February 8, 2022

I will let this sink in for a moment.

Imagine, if you will, that you have a satiric frame of mind in general, and a sarcastic one on occasion. Imagine that you are served up this savory bit of intelligence one morning, like a bit of meat tossed to a big cat, and are rolling it about in your mind, savoring it and wondering exactly what to do with it. Imagine further, if you can, that you have no journalistic standards or ethics, and are well-known for dipping into areas of bad taste when it suits you. So what are your choices?

Here are mine.

Ignore it … absolutely not.

Clean it up for readers … not today, son.

Exploit it … now we’re cooking, baby.

From my personal perspective, the crucial part of the sentence is “in the fossil record.” Crucial because we likely have scads of examples of just this problem right in front of us, not in fossils, but in humans walking around and going to work and eating and breeding and generally making a mess of things.

Of course we haven’t the luxury of popping open the crania of these men and women to examine the contents of their skulls, but we can certainly make some inferences from their behavior, can’t we? And it’s not as if we’d never suspected that something like this wasn’t happening. There is even a common vulgar phrase that goes: “S**t for brains.”

How can this knowledge be helpful? Perhaps mostly because it explains so much of what is puzzling about modern life, as it answers the questions: How could anyone believe that or act that way? Not having to wonder about this any longer will be a great timesaver for many of us, since we don’t have to waste precious hours trying to think through what seem to otherwise be inexplicable contradictions.

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Which Way To The Front … ?

We’re beginning to think of having folks over for dinner once again, and aren’t sure how to begin. All of our friends are of the fully vaccinated variety, but each of us also knows that this is not 100% protective, and that we could conceivably bring the virus into a room unaware that we are carrying it. Small chances each time of that happening, but there is no zero-risk option.

And yet, when will there be a zero-risk time for us? This year, next year … ever? And how long do we put this part of our lives as social beings on hold, as Covid seems to be making its slow transition from pandemic to endemic?

And when we issue those first invitations, how do we word them?

You are cordially invited to our home for dinner and conversation on February 30 , at 6 PM. We hope that you will accept, but you must recognize that we are still in a moderately perilous situation regarding Covid 19, and that there are no assurances that you will survive the evening should you choose to attend.

If you do accept and show up, you reckless devils you, please stay at least six feet away from one another at all times, do not hug anyone or shake their hand, and practice eating through your mask just to be on the safe side. To make this easier, we are serving only broth and tea.

I guess that this would meet the definition of full disclosure and everything, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, don’t you think? If someone sent it to me, I don’t know if I’d accept it. I think that I might answer “Sorry, buddy, but I have done a risk/benefit analysis and your invitation did not survive it.”

Well, we’ll think about it some more before we do anything as rash as actually acting upon this impulse. (BTW, dining al fresco here at BaseCamp is not an option when the temperature is below 40 degrees. We might bundle up our bodies like crazy but the food would still chill too fast and the gravy would surely clot.)

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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Just finished yet another book whose subject matter was the confrontation between the U.S. Seventh Cavalry and a large force of Native Americans that took place at the Little Big Horn in 1876. A battle commonly called Custer’s Last Stand. The title of the book is .

Over a lifetime I don’t know how many books I have read about the battle, which was the last major one for the plains Indians, and of course for Col. Custer as well. The drama is just too intriguing. The struggles between a duplicitous white United States and the indigenous inhabitants of the Great Plains culminating in what turns out to be a complete victory for the natives, one which was never to be repeated.

After Little Big Horn, the tribes were broken up and forced onto reservations. Their children were taken from them and placed into a disgraceful residential school system. To read the history of the United States vis a vis its treatment of indigenous peoples is to become angry, depressed, horrified, or a combination of all three.

When Robin and I visited the Little Bighorn battleground which is now a National Monument, I was affected deeply by standing where that chunk of history took place. The hills, ravines, river, and valley are much the same as they were in 1876. Scattered everywhere are markers where participants had fallen, making it very easy to replay the desperation of those soldiers when they realized that they had gotten themselves into a situation from which there was no way out.

BTW, did you know that one of Custer’s major worries was that the Indians would break camp and escape before he could get to them? Ay ay ay, but didn’t the man get his wish?

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From The New Yorker

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One of the problems that we have discussing political and economic systems is that we are always looking backward. In the US if we don’t like what someone is saying we call them a communist, or socialist. If on the other “side,” the word hurled at one’s opponent is capitalist. The assumption implicitly made is that all of our options are carved in stone, when really what we are headed for may be none of those. Something for which we don’t even have a name as yet. And when we reach that point … well, we’ll likely keep on going past that.

It’s thinking like this, of course, that has helped me to acquire a well-earned reputation as an airheaded dimwit. While I admit that this may be true, it doesn’t make me wrong. You know the old saw about even a stopped clock is right twice a day?

At the end of Joseph Campbell’s excellent 4-volume series The Masks of God, he says that there is a future coming at us the shape and nature of which he cannot predict, but that we will have a bloody and dangerous time getting there as proponents of new ways of thinking are vigorously and physically attacked by the defenders of the old ways.

As a result of having all of this liberal nonsense ricocheting around within my cranial vault, I have decided to look backward as well, and have picked up a new/old nighttime read – Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. For those of you who are of tender years, this book was a major best seller when it was published in 1970. So when I first read it I was a callow 32 year-old version of the prat that I am now, and I am eager to see whether the book was only a bit of fluff that doesn’t hold up at all.

REFLECTIONS about U.S. society & its new generation. There is a revolution under way–not like revolutions of the past. This is the revolution of the new generation. It has originated with the individual & with culture, & if it succeeds it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed & it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. It is now spreading rapidly, & already our laws, institutions, & social structure are changing in consequence. Its ultimate creation could be a higher reason, a more human community, & a new & liberated individual. It is a transformation that seems both necessary & inevitable, & in time it may turn out to include not only youth but the entire American people. The logic of the new generation’s rebellion must be understood in light of the rise of the corporate state under which we live & the way in which the state dominates, exploits, & ultimately destroys both nature & man. Americans have lost control of the machinery of their society, & only new values & a new culture can restore control. At the heart of everything is what must be called a change of consciousness. This means a new way of living–almost a new man. This is what the new generation has been searching for, & what it has started to achieve. Industrialism produced a new man, too–one adapted to the demands of the machine. In contrast, today’s emerging consciousness seeks a new knowledge of what it means to be human, in order that the machine, having been built, may now be turned to human ends.

Charles Reich, New Yorker Magazine, September 26, 1970

Be warned that signs that this trip back into time is affecting me may include that my present L.L. Bean-style wardrobe will be replaced by tie-dyed everything. And that I can’t utter a complete sentence without inserting the word “groovy” into it.

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One of my favorite people on the planet passed away on Friday. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had been ill for years and was 95 when he died. Robin and I had been fortunate several years ago to attend a three-day mindfulnesss retreat at the Shambala Mountain Center at which he was the principal speaker. The good impressions he left on us are as fresh today as they were then.

This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies. All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

I learned more from his writings and the example of his life than from any other single individual. There was no gentler soul, no braver man. The New York Times published a thoughtful obituary on Saturday.

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Where Do You Get This Stuff?

A friend once asked me where I came up with the things that I put on this blog. I don’t recall what I said to her at the time, but it comes out of my everyday life, because every single day that I take a breath I am confronted with either my own ridiculous behaviors or those of other people. Each daily newspaper provides more than enough grist for my small mill. (Some of what I read does make me angry or depressed, and I try to avoid writing about those things. I admit to not being 100% successful in this.)

What I do enjoy writing about is when we are really being preposterous. With our pretensions, our guarded conversations, our raising of our eyebrows. And if nothing is happening in the world, the stream of thoughts that my brain generates produces some really amusing stuff if I just pay attention. Maybe one out of ten thoughts that I have are absurd or laughable (it could even be as frequent as one out of five). I have no control over them popping into consciousness at all. When I really notice them is when I am trying not to think, as in mindfulness mediation sessions. It is at those times that I see that what I have read is true – that the mind never stops going, but jumps from one branch to another continuously, like some monkeys do, giving rise to the phrase “monkey mind.”

And some of what my mind brings up for brief consideration is hilarious. At least to me it is. Occasionally I will stop the flow for a moment and think to myself – that was almost unbelievably arrogant. I must really be that pompous ass that people have called me at times. Robin would be the expert on whether I am or not. One of the most useful things she does for me at times is to gaze deeply into my eyes and repeat: “Pedant, pedant, pedant .. .

But it is exactly those flaws that I often find endearing. Our human sillinesses. Our foibles. Considering those and writing about them is part of my personal plan in order to hang on to the shreds of sanity that I still possess. I’ve been doing it for more than a decade now, and it is still working for me. Truth is, studying a well-executed pratfall does much more for my state of mind than anything I will likely find on CNN today.

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Public Service Announcement

The Surgeon General announced at a press conference yesterday that a food product has been declared so severely addicting that it will be handled as such. That product is Cheetos Popcorn. To quote the good doctor: “This is a snack combining the seductive flavors of regular Cheetos with those of one of the most popular snack foods of all time – popcorn. They potentiate one another so that the combination is much more potent than you might expect.”

It’s one of those cases where 1+1= 3. From now on you can only get this snack by prescription, and there will be severe limitations on quantities dispensed as well.

You may recall that old folk tune, The Blue-Tail Fly, that goes like this:

When I was young, I used to wait
On the master and give him his plate
And pass him the bottle when he got dry
And brush away the blue tail fly

Jimmy, crack corn and I don’t care
Jimmy, crack corn and I don’t care
Jimmy, crack corn and I don’t care
My master’s gone away

We now believe that this is evidence that the authors of this song had access to something much like Cheetos Popcorn way back in the 19th century. Perhaps they made it themselves out of the homely ingredients they had at hand and kept the recipe secret until now, when it has been unearthed and newly marketed. It is worth noticing in the song’s chorus that when you get some of that crack corn you don’t care. Typical addict behavior.

Fortunately there is an easily observable marker which will help us identify victims of this scourge and get them the therapy they so sorely need – their fingertips are universally stained a bright orange.

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There seems to be quite a buzz about the fact that television journalist Chris Wallace is quitting Fox News and moving to CNN. An interesting choice for him, with CNN being the most anti-Fox of them all. The running thread is that it is bad publicity for Fox News to have one of the rare “legitimate” newsmen on its staff leave off and move on.

That may be true. I have a slightly different take. For seventeen years Wallace cashed those checks while lending his name to what is essentially a journalistic hogsnort. For me, that’s taking an awfully long time to decide that you finally care about the s**t on your shoes at the end of every working day.

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We watched another Christmas story last night where the holiday was really just the subtext. It all started out that morning when I ran across a YouTube video taken from an episode of the series The West Wing. It was intriguing enough that I searched for the original episode and found that I was going to have to pay for it, which usually causes my interest to fall pretty precipitously. For some unfathomable reason I persisted. Good that I did, for Robin and I found ourselves in a story that was funny, intelligent, and so moving at the end that we turned to each other choked up and in tears.

The video was from Season 1, Episode 10, and entitled In Excelsis Deo. Here is the clip running on YouTube that attracted me to spending the considerable sum of $2.99. You can watch the clip if you like but be warned, it may end up costing you.

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I can’t exactly recall the day when I realized that the world was even more complicated than I had previously thought, but it could have been the day that I discovered that Velveeta didn’t require refrigeration. As I stared at that display of variously sized yellow boxes all sitting there on a grocery store end-cap without needing any special environmental care, the thought came to me that all that other cheeses needed to be kept cool … why not this stuff?

There is a list of answers to this and other Velveeta-related questions at delish.com if you wish to pursue your education further.

In the early 1900s, Monroe Cheese Company wanted to salvage its Swiss cheese wheels that were either broken or misshapen. So it enlisted the help of Emil Frey, a Swiss immigrant who tinkered with the scraps until discovering he could melt them together and add byproducts like whey until they melded back together in a velvety consistency.

delish.com

If you’ve ever worked with Velveeta, you know that keeping the loaf covered when being stored is supremely important. Else the stuff will turn into something completely inedible, and the now brick-like material is even dangerous. A five-pound chuck of dried-up Velveeta falling from an airplane at 20,000 feet would be traveling at more than 1000 mph when it hit the ground and would leave a crater 100 feet across. (I have no idea why it would be falling from an aircraft, but the point is to look out if it does.)

Another fact is that the knife you used to cut Velveeta into slices must be immediately washed. If this product dries on the blade, you can never get it off, and the tool must regrettably be thrown away.

Originally Velveeta was made from real cheese. Today, it’s mainly whey protein concentrate, milk protein concentrate, milk, fat, and preservatives. By the Food and Drug Administration’s standards, that’s not real cheese—which is why the FDA forced Kraft to change its label from “cheese spread” to “cheese product.”

delish.com

So why do we even buy it? Because it is delicious. Because it melts so very well. Because it makes some of the absolute best mac n’ cheese there is.

Robin and I were discussing this interesting stuff last night at supper, as we ate our non-Velveeta-based mac n’ cheese. We mused that foodies would probably never allow themselves to be seen buying a loaf of Velveeta. If they just couldn’t help themselves and felt they needed a couple of pounds of this liquid gold they would probably have to steal it, sneaking it from the store under their clothing to avoid being seen at the checkout stand as they made their purchase.

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Postscript: the kids in the photo are named Allyson, Justin and Amy. I am their wicked stepfather.

Postpostscript: by way of followup on my do-it-yourself follies discussed in a previous post, I have taken out a protection order against myself so that if I get within 100 yards of a hardware store I am immediately arrested and taken to the calaboose. Robin is the only person who has the authority to arrange my release.

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Late Night Rounds

The old Hennepin County General Hospital (formerly Minneapolis City Hospital) was a magnificent hodgepodge of a place, butting a few small modernized areas up against a big 19th century edifice with 30 bed wards where patients were separated only by drawn curtains. When the spaceship Medical School dropped me off there I was to begin my first clinical clerkship, which was surgery. Up until that time I had spent years cramming data into my definitely overcrowded pudding of a brain and I was looking forward with mixed dread and anticipation to what was to come.

The trouble was that I really didn’t know what was to come and ran headlong into my first conflict right away.

The four of us who were starting that clerkship together were issued some green scrub suits that were obviously made for some sort of creatures who were seven feet tall and whose knuckles dragged on the floor as they shuffled along. We four were human-sized and were forced to adapt by rolling up pant legs and pinning down waists.

The resident charged with orienting us took us to the outpatient clinic where he informed us:

  • we would all be working until six pm in the clinics that day
  • one of us would need to be designated as being on call that night, and by tomorrow morning we needed to provide the resident with our call roster for the next month
  • the on-call person would follow the surgical resident all night and do work ups on all admissions
  • instead of going home and going to bed the next morning like any person would do in a sane environment, that same on-call individual would be expected to make rounds with staff, attend clinics and lectures, and finally end the next day around six pm where they would be released to their families.

I couldn’t believe it! Barbaric! Who could function on such a schedule? What had I signed up for, anyway? A life of gloomy servitude loomed before me with no time for friends or anything other than medicine, really.

As I wandered the semi-dark and ancient halls of the old building that night I heard Diana Ross and the Supremes several times on radios around the hospital since this was 1964 and they were just breaking big. I ran errands to the laboratory, blood bank, emergency room, and surgical wards while stopping from time to time to roll up the damned cuffs on those scrubs from hell.

Next day I showed up for morning rounds, and the other three students came up to ask how the night had gone. I leaned back in my chair like the seasoned veteran that I now was and began listing the amazing things I had seen and done. It was a childish performance, looking back, but bloody fun at the time.

However, something had happened beyond my bluster and boasts. The events of that night had sunk a hook into me, and this turned out to be a serious addiction that took years to come to grips with. The addiction to the drama of night-time in a busy general hospital. The bad coffee, the three a.m. meals in the cafeteria, the camaraderie, the blood and the tears. And sometimes, the fear.

And all of this with a soundtrack that at least on that first night starred Diana Ross and the Supremes.

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From The New Yorker

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The singer Tony Bennett gave his last performances in New York in August of this year, in concert with Lady Gaga. The venues were sellouts. This, in spite of the fact that he has advanced Alzheimers’ disease, and often doesn’t know where he is or even who he is. But put him in front of an orchestra, and he didn’t miss a beat. There was an article about the concert on the CNN website recently.

Bennett is one of the true craftsmen of popular singing. His technique was so good he was one of the few that Frank Sinatra looked up to as a singer. High praise from another master.

What an interesting organ is our brain. Somehow the complex business of performing is still possible, even when daily life is often a washout. Those old paths must be worn so deep that they are the last to be erased by dementia. Remember that line in the chorus of “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell? Where she sings: “You pave Paradise and put up a parking lot?” Isn’t that what happens to people as dementia runs its course?

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From The New Yorker

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There is a variation on the theme of telling lies that occurs in some mental illnesses. The true memory of an event is gone, has been erased somehow, and the person’s brain goes into a sort of anxiety mode and fills in the gaps with new material. Material which is not true but is believed to be so by the patient. In this way the state of their disability is masked or obscured from them. The name for this is confabulation.

We were taught this as medical students during our psychiatry clerkship, that we might understand how we could be led astray in taking a patient’s history. No malice or harm was intended by the patient, but what we had been fed in our conversation with such a person was, well, little more than flapdoodle.

I suspect that my own brain is occasionally serving me up a plateful of this stuff, and how would I know the difference? I have a reference person who lives with me who can correct my recollections when I stray too far, but that covers just the last thirty years … how about all of the time before I met her?

Fortunately, no one’s life, property, or reputation depends on what I remember and how I remember it. So if my brain is from time to time making up parts of my story, my best hope is that the new tale is at least interesting.

(Wouldn’t that be a sort of hell on earth – to be forever telling one’s stories but they are so irredeemably boring that no one can stand to listen to them? A never-ending view of people’s backs as they hustle away from you. )

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Cruelty

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(From the Montrose Daily Press)

There is a herd of elk (the one in the article above) that lives in the valley leading into the town of Telluride. A couple of weeks ago we passed it as we were driving into the village, and what a beautiful group of animals it was. There was a stag in the group who had antlers that were as magnificent as any I’ve seen outside of photographs. We pulled our car over just to watch them for awhile. Because they are accustomed to people and cars, we were within 50 yards of the herd without seemingly bothering them at all.

Some days after our visit, a coward went into the area and killed a bull elk from the herd. It would have been as if one walked up to a group of cows and shot one. No more courage or skill was required than that. What they did was apparently legal but I wonder … how do you boast about shooting a cow?

No matter how one twists logic to justify it, the “sport” of hunting involves the killing of other creatures … for fun. The whole sorry business is despicable.

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Robin continues to mend steadily but at a slower pace than she would like. At least that is how I would think about it if our situations were reversed. But then I have never claimed to be stalwart in the face of discomfort of any kind. When I was a child spending time on Grandpa Jacobson’s farm, I would often get slivers in my hands. Since I had been taught that leaving the splinter in there was going to either bring on the nightmare disease of “lockjaw” or my hand would swell up and fall off, I had to seek help. And the help available was Grandma or Grandpa.

Grandma’s approach was to sterilize a small needle in a flame and then carefully unroof the splinter and extract it with a tweezer. Grandpa, on the other hand, would pull a pocketknife from his overalls and set about carving out a chunk of my flesh that would hopefully contain the bit of offending vegetation. It wasn’t that he was anything but a kind man, but when such a knife is the tool you have to work with, that is what happens.

So whenever I had a choice I would hide the injury until we got back to the house and Grandma could take over. Even then there was an embarrassing amount of grimacing and whining on my part until the thing was done. I’m not sure, but I expect that I might do the same today in similar circumstances. Heroism does not run strong on my side of the family.

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My favorite sort of cartoon is one that surprises me. One that takes me somewhere when I didn’t even know that I was traveling. The drawing above this paragraph is an example. It’s quiet, subtle, but is obviously taking place in some alternative universe. The clearest indicator is the dog being in the operating room in the first place. Such a thing could never happen, at least in the U.S. … or could it? There would be so many barriers to the animal getting in there, so many doors to get by and so many nurses and technicians trying to catch it and expel it from the premises.

Now look again. While the OR staff are all masked, none of their noses are covered, which is a totally unacceptable break in protocol. If we’re going to spread something from human to human, what issues from our noses is an excellent way to do it. Not everyone in the country appreciates this, though. I see it every day in the public square as one of the things our local drizzlewit population does when presented with mask mandates.

Lastly … those naked feet. God knows what microorganisms we carry about on our feet from day to day, but finding a pair of tootsies exposed like that in the operating suite would be enough to horrify any nursing supervisor to the extent that they would surely come down with a variant of PTSD.

No, this cartoon limns a place of fantasy where the beam from the overhead lights cuts sharply through the surrounding darkness and isolates the six characters (I include the dog and the owner of those feet) in their very own world. It’s a great cartoon.

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Even for an operation on one’s knee, there are modifications of the home that are necessary. For instance, we’ve added several useful hardware items to the furnishings – a chair in the shower and a walker, for instance. Also we’ve temporarily retired several area rugs and put them out in the garage to prevent them from causing tripping and falls.

Said rugs are now piled high enough to pose hazards to anyone in that part of the building and may prove an effective burglary deterrent. “Honest, Officer Krupke, I had no idea that a stack of rugs could do that to a person. Do you think a good mortician … ?”

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Krupke, Krupke … now where did I hear that name? Oh, yeah … right here, from 1961 …

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I have a nomination for the best book title of 2021. It is Josh Ritter’s “The Great Glorious Goddamn Of It All.” I have it on my list for winter reading. How could I not?

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Dune

We went to our first movie in a theater in two years this past week. The film was “Dune,” and it did not disappoint. Well, it would have if we hadn’t been forewarned that the story sort of stops in mid-sentence and where we are promised a second episode. That’s a good thing, because the good guys are certainly having a rough time of it in the first go-round. I wasn’t sure how Timothée Chalamet would do as an action hero, but he is better than I thought he’d be. And there is something very hopeful in his performance for people like myself.

In recent years the heroes in movies have all been impossibly buff, possessing pectorals the size of watermelons and twelve-pack abs. This contrasted with actors in the more distant past, who had regular physiques. They were good strong bodies, but nothing dramatically different from yours or mine.

Timothée is a throwback to those lovely days of yore. He is shirtless in one scene, and is shown to be a pleasantly skinny young man. My earnest hope is that this will catch on, and I can once again leave the theater without feeling that somewhere along the physical development road I went completely astray. There are days when I’m not entirely sure where my abs are to be found, and it’s pretty certain that I have less than six in my pack.

In this movie one has no trouble telling the bad guys from the good. All of the evil people are ugly, I mean break-the-mirror sort of ugly. At the opposite pole, everyone is handsome and beautiful. This is not quite like real life, but the movie’s story line is pretty complex, and anything that simplifies even a small part is welcome. Oh, and you will definitely have an easier time understanding what the film all about if you have read the book, and I highly recommend doing just that. But here’s a word to the wise – you’d best get a move on because the paperback edition is 740 pages long.

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‘Twas a mild Halloween this year. Outdoor temperatures were compatible with life and there was no sleet pelting the small petitioners as they dragged their bags of non-nutritious substances from house to house. Most of the kids came by before dark, but the last ones arrived around 7:30. All in all it was a pleasant evening for the little pagans and the parents who accompanied them.

Robin held court in a chair early on, but had to leave for a meeting, and after that it was my turn to face the horde. I was impressed by one kid who was about 10 years old and who was wearing a mask based on Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream and knew its origins. I doubled his handful of candy as a reward.

As the kids came through and I looked into their bags of stuff, I could see that every single item was securely wrapped or boxed and I thought how much work it was going to be to get the tiny candy morsels out of their coverings later on. And I recalled how much easier it had been in 1949 when everything was loose and unpackaged and you could actually eat some of what you’d collected as you walked along. There were people that gave out actual apples with no razor blades in them. Some (gasp) doled out cookies or brownies that they had made in their own kitchens and who knows what awfulness was baked into those things. Cookies that their fingers had touched … it makes me shiver all over to think about it.

Somehow we all survived back then. If there were rumors of evil people doing evil things in dispensing their “treats,” parents of the time had the good sense not to believe the stories. They just sent their kids out into the night with empty pillowcases and kept the porch light on. Each year all the children returned and were perfectly fine until they started eating what they’d collected and epidemic nausea set in.

So we’re safer now and everyone is protected from mostly non-existent horribleness and it’s a much better world, isn’t it … ? But our collective anxieties are on full display each Halloween. Kids pile out of and back into cars, parents walk them all the way to our doors, everything is super-sanitized. But there was something missing from the evening. There was nothing scary – anywhere … .

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Today, November 3, is Robin’s birthday. Of course I will not disclose the number involved … what gentleman would? Last night at supper I asked for details of her birth (which she does know!). This is quite unlike my own case, that of a dullard who knows only the date and the place of his own emergence.

Robin was born prematurely at under five pounds, and in the wee hours of the morning. She must have been a tough little thing, though, because she went home from the hospital with her mom at the regular time and was promptly installed in a dresser drawer that served for a while as her bed and bassinet.

So we will celebrate her birthday by doing whatever she desires … within reason. No arrests are to be expected, no front page bits of notorious behavior to be published in the local paper. It’s a simple case of everybody who knows her being glad that they do. She’s that kind of girl.

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First Flake

We’ve had our first snow, a few flakes mixed into the light rain that was falling on a 34 degree morning. They hit the ground and melted instantly. But the San Juans got a more extensive covering at the higher altitudes. We can follow the progress from here in Paradise as the white creeps down from the peaks to the shoulders over the next several weeks. Just put your car on Townsend Avenue facing south and it’s all there in front of you even though they are 50 miles away.

Whether they come rapidly or slowly, changes are on their way that involve long sleeves, long underwear, and the occasional short temper. I am often heard to say that I prefer living in a part of the country that has four seasons. However, I almost never say this in February, when my conversations on the subject usually consist of a series of sighs and grunts.

But the fellow in the purloined cartoon above is happy as a clam with his wagon and his wood, as is evident from the big smile on his beak. Possibly that’s because there is no wind to whip those flakes up his feathers and against his tender skin. Snow falling straight down can be a beautiful thing … walking about on a moonlit night at such times can be almost a spiritual experience. Snow falling sideways, on the other hand, is quite another matter, and it is best viewed through a window when one is safely indoors.

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This whole business of sending billionaires into space for a few minutes is drawing a bit of comment from the media. It is an obvious distraction from the awkward aspects of life here on planet Earth, and … let’s just say it is a bit of showing off by people who simply are so wealthy that they don’t know what to to with their fortunes. My only real complaint about these self-congratulatory performances is that the spacecraft eventually returns.

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On Monday morning I found something on CNN that made me smile. This is unique, since CNN usually makes me frown, occasionally nauseous. Spencer Tunick is at it again. He’s the guy who has been doing mass nude photo shoots in famous places for more than a quarter-century now. He always has an artistic explanation to offer for what he is doing but for me it is the amazing playfulness of the entire enterprise.

For instance, this time he took around 200 Israelis to the Dead Sea, which is disappearing (who knew?). He painted them white and then posed them variously. You might, upon hearing about the project, think that eroticism is part of his plan, but take a look at this photo and tell me, does it stir you in that way? Or does it make you wonder instead how they all avoided colossal sunburns?

Look again for a moment – over on the right there’s even a stooped-over guy who is using a hiking staff to get around in that desert, just so he can participate. Giving it his all, for art. While just looking at the picture is giving me a rash.

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Ran across an interesting article in the Times of New York about aging drivers. New research showing that they are safer in their driving habits than people much younger than themselves is slightly reassuring.  

Although there are now more older drivers than ever before on American roads, it seems there’s never been a safer time for those in the upper decades of life to drive a car. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers aged 70 and older were less likely to be involved in a fatal car accident than those 35 to 54.

Jane Brody: Keeping Older Drivers Protected On The Road, NYT October 19, 2021

I say “slightly reassuring” because we superannuated operators of automobiles still have to share the roads with those multitasking, distracted, overreacting, and overconfident younger drivers. They, as we already really knew, are the dangerous ones. We, on the other hand, are merely annoying as we chug along at legal speed limits and wait interminably at roundabouts for our turn to come.

Yesterday I was behind a Buick at a roundabout and I swear that the driver had time to knit a small sweater before the stars and planets were enough in alignment to for them to move forward. Everyone knows that there are certain vehicles that are notorious for being piloted by older folks, and Buicks are right at the top of the list. I will go blocks out of my way to avoid being behind one of those cars whenever I have a choice of doing so.

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But, I digress.

We never really had to “take the keys away” from my own parents, who had become so infirm in their later years that the question really didn’t come up. Illness sidelined them before we even had to think about it. And I am living so far away from my own children that they have no idea what my driving habits are and are insulated from the decision.

Robin is the one that I have to worry about, and I have hidden a set of keys away just in case she gets any ideas in that direction. Of course, the chance that I will remember where I have hidden those keys should I ever need them is completely another matter.

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Header Photo

Grandmothering in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 2005

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Saving Graces

I’ve been reading a few of Garrison Keillor’s posts on the Writer’s Almanac this past week and they made me morose. It turns out that my own writing could easily be called a thin imitation of his, even though I didn’t realize it when I put fingers to keyboard and typed away in the early morning hours of any day you care to choose in the past decade. The major difference is his skill in arranging the exact same set of words that I have access to. Ah, me. Why didn’t I use that phrase … would have been so much clearer … or that one … or that one?

But we do what we can with what we have, as anyone who lived through the Great Depression will tell you if you give them half an opportunity. I try not to do that if I find myself across from someone who survived the Thirties, because the stories are pretty much the same and if I haven’t heard them all yet I lack curiosity about those I might have missed. Being born in the very last days of the Thirties I missed that excellent decade when what is now called recycling was then referred to as everyday life. You threw nothing away unless you absolutely couldn’t find a use for it, even if what you planned for it wasn’t anything close to its original employ.

Got a leftover anvil? Why just look at what a swell paperweight it makes. It would take a hurricane to blow those papers off your desk now. And those old jeans that you’ve been using for paint rags because they are full of holes and rips? Wash them until you can’t smell the turpentine any longer and then slap them onto your body. They are now called vintage clothing. And if parts of your anatomy are illegally revealed by those gaps in the material, why, you have only to wear attractive underwear, perhaps something in a cunning polka dot or stripe.

When we cleaned out the basement of my parents’ home, at the point where neither of them was ever going to be able to go down to there any longer because of infirmity, there was a virtual museum of old iron things that my dad had accumulated. Enough nuts and bolts to repair any fallen-down freeway bridge in Minneapolis, I would think. Angle irons, broken pocket knives, screwdrivers of all sorts, chisels without handles … everything was the same color due to being completely covered with rust. I doubt that Dad ever threw any part of any tool he’d ever owned away, just put it in a box to store because who knew it might be just the thing you needed? And when you moved to a different house it all came along with you.

There wasn’t as much of Mom’s stuff in that basement. It turns out that except for kitchen implements much of what she used from day to day wore out. A broom without bristles isn’t kept for some rainy day in the future, but is as useless as anything you care to imagine and is junked. All of her pots and pans and dinnerware were still in daily use, so they hadn’t made the trip to the basement yet. And that included a very old aluminum kettle with so many dents in it that was impossible to keep it level on the stove burner. Clothing? It either had fallen apart or was cut into pieces that became patches on some other aging garment.

So I’ve heard enough Great Depression stories, I think. If you are older than I am and want to tell your tales one more time before the Reaper stops by your house, I might not be the audience you are seeking. One of my problems these days is that I don’t always make the effort to look interested when I’m not. That faraway look comes into my eyes as … wait a darned moment! I saw that look just yesterday afternoon when I was sharing one of my vast collection of tales with grandson Dakota. He is so polite that he didn’t run away screaming when I came at him with yet another fascinating yarn, but you could see in his eyes that the man was off sailing in the Outer Hebrides even as I was nattering on about some random element of my past.

I better watch it. It’s so easy to wear out an audience, and damned hard to get them back once they’ve strayed.

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From The New Yorker

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I have returned to the backyard deck after a few week’s absence. After having that moderate but annoying illness for nearly a month my enthusiasm for sitting outdoors had waned, since any little breeze set me to shivering whether it was a warm day or no. An odd month, but behind me now. The body has such amazingly fine-tuned and really very adaptable systems, but put the wrong virus in the wrong place and nearly anything you can imagine can happen. There are a thousand things that can go wrong in a situation like that, but all I did was see double for a few hours and that was pretty much all she wrote.

So yesterday I returned to the gym for the first time in a month. Everything was going well until I encountered this seriously crazy-eyed woman who was flitting from machine to machine and never cleaning the ones she had used. (There is a gym policy that we do that, and a small sign at each station reminding us to do so.)

So I told her to please clean up after herself, and of course she completely ignored me because who in blazes am I to give her instruction? But the next time I see her, if she is still being a gym slob, I will ask the staff to talk to her. Even if we can’t change her behavior, maybe we can get her back on her meds. Those eyes … unsettling, to say the least.

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An article in the Science section of the Times gave me an entrepreneurial idea. Researchers have evidence that ancient peoples in New Guinea raised cassowaries for food. Cassowaries are largish birds, weighing up to nearly 60 pounds in adulthood, and were a potentially large source of protein – probably seen as a good thing back there a thousand years ago. The only problem was that you had to pay close attention to their growth, since an adult cassowary is considered by some to be the most dangerous bird on earth.

The problem is those feet. That large talon is several inches long, and can quickly create openings in the body that were never meant to be there. Persons messing with adult birds are thus occasionally converted to dead people instantly.

Thus, my idea of starting a cassowary farm poses issues that raising ordinary poultry doesn’t. Almost never do you read of fowl/human confrontations that end in fatalities. However, if you can get past that wrinkle, the sky is the limit because of the novelty of being able to sell cassowary burgers and cassowary nuggets to adventurous clients. I do not have any information on the flavor of the meat, but until more information comes in, I will assume that it tastes like chicken. Nearly everything does.

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The weather this past week here in Paradise has been, well, heavenly. Daytime temperatures in the 70s, enough sunshine to satisfy anybody, and breezes so gentle that they barely ruffle the prayer flags in the back yard. Out in the mountains the trees are peaked or peaking in color, although here in town our foliage change is a couple of weeks behind them.

We’ve adopted the pleasant habit of taking our meals outdoors on the deck, unless it is raining or some of those damned yellowjackets choose to rise up from hell to bedevil us. It is somehow disconcerting to bring one’s fork toward one’s face and find oneself staring at the countenance of a stinging insect perched right there on one’s casserole. Try as I might, I have not been able to love all of Nature’s creatures, and these wasps top my personal list of persona non grata.

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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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Ahhhh, Them Last Chance Power Drives

Sleepily listening to the radio the other day I was jerked awake by the opening salvo of Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen. I listened to the words carefully, and it is a wonderful hymn to a way that I once felt. That time was at the peak of adolescence. A time when my thoughts ran to stylishly morbid (not going to live to age 25) and my hormones were the very definition of chaos. A time when cruising the summer streets with the car window rolled down and a song like this cranked up would alter my DNA to the point that when I stepped out of the car I was at least temporarily a whole new character. (One that was much more interesting)

This song was a perfect anthem. One that could have made me feel taller, stronger, indestructible … all those qualities that I was looking for at age eighteen. The only problem is that it came out when I was thirty years old. By that time I was married, had four children, and was temporarily the property of the United States Air Force. So instead of being the song that made me feel like a contender, it was now a wistful reference to an earlier time.

It’s a great song, though. Telling the story of a last chance power drive … man oh man … can you dig it?

(NB: note deliberate use of ancient cliché)

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From The New Yorker

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We probably all have our own private mythologized places. Locations we have visited once or many times and which for some reason occupy their own special space in our minds, one that is often both haloed and hallowed. One of mine such space for me is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. I’ve been there on trips with my own children, a grandchild, and perhaps thirty times with Rich Kaplan, an old friend. Robin and I have paddled and camped in the BWCA several times together. I go there every year in my head, even if it’s only every several years that my body tags along. Everything I use on these trips becomes a part of the mythological whole.

One of these items is Dr. Bronner’s soap. I first purchased a bottle for a canoe trip long ago because it was such a quirky product. Piragis Outfitters of Ely MN was happy to sell me a bottle, which I used as hand soap, body wash, and shampoo for the next several days. Since then it has become a regular part of each trip’s outfitting. At some point I discovered that you could get the stuff in local grocery stores pretty much everywhere, and that was all she wrote.

Now every time I shower using Dr. Bronner’s soap, I am gifted with some random recollections of the BW, and they are all good, even those involving drenching rainstorms and a wall of mosquitoes that you have to hack through to get to the water. Above is the label from a bottle – as you can see, it contains homilies and exhortations as well as a list of ingredients.

Like I said, quirky … but quirky good.

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Here’s a little gallery of pics the BWCA, taken over a fifty year period.

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Two years ago I followed the advice of online home repair enthusiasts, and attacked the two outdoor faucets of our home, which were leaking. All of the gurus I encountered told me that the repair was so simple that any fool could do it. So I purchased kits, watched the videos, and although it didn’t go quite as smoothly as the in the pictures, when I was finished the faucets did not leak and seemed to work just fine.

Until this Spring, when the backyard faucet failed me. Little more than a dribble comes through when I crank it up, and I have the uncomfortable suspicion that my work was not as successful as I thought it had been. Apparently there is a special variety of fools who cannot do this repair properly and I am one of them.

The plumber comes later today.

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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!

*

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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Wanderers

It’s not all that often that I watch a movie that makes me feel that I am a better person for having viewed it. Of course, that isn’t really true, I am pretty much the same schlemiel today that I was before Robin and I streamed “Nomadland” Tuesday night, but my view of the world is just that much wider, more inclusive … maybe that is some small progress.

It’s a beautiful movie, starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and an interesting bunch of normal people (non-professional actors, that is). McDormand is soooo good, as always. It’s a small thing, but if there were an Olympic event called “smiling,” I believe that she would take home the gold every year.

The film is available on Hulu.

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There is presently a small dustup in the world, one that can’t really compete with the big ones that rage all around us 24/7, but it’s interesting. A half-dozen of Dr. Seuss’ books are being quietly un-promoted, because they contain images that could, without too much imagination being required, be interpreted as racist.

There seems little doubt that Theodor Geisel (Seuss’ real name) harbored racist thoughts back in the early 1940s, and there is also quite a bit of evidence that he rejected those thoughts and writings later in life. This almost surgical excision of a part of his catalogue seems to recognize that even flawed people can produce worthwhile things, and throwing away everything that he’d written for those old errors would be a loss to us all. It also gives one hope that the belief in the possibility of redemption hasn’t gone away altogether.

We’re living in a time when figurative dunk tanks, burnings, and witch-hunts on social media are all over the place. Make a mistake sometime twenty years ago … fageddaboudit, you’re toast. This is not o.k. When there is only a single space between effusive acceptance and outraged rejection it is a hazardous time for those in the spotlights of the world.

It makes me so very glad that I am unimportant. No one is going through those old steamer trunks where my life’s words and actions are stored, looking for something to be furious about.

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Writing the above reminded me of a scene from a movie that I saw as a child, when my grandfather Nels took me to the Time Theater in Kenyon, MN.

The film was Stars In My Crown. The main character was a small town minister in the Old West, whose congregation included the owner of a saloon. When one of his congregation’s elite confronted the preacher about accepting contributions from the saloonkeeper … it was the Devil’s money, said the concerned member.

“Yes, it is,” admitted the minister, “but just think of all God’s work that I am going to do with it.”

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One of the most reliable signs of Spring has always been the aroma of tens of thousands of pieces of dog poop that have been deposited around the town during the previous winter, thawing all at once. It’s unmistakable, the day when that happens. No matter how blue the sky or how warm the gentle breeze might be, the cloud of scent can be overwhelming, often driving one back indoors.

But we’ve kind of lost it, that day. And the culprit is the people who insist that dog owners carry those little plastic bags with them and pick up every single dropping within seconds of its being dropped. It is estimated that in Colorado, if it were not for people picking up after their beloved canines, the entire state would be covered in pup-doo to a depth of six inches within a single year. Such is the pervasiveness of dog ownership here in Paradise.

So one more piece of my life’s acquired knowledge has become useless to me, and I must consult calendars just like everybody else, to know when Spring has finally arrived. Bah.

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Please Pass The Bucket

There is a little story behind the header photograph. Robin and I had met up with her kids for a short skiing vacation over the New Year Holiday. We chose a very small town not far from Winter Park CO, and took rooms for a couple of nights. Skiing during the day, enjoying the company in the evening … that was the plan.

But on New Year’s Eve, one member of our party (whose name is withheld to protect the innocent) became ill with gastroenteritis at midday, and her condition progressed to moderate dehydration over the next several hours. At that time we didn’t know much about the medical care available in Tabernash, so our rooms became the E.R.. Late in the evening her vomiting finally quit, and slow improvement began. But by then we had let go of any ideas of joining the party scene that we could see down at the ski lift area. So we stayed in and celebrated quite modestly instead.

But the party was watchable from our window, and this pic was of a moment in time, when the sounds of retching had subsided and our collective worries began to diminish.

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At one time in my life New Year’s Eves were an excuse for getting sozzled to a degree incompatible with having a pleasant New Year’s Day, if you get my drift. Fortunately for me (and others in the room) I no longer try to pickle myself by midnight on this holiday. In fact, I am no longer awake at midnight at all. Robin and I will pick an hour well before that and call out Happy New Year along with Japan, or some such nation well to the East.

And we have found that no matter how she and I celebrate the evening, quietly or uproariously, the year changes right on schedule.

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In the later years of their time together, my Grandpa and Grandma Jacobson lived in a small house across the farm road from the larger one that they had occupied for most of their married life. It was heated by an oil burner in the living room, and a plain metal pipe ran from the device to the chimney. On New Year’s Eve in 1950 I was their guest, and on the stroke of midnight Grandpa performed his routine which involved picking up a piece of blue carpenter’s chalk and writing the number of the year on the pipe. It was his way of marking the turning of the year. Simple and quiet. And then it was off to bed for all of us.

I do have such a piece of chalk somewhere, because hardware stores have no scruples about selling it to anyone whether they have any carpenter-ic skills or not. But I hesitate to start writing on things in our living room. If I should get started there is no telling where it will stop.

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Found this tune, New Year’s Prayer, by Jeff Buckley, in my library. Strange little thing. Lyrics follow.

Oooo
Fall in light, fall in light
Fall in light, fall in light.
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel no shame for what you are
As you now are in your heart
Fall in light
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel it as a water fall
Fall in light, ooh.
Fall in light, fall in light
Fall in light, ooh.
Fall in light, fall in light
Fall in light, grow in light.
Stand absolved behind your electric chair, dancing.
Stand absolved behind your electric chair, dancing.
Past the sound within the sound
Past the voice within the voice.
Ah. Ah. Ah.
Leave your office, run past your funeral,
Leave your home, car, leave your pulpit.
Join us in the streets where we
Join us in the streets where we
Don’t belong
Don’t belong
You and the stars
Throwing light
Ooo (repeat)
Fall, fall.
Ooo
Fall in light, fall in light
Fall in light, ooh.
Fall in light, fall in light
Fall in light, grow in light.

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Oh, and yes, may a Happy New Year be there waiting, for all of us.

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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.

.

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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Can I Have A Hallelujah, Brothers & Sisters!

Our national Disgrace-in-Chief is being shown the door, at long last. This time he lost the electoral college as well as the popular vote. Of course he’ll still be in the White House for another couple of months, but in January he will walk that last long stretch to the podium and be forced to turn the keys over to rational and compassionate beings. And our nation can get on with all of the important work that was put on hold for the past four years while Nero fiddled.

We are rejoicing here in Paradise, or at least a minority of us are doing so. Montrose County went for Cluck more than 2:1 over Mr. Biden. How sweet is is to see those wilted campaign signs out there, those pickups still festooned with gigantic but impotent flags promoting the loser-guy. Out of consideration for those of our benighted neighbors who are Cluckians, we have now taken our own signs off the lawn. But I have a confession to make. What I really want to do is find the biggest freaking Biden/Harris banner available and put it up like a Buddhist prayer flag, where it stays for years as the sun and weather slowly break it down.

However, that would be shabby behavior, wouldn’t it? Gloating. And I am totally a class act.

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But, Dr. Frankenstein, what if you are successful? What if this … thing … does come to life? What will happen then?

Following the principle that everything in life has two sides, two faces, we now have some hints that the crazy interesting laboratory tool called Crispr-cas9 might not be an exception. After one paper after another over the past several years about the positive potential for an instrument that can go into a genome and replace defective genetic material with a previously unheard-of surgical precision, we get a paper that has an un-smiley-face sticker on it.

When researchers began applying Crispr-cas9 techniques to embryos those embryos did not appear to take it kindly, tossing out large chunks of the chromosomal material in soberingly large numbers. A commentary on this paper was in the Times of New York on Saturday morning. It adds to an ongoing discussion of the ethical implications of working with embryos versus completed human beings.

For example, If I am born and I have a genetic disease, replacing the bad part of my genes affects only me. But if you tinker with those genes much earlier in development and I grow up to beget children, my children are potentially affected, and their posterity as well.

Interesting paper.

In general, the body public has a say in what research will or will not be done through our elected representatives. Funding can be advanced or withdrawn. Regulations can be drawn up or not. Sometimes just because you can doesn’t mean that you should is a useful watchword in scientific communities. But whether we do have a stake in this research, and articles like this one help us stay informed.

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Friday evening we welcomed a whole lot of very nice people to our home for a celebration of Robin’s birthday via the Zoom app. For a short two hours friends and relatives entered and left the group and I thought it all went very smoothly. Grandson Ethan brought along a bunch of custom backgrounds for his image that went from the pastoral to the macabre and back again.

By the time the group was assembled, we had participants in all four time zones across the U.S. You know, it was definitely not the same as all of us being in the room together, physically. But when you consider that in-person was impossible, it is hard to call a video conference second-best. What it turned out to be was a creation all its own, made possible by technology, which resulted in a very enjoyable evening. I’m liking it.

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I am indebted to Sister Caroline for sending me this video link. It’s a rousing Sunday morning piece of music cleverly updated. Have a great day, my friends.

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All Hallows Eve

Today is Halloween and I’m not ready for it. Not in any way. Some cherubs will show up this afternoon with their bags open looking for us to drop safe treats into. In our part of town all of the costumed kiddos are quite young, so their raids occur in the afternoon and once the sun goes down everything is quiet.

When they do show up I will take my masked self to the door and hand them something with either a gloved hand or a thoroughly sanitized one. It’s like the trick-or-treating is happening on an infectious disease ward, where we are the patient in isolation and the staff parade through our sickroom looking for sterile handouts.

One of the enjoyable aspects of Halloween could be setting something up frightening outside the door. A disembodied voice moaning and chains rattling from a hidden speaker, perhaps. Or a scarecrow that comes to life and reaches out a bony finger to tap the child on the shoulder. But, it’s daylight! Nothing is scary in daylight! And even if I could pull it off, these are really young kids and who wants to send them screaming into their parents’ arms and then have to face those same parents’ anger at their darling ones being scarred for life by my insensitivity?

So it’s bite the bullet and pass out the packages of Skittles for me. Later, when we are safe from further visits, Robin and I will watch our carefully selected Frightening Film of the Year. We haven’t chosen one yet, but there are so many classics to pick from, aren’t there? Let’s see … Halloween … The Exorcist … Poltergeist … The Shining … Haunting of Hill House … Dracula … etc. etc. It’s one of the great things about the streaming movie era we are presently living in. Most of these will be available somewhere, even if there’s a small fee to pay. And we can watch them whenever we want, pause them whenever nature makes demands on bladders, and replay passages where we find the dialog hard to understand.

Life is techno-good.

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BTW, I should mention that I am a sort of Halloween version of Scrooge. Dressing up and masking has always seemed a silly business to me. By careful planning and artful refusals throughout my life I have avoided all but one of the costume parties that I was invited to attend. And that one only confirmed me in my apostasy.

It could be because on the other 364 days of the year I am already continuously playing roles, and don’t feel further need to play-act at a new one just because demons are up and about. What roles, you ask? Well, how about conscientious citizen, son, father, student, physician, etc. Perhaps is is enough to say that however I may appear to others (and to myself?), I suspect that there is a full-fledged Dr. Hyde running around in my internal community and looking for a way out. I have no wish to encourage him, not in the slightest.

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Here is a sampling of how movies and television have seen Mr. Hyde throughout the years.

For most people, when their Mr. Hyde comes out, he looks a good deal more ordinary than this. In fact, it’s often hard to tell by appearances when he’s in the room.

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Yesterday P.Cluck took on the medical professions as eager to profit from the suffering brought on by Covid-19. It was only a matter of time before he got to them/us. Now, not every doctor in the U.S. has had to sacrifice because of this disease. My ophthalmologist, for instance, does everything he can to avoid being exposed to the infected. As does my neurologist. Even my family doctor makes me wait in the hallway until I answer a few questions and then have my temperature taken. Only then can I enter the waiting room. If I don’t pass her quiz, it’s go home and we’ll call you.

But if I were one of those, like ER physicians, who cannot avoid working with the afflicted, I would be so pissed off reading today’s headlines. Because they are taken from a speech delivered by a man who cannot understand people who would take such risks because it that is what they do. Because that is what they signed up for. And the unworthy things that he is saying are not only undeserved but will make their job harder.

Whatta guy. His spot in Hell is prepped and ready.

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Now here is something that for me is as Halloween-y as it gets. Gave me nightmares when I was a child … doesn’t get any better than that.

Mental Goulash

We finished up the limited series The Queen’s Gambit last night. Thoroughly enjoyed every one of the seven episodes. The writers gave the main character some choice lines. Like these two:

Do you always drink this much?
No … sometimes I drink more.

It’s one of those moments where you come to the last minutes of the series and want there to be more episodes but at the same time realize that the creators of the series did it just right, that this is where it should end.

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A long time ago I decided that I should learn to play chess. At the time I didn’t personally know anyone who played, so I turned to books with titles like Chess for Beginners. (Chess for Dummies hadn’t been invented yet, so I made do with what I had). Basically I learned how the pieces move, but when it came to strategy it all seemed hopeless. The authors of the book would describe in detail how if I did this move and then that then checkmate would happen six moves ahead.

The problem was that I couldn’t see it. I never reached a stage where such far-looking (and beyond) was possible. One move ahead was it for me. If the woman in the TV series Queen’s Gambit was the Einstein of the game, I was at whatever the opposite pole would be called. (The Dimwit of Chess?).

I eventually tried to play a few games against actual human beings but all of them ended the same way, my trouncing in less than twenty moves. So I gave it up, having diagnosed myself as having a Chess Learning Deficiency and going on to other things less painful than those repeated drubbings. It wasn’t being beaten so much as it was the not being able to learn from the defeats that finally got to me.

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Speaking of not learning anything from experience, P.Cluck is the poster boy when it comes to this particular malady. As we close in on a quarter of a million dead in America due to Covid-19, he complains that if we didn’t do so many of those darn tests we wouldn’t have so darn many cases.

Of course if we followed his instruction, the published Covid numbers would be better but the corpses would still be piling up at exactly the same rate. Such is our leadership. Lord help us.

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Ahhhhh, the internet has come under attack because we have discovered that it is just as easy to spread mooseberries as it is knowledge using this medium. Why this is a surprise? Didn’t we already know this from written literature going back hundreds of years? With a good printing press you could put out a cookbook or you could print Mein Kampf. The press itself was neutral, it didn’t care how it was used.

Mr. Zuckerberg tries to sell us the idea that Facebook is completely neutral, that posting is neither bad nor good, and that the right stuff will always rise to the top, like cream in a bottle of milk. Maybe if he were dealing with rational creatures, instead of our awkward species, that would be the case. Maybe.

So Congress, that bastion of rationality, is now investigating Facebook, Google, and Apple. Looking to see how much influence this tech triad really has and how much we can mess with the First Amendment before it cracks under the strain. Right now, Facebook is jam-packed with people shouting FIRE in the proverbial crowded theater. So what do you and I do while we wait for Congress to save us?

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Always good to finish on a high note. The Times of New York mentioned this guy and this video, and I am passing it along. I just love pretending to be cultured and au courant, don’t you?

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Potpourri

Robin and I have a guest here at BaseCamp, daughter Maja has rejoined us for a few days. We are employing the package,* as always. Yesterday the weather permitted us to spend the late morning and all of the afternoon outdoors chatting away like blackbirds settling in for the night.

We even completed a project. Coming back from a walk in the park, we stopped at a roadside stand and purchased three pumpkins which were later decorated by carving or painting. The day flew by, and before you know it we were saying goodnight, as Maja returned to her motel to rest up.

BTW, that warty pumpkin that Robin is working with was something new to us all. Its flesh was so hard that she gave up trying to carve it and did a beautiful job of painting it instead. Nice recovery, that.

*The Package = masks, social distancing, hand washing, disinfection

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The rapper Megan Jovon Ruth Pete wrote an op/ed piece about her defense of black women that I thought was awfully good. So what is the opinion of an aged white male worth in such a case? Very little, I admit, but this is my blog and I get to say stuff. The lady’s professional name is Megan Thee Stallion, and what a title that is.

Here is a photo of the lady in performance. She is not a shrinking violet, it would appear. Nor doth she shrink in her writing.

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Lindsey Graham is having a real fight in his bid for reelection, and for many reasons I earnestly hope that he loses. He has publicly moved from one sycophancy to another, a decision forced upon him by John McCain, who was ill-mannered enough to die on him and expose him as a character without character. So when Graham stopped being the anti-Cluck and took his place at the feet of the Grand Posturer, it was no real surprise.

The man is the very definition of an empty suit.

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I am indebted to friend Caroline (and to Scotland) for this addition to our vocabulary. It’s yet another example of the fact that what we think is all new today has not only happened before, but there is already a word for it. Such a word is cockwomble.

It goes right up there with kakistocracy, or government by the “least suitable or competent citizens of a state.”

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Our ballots arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon. We saved them for later today, when I will open mine with as much eager anticipation as if it were Christmas. I am going to savor every single X that I put in every single box that will help retire the gang of thieves presently in office, up to and including P.Cluck himself.

If ever there was a bunch of politicians that deserved to be put out to pasture it is these people. They forgot long ago what they had been elected to do – the nation’s business.

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Phobia du Jour

I didn’t mention that I had my first MRI during my recent hospitalization. At least I think I did. When my physician told me that he had ordered the study for me I laid out a scenario for him that included my going completely out of my mind with an attack of acute psycho-killer claustrophobia. This is an as yet undescribed medical condition of which I would have been the first example in the universe.

I told the good doctor that if he put me in that tube without medication of some kind that I wouldn’t be responsible for what transpired, but I sensed that it would not be pretty, and that there would be a need for some significant cleaning up of the MRI room after whatever happened had happened.

Dr. Thompson paled, recoiled, and then scribbled “Versed” on the order sheet. As a result, I recall being rolled onto the elevator as we were heading for the radiology department, but I have no memory at all of being rolled off the elevator. What happened during my drug-induced blackout … I have to take people’s word that I actually had the study done.

I’m not particularly afraid of pain, although I will avoid it when I can, but try to confine me in a small space and you will find yourself looking at a different man indeed. My transformation from Dr. Jon to full-bore Mr. Hyde can occur in an eyeblink.

I dimly recall an episode when I was very young where I was rolled up in a small rug, as a joke. I can’t remember who did it or any other particulars, but the absolute sense of helplessness and of not being able to breathe properly were powerful enough to still affect me today. The recent horror stories in the news of the “I Can’t Breathe” variety … I am unable to read them without rousing that deep fear, down there in the sub-basement of my psyche.

Oh, the MRI itself? It showed a tiny area of injury which may slightly impair my ability to order from menus in Albanian restaurants. I can live with that.

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The Science section of the Times of New York had something interesting to say this morning. It’s about a virus – don’t worry, this is a good one – that causes a very destructive plant fungus to become a very nicely behaved fungus indeed. Botanists are trying to figure out why it does this at the same time as they study how.

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We do live in the most interesting world, don’t we? It’s pretty obvious that while our knowledge is impressive, our ignorance is on a much larger scale. But hey, don’t let it get you down. It means that there will always be something new to learn. Like today.

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From The New Yorker

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Memento Mori Department

As my own memory process becomes gradually more creative over time, quite possibly making up stuff when it can’t come up with the true facts, there are interesting little blips here and there that I know, positively know, are true. Maybe.

Johnny Nash (1940-2020)
One of those blips is the attachment of a piece of music to a particular event in my life. It happens all on its own, and those attachments are indelible. In 1974 I packed up my family in Buffalo NY and went west, driving across a good-sized chunk of Canada on our way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. On one of those travel days the song “I Can See Clearly Now” came over the car radio. The song was not new but was still getting a bit of airplay at the time. Johnny Nash sang it and it was my introduction to reggae music. Nash passed away yesterday, but each time I hear the tune I can vividly revisit a Canadian morning, zipping through what seemed like endless forests in Ontario.

Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)
When Mr. Van Halen ran up against the limits of what he’d learned about guitar playing, why, he’d invent new ways to do it. His superpower was fingers that could move faster than those of mere mortals, almost too fast to see. What came out of his art and leadership was a passel of very memorable songs over a career that spanned nearly thirty years. One of my favorites was “Dance The Night Away,” which came out in 1979, as I was preparing to pull up roots and haul that same family to South Dakota. Here is a video of the boys doing their rock and roll thing, with all the excess and theatricality we came to expect of them.

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Well, the world is certainly going to hell in a handbasket, whatever a handbasket is. Here is a pic of two women who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry for using something called Crispr to engineer DNA. (Bravo, I say, and is there any possibility that I might have some of my genetic code re-engineered to make me taller and better-looking? Or has my Crispr moment come and gone?)

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And last night a female candidate for vice-president who is also a person of color did a number on her opponent, who is male and as white as white can be. Women have forgotten their place entirely and the world is upside down as a result.

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And finally, there is the matter of the recent editorial of the New England Journal of Medicine, which all of the journal’s editors signed, and which damns the present administration’s job performance re: the novel coronavirus.

Now, the NEJM almost never takes political positions, which makes this so very unusual. Its attack is based on the fact that our Covid response, as a nation, has been a colossal public health failure. I republish the editorial here:

Covid-19 has created a crisis throughout the world. This crisis has produced a test of leadership. With no good options to combat a novel pathogen, countries were forced to make hard choices about how to respond. Here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.

The magnitude of this failure is astonishing. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the United States leads the world in Covid-19 cases and in deaths due to the disease, far exceeding the numbers in much larger countries, such as China. The death rate in this country is more than double that of Canada, exceeds that of Japan, a country with a vulnerable and elderly population, by a factor of almost 50, and even dwarfs the rates in lower-middle-income countries, such as Vietnam, by a factor of almost 2000. Covid-19 is an overwhelming challenge, and many factors contribute to its severity. But the one we can control is how we behave. And in the United States we have consistently behaved poorly.

We know that we could have done better. China, faced with the first outbreak, chose strict quarantine and isolation after an initial delay. These measures were severe but effective, essentially eliminating transmission at the point where the outbreak began and reducing the death rate to a reported 3 per million, as compared with more than 500 per million in the United States. Countries that had far more exchange with China, such as Singapore and South Korea, began intensive testing early, along with aggressive contact tracing and appropriate isolation, and have had relatively small outbreaks. And New Zealand has used these same measures, together with its geographic advantages, to come close to eliminating the disease, something that has allowed that country to limit the time of closure and to largely reopen society to a prepandemic level. In general, not only have many democracies done better than the United States, but they have also outperformed us by orders of magnitude.

Why has the United States handled this pandemic so badly? We have failed at almost every step. We had ample warning, but when the disease first arrived, we were incapable of testing effectively and couldn’t provide even the most basic personal protective equipment to health care workers and the general public. And we continue to be way behind the curve in testing. While the absolute numbers of tests have increased substantially, the more useful metric is the number of tests performed per infected person, a rate that puts us far down the international list, below such places as Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, countries that cannot boast the biomedical infrastructure or the manufacturing capacity that we have. Moreover, a lack of emphasis on developing capacity has meant that U.S. test results are often long delayed, rendering the results useless for disease control.

Although we tend to focus on technology, most of the interventions that have large effects are not complicated. The United States instituted quarantine and isolation measures late and inconsistently, often without any effort to enforce them, after the disease had spread substantially in many communities. Our rules on social distancing have in many places been lackadaisical at best, with loosening of restrictions long before adequate disease control had been achieved. And in much of the country, people simply don’t wear masks, largely because our leaders have stated outright that masks are political tools rather than effective infection control measures. The government has appropriately invested heavily in vaccine development, but its rhetoric has politicized the development process and led to growing public distrust.

The United States came into this crisis with enormous advantages. Along with tremendous manufacturing capacity, we have a biomedical research system that is the envy of the world. We have enormous expertise in public health, health policy, and basic biology and have consistently been able to turn that expertise into new therapies and preventive measures. And much of that national expertise resides in government institutions. Yet our leaders have largely chosen to ignore and even denigrate experts.

The response of our nation’s leaders has been consistently inadequate. The federal government has largely abandoned disease control to the states. Governors have varied in their responses, not so much by party as by competence. But whatever their competence, governors do not have the tools that Washington controls. Instead of using those tools, the federal government has undermined them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the world’s leading disease response organization, has been eviscerated and has suffered dramatic testing and policy failures. The National Institutes of Health have played a key role in vaccine development but have been excluded from much crucial government decision making. And the Food and Drug Administration has been shamefully politicized, appearing to respond to pressure from the administration rather than scientific evidence. Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government, causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.

Let’s be clear about the cost of not taking even simple measures. An outbreak that has disproportionately affected communities of color has exacerbated the tensions associated with inequality. Many of our children are missing school at critical times in their social and intellectual development. The hard work of health care professionals, who have put their lives on the line, has not been used wisely. Our current leadership takes pride in the economy, but while most of the world has opened up to some extent, the United States still suffers from disease rates that have prevented many businesses from reopening, with a resultant loss of hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of jobs. And more than 200,000 Americans have died. Some deaths from Covid-19 were unavoidable. But, although it is impossible to project the precise number of additional American lives lost because of weak and inappropriate government policies, it is at least in the tens of thousands in a pandemic that has already killed more Americans than any conflict since World War II.

Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences. Our leaders have largely claimed immunity for their actions. But this election gives us the power to render judgment. Reasonable people will certainly disagree about the many political positions taken by candidates. But truth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.

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Harvest Moon

Welcome to October, where we start out cool and end up frosty, and here in Paradise right now it is peak time for Fall color. To make today even more special, tonight there will be a harvest moon – natural light to give the farmers additional hours in which to gather their crops. Of course, the headlights on modern harvesting machines and tractors have made this heavenly illumination less crucial, but it’s the thought that counts.

Some of my best personal memories of time spent on my grandfather’s farm have to do with grain harvesting. It was quite a different process when I was a child, a very labor-intensive one. But there were beauties and drama that the modern machines do not provide.

The first step was to pull something called a binder through the field, a machine which cut the grain and tied it into bundles. When I was very young, the power to pull the binder was provided by a team of horses, who were later replaced by a tractor. Next step was for the farmer to gather eight or so of these bundles and form them into a “shock.” The sight of a field of these shocks on a golden fall evening was nothing short of beautiful.

On threshing day, the farmer would drive a wagon through the field and manually collect these bundles, which he would then transport to the the threshing machine and toss into the maw of that mechanical beast. Therein was the drama. As a kid, I fancied the machine was a steel dragon which “ate” the bundles, separating the grain from the chaff and blowing the straw out into a pile.

Here’s a short video, for those who are interested. Notice the man standing on the heaving, bucking threshing machine. Notice all the bare belts and pulleys. Notice the lack of any safety devices anywhere on it. Now picture a ten-year old boy up there. That would have been me.

The hazards of farming were (and still are) very real. But this was a time when children were taught how to stay alive on the beast, rather than kept far away from it. Feel free to judge which was the better way. Thinking back, I wonder that I am still here to type this thing.

Grain was collected into a hopper on the threshing machine, and periodically discharged into a pickup truck or wagon to be hauled away for storage. The very last year that my relatives used the threshing machine, before they purchased a combine which changed the whole process greatly, I was given the honor of filling up a wagon with bundles and pitching them into the thresher. I have never in my life felt more pride than I did on that day. Doing what I thought was truly an adult’s work, among men who I admired.

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Robin and I didn’t watch the first presidential debate because we thought that it should never have happened. We didn’t believe that P.Cluck would observe any rules, act with anything approaching decorum, or tell the truth except in rare moments. Turns out we were right, apparently, in all respects.

There shouldn’t be a second one. Why should there? It will only be a repeat of the first, which was a rehash of the last five years. Let’s stop having these debates right now and give the money that would have been spent to coronavirus research, or prison reform, or any of the other thousand worthy causes that could be helped. Another two such fiascoes will serve no purpose other than Cluck’s own.

This television series deserves to be cancelled. It’s a flop. It could never have been anything else.

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Speaking of television – we’re enjoying the series “Away” which stars Hillary Swank, one of our favorite actors. Great supporting cast as well. For me it could be just a tish less soap-y but the overall story is a gripping one. It’s about the first humans to go to Mars.

I’ve never really thought through what such a mission would be like, and what sacrifices would need to be made. Sailing off to another planet on a flight that would take years. Never mind the hazards, even if everything went as well as it could possibly go, being away from friends, family … completely out of all of those loops … for years. What would that be like? Which of the people that you loved would not be still among the living when you returned? Which of your relationships might not survive such a separation? When you have done something so extraordinary, how do you cope with the mundane? Which people around you could begin to understand what you went through?

I talked a couple of posts ago about the emigrant experience, stepping off the dock onto a ship that would take you to a new land from which you would likely not soon return. Going to Mars would be like that. But the stepping off would be even more dramatic and irreversible.

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I don’t know whether to admire those individuals around the world that are making plans to go to Mars and to live there, or to consider them as not quite right in the head, as my grandmother Ida Jacobson might have said. There is more than a little hubris in the thinking of those very creative individuals, like Elon Musk, who are working on this.

To think that somehow a group of humans could be selected and transplanted to another world and make it work, when very similar creatures haven’t been able to do that on the world we now occupy … do enlightened people exist in numbers adequate to the job?

As for myself, a person who I regard as extremely enlightened (move over, Buddha), I have no plans to join such an expedition, even if I was asked, nay, begged to join the group. I don’t want to live anyplace where I can’t pee in the woods without wearing a special suit.

As I understand it, Mars does not offer such opportunities.

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The Times of New York reviewed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in Tuesday’s edition. I think it’s one of the best reviews that I have ever read. Can’t wait to see it (Netflix). So interesting to get Denzel Washington’s and Viola Davis’ takes on how the film came to be. Washington’s statement that he plans to spend whatever career he has left to bring more of playwright August Wilson’s works to life was very moving.

He is one of those actors whose face reflects intelligence while his body says that if you don’t get it the first time, he is fully capable of cracking your head during your continuing instruction.

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An Aha Moment!

Our local excellent public ratio station, which has something for everybody … except those who love boring corporate music playlists (which don’t exist on this station). If you’re driving through our area some day, tune to KVNF (90.9 or 89.1). You may not hear your absolute favorite tune before you get out of range, but you may discover something new and terrific.

For instance, today I was catching up on some alt-country sort of stuff as I was cruising to Home Depot and suddenly this amusing (and thoughtful) composition popped up, by an artist previously unknown to me.

Here’s a video starring the artist, Susan Werner, and it may answer many of the questions you have always had.

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Out back in my al fresco office it is 89 degrees, and the humidity is 9%. Scores of midwesterners have told me over the decades that it’s not the heat, but the humidity. And darned if they weren’t right! How did they know? Some of them had never been more than forty miles from home in their entire life.

For those of you who have lived in the mountains forever, here is what it is like along the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers in August.

Sit on a chair in a ninety-five degree room. Have someone pull a large plastic bag over your entire body, into which a hole has been cut and a hose inserted. Have that same helper now pump steam from a heated vaporizer into the bag. Keep up the infusion until the bag clouds over and sweat rains into your eyes, down the center of your back, and all of your clothing becomes a sodden mess. By now your hair will have plastered itself onto your head and your breathing become slightly labored.

Now rip all the paraphernalia off and dart into a shower, where you will find that it is impossible to towel yourself off properly afterward, since even the towel on the rack is moisture-laden and you never become completely dry. Then exit the bathroom and put the plastic bag back on. Repeat until sundown.

There, got it? Any questions, high desert dwellers?

Some day, for the midwestern contingent, we’ll go into what it means to live in a dry mountain climate, where one must continuously slather oneself with creams and lotions to avoid becoming so many pounds of animated jerky, but that’s a topic for another day.

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A River Runs Through It

Relentless. The sun is just that. It really requires that we don’t miss a beat, that we inject some discipline into those lazy, hazy, crazy days of sum-mer, those days of peanuts, and pretzels, and beer.

If I don’t water my patch of garden every 24 hours, it will begin to die. If we don’t wear sunscreen, we will sauté. If we don’t carry water whenever we go for a walk, even a short one, we will wither until we either find water or pass on to our great reward. There’s no laying about the porch and sucking on a grass stem this year. This is serious sunshine.

Our cars are air-conditioned and Covid-free pods (we hope) that we use to move about the landscape to avoid stir-craziness. Yesterday we moved our bubble to Ouray, where we found other humans getting out of their bubbles to buy necessary things. Like beef jerky, T-shirts, and portobello wraps with fries.

Everybody in our own bubble is masked, even though we all like each other. We can’t trust each other, however. Not completely.

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Monday afternoon we rented inflatable kayaks and ran down the Uncompahgre River from Lake Chipeta and through the rapids in the city water park. Robin and I were in one tandem boat, with DJ and Cheyenne in the other. It’s basically a Class II river run. The only problem was that I have Class I river skills. And so I managed to crash into the branches of an evil Russian Olive tree that sought my life, wedge our boat so firmly against a stump in the current that it took a small army to free us, and run at least half the river either backwards or sideways.

Somehow we ended up unharmed at the take-out place near the Main Street Bridge. The equipment was all in one piece as well so I guess it was a success, but I’m glad there isn’t any video anywhere of my performance.

Granddaughter Cheyenne loved it! So score one for Colorado!

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Here are Cheyenne and DJ coming through the Water Park section that runs through a park here in Montrose.

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Tuesday morning our guests are leaving to return to Minnesota. It has been an excellent visit, and we wish them a complete bon voyage apiece. Traveling these days has some similarities to that popular parlor game, Russian Roulette. Your odds are undoubtedly better than one in six, but the problem is you don’t know exactly how much better.

What about that woman in the window seat? Is she okay? She looks peaked. I think I can sense she has a fever from way over here on the aisle. Good God, is she going to cough? I’m heading for the bathroom if she does, until that droplet cloud settles. Poor b****rd next to her. He’s a goner, I’m thinking. That’s it, I’m outta here as soon as the wheels hit the ground.

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Finding

I woke Friday morning with the powerful scent of Mephitis mephitis in my nostrils. Somewhere out there during the night there had been an encounter, and this perfume on the air was left behind for us all to savor.

The aroma is an enduring one, and prompted two thoughts for me. The first is that I have read that skunk scent has been part of the recipe for exotic perfumes, at least in the past, because it lasted so long. This has been discovered by many errant husbands who returned home from a “night at the office” with a distinctly non-office bouquet about them. Any wife with a nose and half a grain of sense recognized this the instant the man walked in the door, and then wrote the rest of the story by herself.

The other was my own encounter with the skunk, in my living room, six years ago.

I’ve told the tale before, but have more perspective now, I think. Briefly, I was reading in my chair at four in the morning when a skunk wandered in through the pet door looking for the cat kibbles it could obviously smell. The creature came through the dining room and went around the corner into the guest bedroom where it began to loudly munch on what was in the cat dishes.

Ten minutes later, once it had eaten its fill, it retraced its steps and left the house, never to return.

All of this I watched from my chair, paralyzed by the thought that if I moved it might startle the animal, and I would be dealing with one of the more powerful fragrances in the world sprayed on the walls and furnishings of my own home sweet home. And what, I wondered to myself, does one do about that?

The skunk itself looked as big as a Great Dane when this happened, but I have since come to accept that this was probably not the case. Experience tells me that a Mephitis in one’s living room looks easily four times as large as an outdoor member of the species.

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We are presently watching a series called “A French Village,” which is about a village in France. Oh, you got that? Sorry.

It takes place during the Nazi occupation, in 1941. We are enjoying it, perhaps because it has a bit more subtlety than many such productions with WWII settings, which are more like jousts between monsters and angels.

Not that Nazism itself was anything but monstrous, but it’s likely that there were some German soldiers who were schlemiels like you and I but who were drafted and found themselves in the middle of a nightmare. There are a couple of those guys in this series. There are also French heroes in unlikely places, and collaborators who were venal as well as some who thought they were serving their countrymen the best way they could.

Like I said, more subtlety. It’s also not a stomach-churning torture-fest, for which we are grateful.

You will find the series on Hulu, if you’re interested. Subtitled.

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Okay, have I got an app for you. Avenza Maps. It’s like having a real GPS in your phone. You download maps to it, and from then on you don’t need an internet connection. It knows where you are.

Scads of the maps are free, as is the basic version of the app itself. If you can’t find a free one for the area you are going to, you can buy commercial versions, including those great National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps, to download.

Then you look on the map for a blue dot. When you move, the dot moves, and it keeps continuous track of where you are. Ot, at least where your phone is.

It’s a hoot! Friday Robin and I went hiking in new territory, and used a NatGeo map to find the trailhead and then to track our journey. Periodically I would check the map, especially at unmarked crossings, and we wandered valleys and hills and forests in terra incognita on the Uncompahgre Plateau for three hours and ended up exactly where we were supposed to be.

At the end our screen looked like the pic above, with the orange line showing our path.

If you are interested, read more at http://www.avenzamaps.com. It’s available for Android and iOS.

[I received no commission for this blurb. I tried, but had no success.]

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I am indebted to brother Bill for the link to this song. It is said to be John Prine’s last recording. Poet with guitar. Beautiful.

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Never Have I Ever …

We finished up the first season of Never Have I Ever, on Netflix, and get this – there were no bad people on the screen in this series. Not one. The parents weren’t unbelievably stupid and the teenagers weren’t unbearably smart. There were minority characters galore, but nobody made fun of them or resorted to stereotypes.

Sexuality is a big topic in this show. The main characters are adolescents, after all. But no one is exploiting or abusing anyone else. So is it a too-nice universe? Not to Robin and me. This is a light-hearted comedy, yet one that touches on many serious topics, including the death of a parent, expectations of mothers vs. those of daughters, coming out as gay, the confusion of being an adolescent, cross-cultural rough spots, et al.

It never preached at us, grossed us out, made us depressed, or patronized us. Pretty darn good for 2020.

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So far using Zoom has been refreshingly free from melodrama. Until Tuesday, that is. The service underwent a major update a couple of days ago, and friends Bill, Sid, and I bumped up against some significant confusion in our third shot at videoconferencing.

We finally gave it up for the day after a trying 45 minutes, and went back to our drawing boards to prepare for a future session. Too bad we didn’t have a video recording of what went on, it was a classic demonstration of three senior amigos doing their best to pry open the doors of the electronic age one more crack. And finding this face peering back at us.

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When I saw this photo on the CNN website this morning, I immediately knew I was going to steal it. It’s a full frontal of a cassowary. You know, that large flightless bird with the enormous claws on its feet? That highly dangerous feathered friend? The article went on to discuss interesting things about its feather structure, but it was the picture that nailed me.

It’s a mad, mad, mad gaze if there ever was one. Merciless. If you could choose what the last thing you’d ever see in this life would be, what image to carry with you into eternity, I doubt many would pick the cassowary’s face.

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I’m so confused. Somewhere in my past I received the instruction that one should place two spaces after a period and before the next sentence. My right thumb does that automatically. Double tap.

A few months ago I read an article that discussed the origins of that practice and its uselessness in modern writing. I ignored it, and kept on with what I’d always done. Double tap.

But now no less an expert on things typographic than Microsoft has decreed that if I do it while using their product, it will be flagged as an error. One space is all that any self-respecting writer should need, and there’s no need to continue with this nonsense, says the software giant. You must follow their lead if you want to avoid that squiggly correction line appearing on your page.

Regard the above three paragraphs. I’ve used two spaces on the first two, and a single space on the third. Which looks best?

I’m was going to stick with two. Squiggly lines be damned. A guy can only be pushed so far before a stand must be taken. Besides, we Macintosh people have always known that Microsoft was The Evil Empire, and instinctually avoid them whenever possible.

But then I ran across this graphic, strongly suggesting that I was not only wrong, but that I was a cliché.

I wonder if the rest of my day can be salvaged? Quite a setback, this is.

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Out, Out, Damned Cartel

This was our nighttime sky on Tuesday evening, supermoon and all.

[The photo was stolen outright from the Montrose Daily News electronic edition]

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John Prine passed away on Tuesday, of complications from coronavirus infection. He’d beaten cancer a couple of times, but this little twisted bit of ribonucleic acid did him in. He’s written many excellent songs, but my favorite is Angel From Montgomery, which you can listen to here.

Vale, Mr. Prine.

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We finished the third season of Ozark last night. It’s basically your everyday Shakespearean tragedy grinding along toward disaster, and last evening’s episode took some long steps toward that conclusion.

Jason Bateman has done a great job playing an unflappable man who might be better off flapping once in a while. His wife, played by the excellent Laura Linney, does her Lady Macbeth thing, being able to switch from an expression of deepest horror to a reassuring smile and honeyed voice in less than a single out-breath.

The rest of the cast is very good, but I do have a small suggestion for the guy who plays the head of a Mexican cartel – take the melodrama down from 10 to about seven. I think it will work better for the character. If you want to see what I mean, watch a few episodes of Narcos – Mexico on Netflix. Menace is more interesting than rage.

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Beans and rice tonight for supper. When I saw this whole Covid-19 drama unfolding back in January, I didn’t really start to hoard (being a classy person, I am incapable of doing tawdry stuff like that) but did buy enough dried food, including pinto beans and rice, to last a week or two. At the time all the grocer’s shelves were full, hugging had not become the don’t even think about it! thing that it would, and toilet paper never came into a conversation.

Most of those dried provisions are still on the shelf in the garage, and I figured we’d better get going on reducing the pile. Ergo today’s (and many tomorrows’) menu.

I think I shared this recipe for pinto beans back a few months ago, when our Instant Pot was still new and we were wondering what to do with it. It’s still a winner.

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There are a few fruit trees blossoming here in Paradise. Many of them are apricots, a popular planting hereabouts. We’ve thought about putting one in our front yard, but there is one thing holding me back. Such a tree, if successful, will always produce more apricots than a person could ever eat, and somebody has to pick up the hundreds that fall to the ground.

You can walk barefoot on the apple seeds from last year, but not apricot pits. Far too sharp and pointy, they are.

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Well, just when I thought things in the Executive Branch couldn’t get any dumber, they did. I know the words “perfect storm” have been greatly overused since that movie of a few years ago, but there is now a perfect storm of quasi-medical horseapples rolling down the streets of Washington D.C., which if we don’t watch out could engulf us. Or at the very least get all over our shoes.

The reason … President Cluck and Doctor Oz are presently on the same collaborative page, advising people to go out and treat the Covid-19 (that they may or may not have) with drugs never tested against the disease.

You all remember Dr. Oz, don’t you? He’s the former surgeon who long ago left medicine, his integrity, and what wisps of common sense he was born with behind and became a full-time shill for diet crazes and a hundred varieties of snake oil.

You might say, hey, if someone’s dumb enough to take the advice of this pair of bozos, they deserve what’s coming to them. And you’d have a point. Perhaps we should look at it as a tool of evolution, where a handful of these easily-led citizens remove themselves from the gene pool by following the advice of such popinjays.

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The header photo is of Robin paddling up Pagami Creek, in the Boundary Waters wilderness area of Minnesota. Two months later what you are looking at in this picture was engulfed in fire, one of the biggest the BW has ever experienced.

This all happened nine years ago, so time and the inexorable forces of life have done much to repair the damage that a lightning strike caused. Pagami Creek is green again, although the new trees are smaller, and are mixed in with the blackened reminders of 2011.

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BS

Well, Mr. Sanders is a tough old bird, for certain. Not even having a heart attack during the campaign can make him take time off. He obviously desperately wants to be president – enough to gamble with his life.

Now, we need to re-emphasize the obvious here, and that is that no normal person wants to be POTUS. Period. End of story.

We, the people, can hope that the particular pathology of the one that gets the job doesn’t sink us altogether. The present holder of that office is currently involved in some serious foundering of the ship of state, so his time is up by any reasonable standard (mine, of course, being the most reasonable of all).

But Bernie? Can he lead? Who will follow? I remember too well when a charismatic and decent man with a fervent (and younger) following was nominated by the Democrats and went on to one of the worst electoral defeats in modern political history.

I couldn’t have been more thrilled on the night when George McGovern was nominated, nor more saddened at the magnitude of his loss the following November. And that loss was at the hands of a crook. So you’ll have to excuse me if I dither a bit about Bernie.

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Dear Ragnar: So, Ragnar, how does the American political landscape look to you today?

Ragnar: It’s fun to watch, but then I don’t have to live there.

Dear Ragnar: What do you mean?

Ragnar: Well, you’ve got this tangerine guy in charge who is just begging for someone with a strong right arm and a broadaxe …

Dear Ragnar: Better stop right there, Ragnar.

Ragnar: Okay, then. But then there is this other guy with the unfortunate initials, BS, who is running for the wrong job.

Dear Ragnar: Explain, please.

Ragnar: Let’s say we were picking a crew to get on the boat for a raid on England, one of my all-time favorite countries to attack.

Dear Ragnar: Go on.

Ragnar: Now who would I want to lead the charge once we hit land in Britain? I would want the fieriest member of the crew, the one with blood in his eye … and that’s BS.

Dear Ragnar: I’m beginning to see where this is going

Ragnar: So take this superheated guy and give him a sword and three cans of Jolt and turn him loose! Then you’d be playing to his strengths. But … and this is a big one … don’t let him do the planning.

Dear Ragnar: Yes, and why not?

Ragnar: Because when the chips are really down, the rest of the crew wants a cooler head to run the show. They’re all in the boat together, and as much fun as a good battle can be, eventually they’d like to get back to home and hearth and a flagon or two.

Dear Ragnar: So, Ragnar, in your estimation, who is that cooler head for the Democrats this time around?

Ragnar: Everybody else.

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These next two pics are for my brother Bill, who has fond memories of driving his pickup camper up Camp Bird Road to this famous rock overhang.

Spooked on the way up. Spooked on the way back down.

This past month a large chunk of that overhang fell off, and local jeepsters are lamenting its loss.

So unfortunately for Bill, it won’t be there for him to drive under when he returns to Camp Bird Road.

You were coming back, eh, Bill?

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Took in the Sunday matinee and saw “The Call of the Wild.” We enjoyed it. It is remarkable for having a Harrison Ford that is completely CGI’d, and a wonderful canine actor as well.

Wait a second, Robin is signaling me …

What? Huh? Nooo, really?

Well, dang. Apparently I had it all wrong, and it is the dog that is CGI’d and not Harrison.* Coulda fooled me.

I suspect that Jack London might have a quibble or two with the storyline of this latest adaptation of his famous novel, but no matter. No one has heard from Jack lately. It’s like he just disappeared.

*(I dunno. Robin’s usually right, but look at the photo. Who looks most like they are computer-generated, to you?)

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First They Came For The Socialists …

Robin and I had to do it. We forked over $3.99 to Amazon and watched the 2019 Oscar winner for best movie – Parasite.

It was totally worth the slightly less than four bucks, even though it was in the Korean language, and at the end of the film our eyes suffered from that flicking-up-and-down fatigue that goes with spending two hours in subtitle territory.

Yes, folks, the Oscar-winning best film of 2019 contained no examples of God’s language, not a single syllable. There wasn’t even any Coca-Cola product placement. And all of the actors were foreigners. And the cinematographer was a foreigner. And the director needed an interpreter at the ceremonies in order to thank people for his award.

Why in the world did we ever fight the Revolutionary War in the first place if not to get away from all that foreign influence and be able to do our own thing? We might as well still be talking British, for God’s sake!

But all of this booshwa aside, it was a very good movie, and you might even like it. We did. But be prepared for dark.

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These are trying political times, not just for those who are flaming liberals like myself, but for Americans of all political stripes and persuasions. Because the gang in power right now has forgotten what it means to be a democracy, and cares only to hang on to and increase their power with any tool at hand.

The people who support our immoral and unbalanced president think that their MAGA caps will save them if and when his goons come calling.  But the truth is that he is a friend to none of us.

I think the the story of Martin Niemoller reveals some parallels with our present situation. Niemoller was a U-Boat commander in World War I. When the Third Reich rolled around, he thought it was a good thing for Germany and was an early Nazi advocate. The growing anti-Semitic activity didn’t bother him much, either, because he really didn’t like Jews.

But as the Third Reich became increasingly savage, he began to see things in quite a different light, eventually becoming a Lutheran pastor and undergoing a complete change of heart. After the war he crafted a poem of great strength, which many of us have memorized.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemoller

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Coronavirus has landed in the USA, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s only a matter of time until it gets to Paradise. But Robin and I are making preparations that we are confident will carry us through.

For instance, now that primate experimentation is largely a thing of the past, there are lots of these old space suits lying around in NASA storerooms just collecting dust.

We purchased two of them, and although some alterations were necessary because our knuckles didn’t drag on the floor, and they do ride up in the crotch a bit, in general we are happy with them. We especially like the banana holster.

We’ve also rented a storage shed and laid in a modest supply of pinto beans that we believe will make trips to the grocery store unnecessary until the local epidemic has passed us by.

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As you can see, we’ve thought this through pretty well, including making these alterations to our home. But you know, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

Might I suggest that you call before you come over, just to be safe. And please have your hands well above your head as you come up the walk.

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Each year I bring up Valentine’s Day, the national 24 hours set aside for tender and romantic feelings, and then say something smartass about the history of St. Valentine himself.

I’ve decided that this is really beneath me, and will not repeat my tawdry and childish performances of the past.

I will only mention that this is the man’s skull, which is on display in a church in Rome. Only the head is displayed, which may have something to do with the manner of his departing from this vale of sorrows.

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It’s a fact that it’s generally painless to become a saint in modern times, but back in Valentine’s day it usually involved many tribulations followed by a fairly violent demise. Valentine lost his head, not over some maiden of the time, but quite literally.

Interesting that while the man is associated with romance he is also the patron saint of epilepsy. Both states involve temporary loss of control of body and mind. The major difference is that there are medications to help with epilepsy, while no one knows quite what to do with the man in love.

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