Hey, Listen To What I Say … Not What I Said

Joe Biden has been around American politics a long, long time. He is famous for making gaffes, sometimes talks like he’s eating a peanut butter sandwich at the same time, and no one has ever (to my knowledge) referred to him as an intellectual or a scholar. But the other day when he declared that Putin must not remain in power … I understood him clearly. No matter what disclaimers are coming out of Washington DC trying to explain those words away. He now says “I didn’t mean regime change, folks, really I didn’t.” I don’t buy it.

Of course my own understanding is that of a know-nothing yahoo from the prairies without a political credential to his name. And of course world leaders don’t want anyone suggesting that forcibly removing world leaders from office is a good habit to develop. But when Biden said For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power, I heard – take him out. Period.

There were moments in history when disagreements between tribes were settled by having the leader of each group square off in combat. If your guy won, that was a great day, but even if he lost … at least both villages were still standing and there was always hope for a better result down the road.

The evolution of warfare that we see on display in Ukraine finds instead the Russian armies destroying cities, non-combatants, and children. It’s not new, just the latest iteration of the horror that is war. All this to achieve goals that are not completely obvious to those of us in the yokel-universe. Reverting to having one-on-one combat would be so much better than this.

Perhaps Russia would put up Putin as their champion, perhaps not, but I definitely wouldn’t use President Joe to carry our colors. Why, the man’s almost as old as I am! And I wouldn’t suggest having any warrior that superannuated defending anyone’s honor or any country’s borders. Nope. Who I would want as our champion would be someone who was strong, unscrupulous, dumb as a bunch of rocks, and who could hold only one thought at a time in their head and that was winning the duel.

I would send Marjorie Taylor-Greene. If she won we could give her a pat on the back, a medal, a pension, and send her back to to where she came from. A win.

If she lost, at least we wouldn’t have to deal with her particular brand of idiocy any longer. A win.

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We didn’t watch the Oscar ceremonies this year. Our television usage is strictly streaming and non-cable, and all of the choices available to us involved signing up for a free introductory week on some service and then dropping out later in the week. It’s legitimate but a tiresome dodge.

Last year I tried to do this end-around with Hulu Plus but their computer found me out and I received the message “Hey, you did this last year and what good did it do us? So get on out of here, you deadbeat. No more free lunches at this bar.”

I read, though, that I missed something a bit out of the ordinary Sunday night, when Will Smith punched Chris Rock onstage. Usually the attacks in situations like this are verbal ones, small daggers slipped so deftly between the ribs that hours might pass before you even knew you were dead. To have a direct physical confrontation so publicly … .

Rock may have made a thoughtless joke at Smith’s wife’s expense (after all, he makes his living as a smart-ass) but Will Smith … for cripes sakeuse your words! And aren’t we past the time when powerful women need men to protect them from comedians at the Oscars? Jada Pinkett Smith is smart, not socially inhibited, and could have spoken up very well for herself.

It was a thug move on Smith’s part.

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Parker Palmer is an educator, lecturer, activist, author of several books, and a Quaker. Every once in a while I will come across a snippet taken from one of his books, or a short video on YouTube and I think “That is one thoughtful man, I should get busy and learn more about what he has to say.”

And then I am distracted, forget all about him, and go on with life in the maelstrom.

So I have no idea why I picked up his book A Hidden Wholeness this morning and started in reading it. In fact, I had no idea we owned the darn thing in the first place. But I ran into these paragraphs right there in the preface and I was hooked.

This seems such a great analogy, to me. The deadly confusion of a blizzard. The sometimes fatal consequences of being lost in one. I will admit to letting go of the rope at moments in my life, and to not always doing proper maintenance on those good old moral bearings.

This time … I will read Palmer’s book. Maybe there’s more good stuff on the inside. But, you know, at least I’ve read the preface.

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I have joined the Carhartt Universe. In fourscore plus years I have not owned so much as a bandanna manufactured by this venerable manufacturer of clothing for working men and women. Oh there were reasons … everything was this red dirt color, was constructed of the same material that they make heavy duty tarps with, and when wet the garments weighed enough to cause profusions of hernias to bloom.

Then there was always the potential for ridicule by people who actually worked with their hands and who might murmur “Impostor” under their breath as I walked by.

But Carhartt has broadened their lineup of products quite a bit in recent years – more colors, more styles, more sizes. So when we were at Murdoch’s yesterday I took the plunge and bought a T-shirt. It is sturdy, seems durable, and there is not one red-dirt thread in it. One small step for man … .

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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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Places To Go And People To See

When the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh died this past January, he left behind a treasury of writings that touched on just about every aspect of living I can think of. I’ve read at least a dozen of his books, perhaps more, and his gentle and rational voice came through clearly each time. He had the gift of being able to explain the application of Buddhist teachings to our lives in words that were straightforward and uncomplicated without ever being patronizing or proselytizing.

Robin recently gifted me with his latest book, entitled Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. It is different from the others I have read in two respects. The first is that each of his short chapters is followed by excellent commentary by a Buddhist nun, Sister True Dedication. The second is that he writes as someone who knows how little time remains to him, and wants to leave yet something more for those of us who are still floundering about on the surface of Earth. As a dying father who has his children gathered around him and wishes more than anything that he could do more, could have done more, to ease the suffering of those he loved.

Thay, for that is what his friends called him, was a man who never lost hope for us, for our species. He knew that the answers to the wholesale suffering and chaos that we call daily life were already here, in front of us and inside of us. That life need not be as difficult as we make it. That respect, compassion, and love were the tools needed and that we all possessed them. And that is crucial, I think. He never said Come buy another of my books, absorb what I have to tell you, and all will be well.

What he repeated over and over is You know that person of value, of peacefulness, that the planet needs to survive? It’s you and you don’t have to go anywhere and listen to anyone in particular to become that person. You already are. What is needed is that you learn how you can step out of the stream of confusion you are now walking in and gather your wits. What I offer you free of charge is a method that has worked for millions of people and it won’t cost you a dime.

That is the message he repeats in this last book. That each of us already has the tools we need. They are part of our true natures. What Thay offers us is essentially an owner’s manual for our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and lastly for our conduct here in our home on planet Earth.

Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If in our heart we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions, we cannot be free.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Life of Illusion, by Joe Walsh

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I was listening to NPR the other day, and a senior New Yorker cartoonist was being interviewed after a long and successful career. He recounted how when he started out he had submitted dozens of examples of his work to the magazine over and over without a single acceptance. What had to happen was that the magazine’s cartoon editor had to die, which he eventually did, and almost overnight his replacement began publishing this man’s work.

One of those many stories that come to me as revelations, when they really shouldn’t have. Give someone a bit of power and they will by god use it wherever they can, whether ’tis for ill or good.

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From The New Yorker

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Monday promises to be a drizzly day. It’s three a.m. and the decks are awash already. We’re planning a few days getaway in early April, and just found out that our cat sitter for the past eight years was not available, of all things. As if she had a right to a life of her own. So Sunday morning I met with our new sitter, who I will call Howard, since that is his name. He will fill in if our regular person ever again selfishly insists on her freedom.

Howard is a retired real estate broker, and seems to be a very nice guy, indeed. He is quite a talker, being one of those people where everything reminds him of a story, which he will then relate in detail. (I recognize the type immediately because I am one of them) When all an individual really wants to do is say Good Morning and then pass by, dealing with such a person is like being snagged by a gentle but insistent octopus who will only release you when they are finished with you.

So Howard and I chatted for an hour when all that was required was five minutes mutual consultation. I enjoyed it, however, because his tales were interesting and his sincere interest in animal welfare came through. He is a member of a local organization that raises money for the neutering of domestic animals, principally dogs and cats. He suggested that we watch for a special fund-raiser coming up when one of our better local restaurants offers a spay-ghetti dinner for one night, with a silent auction, etc. His advice was to buy our tickets early.

I might go if there isn’t a lot of spay-talk. Not the thing at dinner, you know. Just isn’t done.

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From The New Yorker

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I missed it completely. Sunday was the first day of Spring and I blew right past it. It’s the kind of thing where you can’t go home again, can’t step in the same river twice … you know the drill. It was Monday morning when I realized that it was too late for this year and I’d have to wait till 2023 and try to do better. Mother Nature puts out this stuff and doesn’t care if I keep up or not. I like her attitude, really, except when I am the laggardly one.

When you walk around Paradise, you can see the trees trying to contain themselves and not bud out prematurely. Do that if you’re a tree and then one really cold day comes along and freezes your blossoms off. There you are, damaged and with reduced hopes for the year. It’s a case where the sexual part of the tree blunders off into escapades when the wiser, older part knows better but can’t hold the process back.

Just like people. All of that life experience and knowledge gathered by parts above the waist can be undone in a fevered twinkling by parts below the waist on a Saturday night in a borrowed Buick. A couple of hours later when control has been returned to the brain, there is little it can do but wait and hope for the best.

It’s a rough system, isn’t it? When the biologic plan for making more humans takes over and sensible thinking is put on hold. I can see why Momma Nature would do that, because if we had time to think things through to their conclusions and weigh consequences pro and con there might be fewer takers. And Nature doesn’t want fewer, not at all. It’s always more with that girl.

Here’s how it might go if common sense and real planning were the order of the day.

It’s Saturday night and she is right here in the car with me and she smells wonderful and her eyes are sparkling and … uh, oh I can feel stirrings. Better get my head straight while I still can. I’ve got college to finish and mountains to climb and traveling to be done and I would very much like to trade the old VW in for a new Miata. So let’s take her home early and maybe we can meet again one day for coffee. In the daytime. In public.

Or it could go like it often does in real life.

It’s Saturday night and she is right here in the car with me and she smells wonderful and her eyes are sparkling and what was that baloney Father O’Reilly was spouting about purity and chastity anyway and I wonder if she is feeling the same about me and … wait, here she is snuggling in closer and oh lord where are my hands going and ………………………………………………….. ………………….. whew, what was that? This is one of those times when I wish that I smoked.

Paradise by the Dashboard Light, by Meatloaf

When I was a teenager and clueless about all this I had a friend who was notorious among us for having (gulp) had sex with several girls while the rest of us were still thinking about it as we would about a trip to Mars. He was a good Catholic boy and told his story like this:

“There I was with all sorts of thoughts about how good those girls looked and wondering what they looked like naked and what it might be like to sleep with them. Every Saturday evening I would go to confession and relate these mental wanderings to the priest and one day I asked him:”

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Father, I am sorry to keep confessing the same old stuff week after week. But thinking about having sex is always a sin, right?

Yes, my son, it is.

But it’s much worse to actually do it, isn’t it?

No, my son, thinking bad thoughts is the same as acting on them.

Say again?

It is just as much a sin to think about having sex with a girl as it is to actually lie with her.

……………… Father, could we hurry this up a bit and you give me my penance and all? It’s still early on a Saturday night and since I already know that I can’t stop thinking about it … well, I’ve got places to go and people to see.

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Do You Feel A Draft?

After a mostly lah-dee-dah winter, Mother Nature has finally got her thing going now in late February and early March by tossing a bunch of ice and snow at us here in Paradise. It’s not nearly as cold as in Minnesota nor is there nearly as much snow, but hey … enough to count! Last Friday Robin traveled to Durango for their film festival and her original plan was to return on Sunday afternoon. Heavy snowfalls, visibility worries, and icy roads delayed her return so when Monday rolled around she decided that she was going home no matter what.

There are two ways to get to Durango from Montrose. The shortest is across the god-forsaken Million Dollar Highway (three mountain passes to cross) and the longer one through Dolores (one pass to navigate). No one in their right minds chooses the shorter trip when there is ice involved, so Robin wisely chose the safer route home. It’s one that usually takes three hours but took six on that Monday.

<the god-forsaken Million Dollar Highway

Waiting for her to return that day involved much chewing of claws and fingernails (the cats and I) while waiting for text messages at various points along her way, sent whenever she stopped for rests and had cellular service.

Robin and I have very different views on doing this grandparent thing. For instance, hers is that if either of the (undeniably talented) grandkids are in a play she will assume that she will go to see it, no matter what. Blizzards, erupting volcanoes, tsunamis, plagues of locusts and frogs … nothing stands in her way when planning those trips.

My own view is that if it is a sunny day with a zero percent chance of precipitation I might consider it. I have no wish for my tombstone to read: He’d still be alive if it hadn’t been for SpongeBob Squarepants,The Musical.

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From The New Yorker

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From the age of five or six years forward, I was taught that the Russians were the bad guys. Oh, sure, it was officially the Communists, but everybody at Warrington Elementary knew that Communists = Russians so there you were. We were given drills to run where we got under our desks just in case someone decided to drop an atomic bomb on South Minneapolis. Those sturdy desks seemed just the thing to be under to a six year-old, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima that I thought … wait a minute … what good … ?

There were drills for adults, too, where parents were encouraged to dig holes in the backyards to build bomb shelters whose walls were lined with canned goods just in case … . The Russians, again. In TV show after TV show, the villains had thick accents and wore bad suits and their names all ended in -sky so you would know where they came from even though their origins might not be identified.

And then Nikita Khrushchev came to the United Nations and banged his shoe on the desktop, showing what ill-tempered bullies those Commies were. Next, when we learned that Fidel Castro was a Communist and he was helping the bad guys install some missiles so close to Florida you could almost throw them in, it was a shock. Those Russkies were knocking on our door, so we had to get out there in the back yard and start digging again, we were told. Fortunately for us, President John F. Kennedy, fresh from a successful invasion of Cuba, knew just what to do. Somehow it worked, and we all went back to playing Yahtzee and horseshoes once again, rather than continue digging.

Always there was this vague thing called the Cold War, which few of us completely understood, but it involved being fried to something like chicharrones by nuclear weapons. And who were the culprits? Why, it was our good old constant nemeses, the Russians. So when the USSR fell apart, and all those smaller countries whose location we hadn’t a clue about pulled out of the federation, well, all of us were happy as clams. And just to show there were no hard feelings, we started to get serious about our vodka drinking, eventually inventing all sorts of new flavors to make it even more swell. This, along with the fiction that if you drank vodka no one could smell it on your breath, caused that beverage’s fortunes to soar. It looked like the Russians were on their way to becoming our BFFs.

But that didn’t happen and here we are again. An aging Cold Warrior has decided to inflict more pain and disruption on the world by invading a neighbor. We are told that the Russian media are only telling their public an official line blaming Ukrainian nasties who are being encouraged by worse nasties in The West. For our part, we are being told that Russians are deliberately shelling schools and children’s hospitals and committing atrocities right and left.

Our version seems closer to reality, but being the codger that I am, I try to keep in mind a saying that should be embroidered on every sofa pillow wherever there are sofas in the world: The first casualty in wartime is the truth.

The Russian leaders are being called merciless all over again, and deserve that appellation. It’s sort of strangely reassuring to have them as the heavies once again. But, my friends, when was the last merciful war?

Any war is one bad day after another for all but the guys in the suits who start them. Period.

So, I don’t know about you, but I bought a brand new shovel yesterday at Ace Hardware, and later today I will start digging out in the yard. Eventually my shelter will be well-stocked with canned beans, SPAM and Twinkies (the shelf life of a Twinkie being longer than the lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise). The only thing missing will be a proper desk to get under. Those old-time cast iron and wood beauties are awfully hard to come by.

Wooden Ships, by Crosby Stills Nash & Young

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From The New Yorker

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Prayer flags in the back yard breezes on Thursday

Tibetan prayer flags are rich in symbolic meaning. The practice of stringing them in outdoor areas has spread rapidly in the U.S.. The symbols and mantras on the flags are meant to broadcast blessings to the surrounding countryside. The slightest movement of the wind carries the prayers far and wide, he said, spreading Buddhist teachings on peace and compassion.

The flags are primarily for the benefit of the world, not for the individual who hangs them. It is believed that the sacred texts and symbols printed on them have a vibration that is activated and carried by the wind, so that all who are touched by that wind are blessed.The flags have been described as “blessings spoken on the breath of nature.” Just as a drop of water can permeate the ocean, prayers dissolved in the wind extend to fill all of space.

The five colors of the flags are symbolic as well. They are always displayed in the same order and each represents a different element: blue for heaven, white for air, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth.

The Meaning of Tibetan Prayer Flags: Spiritual Travels.info

We have had strings of these flags flying for a couple of decades now. As each one wears out it is replaced. Even if you don’t believe that everything happens exactly as the legends state, the thoughts behind their display are gentle and positive ones, and the flags themselves are beautiful as they flutter in the slightest movement of air.

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Lastly, I must relate a tale that even now I can scarce credit, even though I was present at the event.

Robin and I were having friends over for supper on Saturday evening. All had gone well and it was so much fun to begin putting the last two years of constant Covid worry aside for an evening. The food turned out well enough to please us all, our conversations picked up right where we had left them off in 2020, and we began catching up on one another’s lives. All in all … it was grand.

And then Robin asked if anyone wanted to play a game. That was a large mistake, it turned out. The second error came right after the first as we all agreed to do it. The game selected was Clue, an old stalwart. All of us knew the game, were familiar with the rules, and were eager to get started.

What I now will tell you will not mean much to anyone who has not played this game, but I will try to set the stage. It starts with someone being murdered, and each of us then tries to guess who the culprit was, what weapon they used, and in what room of the mansion that the dastardly deed occurred. There are six possible villains, six possible weapons, and nine possible rooms.

Through successive rounds of questioning one another, a player discards one possibility after another until they think they know the answer and then they make an accusation which takes the form: “It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the noose.” They then take the answer cards from an envelope and see if they were correct.

One by one we made our accusations until all four of us had done our best and … I still can’t believe it … none of us got it right! That had never happened to us before. We never heard of it happening to anybody else, either. Keep in mind that these were four people who had once held down responsible jobs. Were college graduates. Could still balance their checkbooks and were able to get dressed in the morning without assistance.

Shame gripped our foursome as the enormity of what had happened seeped in. Without actually asking for a pledge, we silently hoped that the secret would never leave that room. That hope was in vain, of course, because it wasn’t long before I knew that I would soon be blabbing it all over the world.

Really, why bother to have a blog if you can’t violate a confidence once in a while?

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Tumult

Some 36 years ago I was let go from a position as husband, and for several years I found myself with quite a bit of free time on my hands. I spent some of it in non-constructive pursuits that don’t need discussion in these pages, but one good idea that I had was to learn how to improve my cooking skills. My first action, and you might have predicted this, was to go out and buy a complete new set of pots and pans. Nothing too exotic, just sturdy Revere Ware which is still going strong. I also purchased a handful of recipe books to replace those that my former employer had taken with her when she departed, and away I went.

(In the past I might have mentioned here some of my kitchen misadventures where the cherry pie never set up, the pineapple upside-down cake refused to be turned over, and the unleavened bread never rose even though I followed Moses’ original recipe to the letter.)

With these failures solidly behind me, I decided to branch out into Asian cooking, and made a trip to Sioux City IA, where there was a good-sized Asian food market. In that store I walked past a thousand eyes in the freezer windows, eyes of various fishes who were all regretting the carelessness that brought them to a cooler in Sioux City, I am sure. I picked up two excellent meat cleavers for a song, and on one shelf I found large bottles of something called “fish sauce.” Those two words were the only ones on the label that were not in Chinese, but hey, this was an adventure so why not try it? I grabbed a bottle and headed for the checkout.

The woman running the cash register was Asian, tiny, and spoke halting English. She picked up the tall bottle (of whatever fish sauce was – I had no clue) and began to interrogate me.

You sure want this?

Why, yes, I do.

Is very strong … very strong! You still want?

More than you can imagine, my good woman.

You sure? Can’t bring back.

Why, dear lady, would I ever want to return it? I feel my kitchen fortunes are about to change, and it is this murky substance that is going to be the catalyst. So ring it up if you please, hand me my cleavers, and I’ll be off.

When I returned home it turned out that I could not find a single recipe that called for fish sauce as an ingredient in any book that I had on hand, so I began adding it willy-nilly in what turned out to be unwise quantities to a few dishes, all of which had to be discarded as inedible. The smell of the brown liquid was pungent enough to revive the dead and the taste could be described as a product born of the union of a bottle of soy sauce and a rag taken from the floor of an auto service bay.

I eventually tossed it out as a bad investment, and didn’t look back.

Flash-forward 33 years, and I am looking for a recipe for green chili sauce to make at home. The local bottled varieties had been disappointing so far, and I had as my lodestar the memory of a wonderful such sauce that I was served on a hamburger in a Montrosian restaurant which had unfortunately gone bottoms up. I found a recipe on the web, cooked it, loved it, and it is now one of my go-to condiments. And if you look carefully at the recipe it calls for a spoonful or two of asian fish sauce as an ingredient.

Today I find that I add fish sauce to many dishes, but in more conservative amounts than on my first go-round. It is a bracing addition to soups and stews and stir-fries, especially. The genie in this bottle swings an interesting umami bat at the plate. Yesterday I brewed up a big pot of minestrone that was anemic in character until I added just one teaspoonful of Red Boat to the cauldron. That made an amazing difference.

I also did some shopping around to get the good stuff, and have settled on this particular brand which is not sold here in Paradise, but is easily available on the web. It does not have that decidedly nasty taste that my previous bottle from at the market in Sioux City did. Red Boat is not inexpensive, but that first bottle lasted me three years.

What is fish sauce, actually? Don’t ask.

(Awright, if you insist – it consists of salted and fermented anchovies … I told you not to ask.)

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While we are on the topics of divorce and fish sauce, I will tell you that I didn’t care for the experience much. Divorce, that is. In my case, I could only describe it as what I imagine having open-chest surgery without anesthesia might be like. There is a verse in Paul Simon’s song Graceland that fits well.

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow.”

Those last lines … everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow … I so remember that feeling. Of being rootless and directionless as dandelion fluff on the wind.

Back then I coped by going to work, listening to a lot of music, sampling many fermented or distilled beverages, and writing poetry (some not bad, some not so hot). I walled myself up in my home/castle, and was considering having a moat dug around it when Robin burst through my door on a Sunday morning with donuts in her hand and a sparkle in her beautiful blue eyes. She offered to rehire me without the need for references and that, my friends, was the start of a whole ‘nother story, which has been nearly thirty years in the telling and is not done yet.

Graceland, by Paul Simon

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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As my first marriage was coming apart in all of its seams, I sought guidance in the office of a counselor, a woman whose advice was a godsend for me at the time. She had an ability to cut through my verbiage and get to the heart of any number of posers that I tossed her way. One day, when I had said something particularly egregious, she cut me off, drew herself up, and said in the sternest of voices: “Jon, I want you to think of what I am about to say as coming directly from God! Don’t do that!

I had no way of knowing it, but at that time there was another poor dumpee (in divorce-land you are either a dumper or a dumpee) being gently led through this same particularly confusing forest by the same guide. Time went by and one day my counselor told me that she thought that this client and I might profit by talking with one another, since we shared many experiences and were close to the same age.

So without thinking much about it, I agreed to see him, phone numbers were exchanged, and that is how I met the guy who was to become my BFF. A the time we were two lost souls who had each been dumped by their former wives, wandering about the planet unmoored and mildly to moderately insane (at least I was). It turned out that sharing having been tossed onto a heap of marital rejects was a potent bonding agent, and together we explored the fringes of religion (bizarre), divorce support groups (scary), fast motorcycles (excellent!), and other things too numerous to recount. Out of this randomly assembled and slow-cooked stew came healing for both of us.

Looking back, I always wondered if perhaps my counselor had reached the point where she dreaded listening to my endless whining and tales of woe, and to escape from this fresh hell tried to steer me elsewhere, hoping that I might not find my way back to her office. Whether that was her plan or not, it is what happened and I couldn’t be more grateful that she succeeded.

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Bravo to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell for telling Spotify adios as their protest against that music service doing nothing about the misinformation being promulgated by a fellow named Joe Rogan on his Spotify podcasts. We are surrounded by untruths being broadcast every minute of every day with most of it being fairly harmless claptrap. But when the public health is at risk we have now entered one of those shouting fire in a crowded theater arenas, and there is a need to find ways of holding guilty feet to the fire when their lies contribute to unnecessary suffering.

The first amendment to our Constitution is a grand thing, one of the stars in our national crown. So let the Rogans of the world spout their distortions hoping to profit from it, then let them find out that that same amendment doesn’t say anything about possible consequences. Tell enough falsehoods and you may suffer for it. This is as true for millionaire performers as it is for you and I.

We live in hard and uncertain times … there is a need to call out and walk away from those who attempt to make them more difficult or dangerous than they already are.

Hard Times by Ian Siegal

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Good News Department

Robin has finished her long stretch of physical therapy appointments and graduated summa cum patella. She still has work to do but the Physical Therapy staff are confident that she can reach her goals from here on in by working at home with her personal trainer and nurse.**

Here is Robin on the day of graduation wearing her PT uniform. It consists of stockings that squeeze the bejesus out of one’s legs, a t-shirt that says “Ask me about joint replacement” on the back, and a pair of shorts made extra loose-fitting so that the therapist can do whatever they need to do without impediment.

** I have to say that no one on the staff asked the personal trainer/nurse if he felt up to the task. Nor did they ask Robin, who has her own set of misgivings about my skills. After all, you don’t hang around with a bumbler for thirty years without forming an opinion or two.

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If We Make It Through December …

I’ve left that song by Phoebe Bridgers up for another few days. It moves me each time and I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that it’s that the theme, of barely making it from month to month, was a recurrent one in my own childhood. “If we make it through December “… what a world of hurt and worry a phrase like that holds.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to play the poverty card here. I was never hungry, always clothed decently, always had a roof over my head. But the level of luxury in our family was often too thin to measure.

Dad was what sociologists of the time called an unskilled laborer. I checked this morning to see if there was some new euphemism that had replaced that unflattering term and found none, though I did come across these entries in a thesaurus which were interesting.

It wasn’t that the man didn’t have skills, it was that they weren’t marketable ones. He worked for most of his adult life at Archer-Daniels, a huge conglomerate, at one of their plants that processed linseed oil from flax. (A while back I purchased some linseed oil to do a bit of wood refinishing, and when I opened the tin I was instantly transported back to childhood, because that was what Dad’s work clothing always smelled like, and you know that the brain never forgets a scent.)

He had the kind of job you don’t hear much about any more, one with swing shifts. That meant that the plant never closed, that the 24 hours of any day was divided into three shifts, and you could be assigned to any of the three, in rotation. You might work days for a week, afternoons for another, nights for yet another. This sort of messing with the bodies’ wake/sleep cycles was not taken much into consideration back then. You never worked any shift for enough days in a row to ever become accustomed to the changes. Your body was expected to “handle it.”

Dad was a union man, a member of the United Mine Workers. Which was a part of the AFL/CIO. Which in the forties and fifties meant that periodically there would be a strike, and each strike was a severe family economic stressor. Usually Mom would take some job to fill in during these uncertain times. Sewing stuffed toys at home, selling custom-made foundation garments to overweight women, working in the sausage department at a meat-packing plant, etc. I honestly don’t recall if there was anything like “strike pay” back then, but if there was, it was miniscule at best.

So when my brother and I got our first bicycles one Christmas, they were used ones that Dad had reconditioned. There were homemade gifts in other years as well. But unlike in the song, there was never a year without a Christmas.

BTW, I hadn’t heard this tune before Ms. Bridgers brought it out, but I learned that her version is a cover of a Merle Haggard song. Just in case you’re interested, here is ol’ Merle doing his own thing.

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From The New Yorker

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An elderly gentleman like myself has had the opportunity to adjust to a passel of changes. Some of them represented progress, some absolutely didn’t, and there are some that I haven’t made up my mind about as yet. This category includes times when to adopt the new you had to give up something. Perhaps something that you liked or felt was important.

One item on this list is indoor plumbing. Being able to access drinking water safely and comfortably was a definite plus, and trading the privy for a set of well-designed porcelain fixtures seemed a no-brainer. But my spiritual life suffered because of indoor bathrooms. One of the first teachings of Buddhism is that there is suffering in life, and what we can do about it as travelers on this earth. This teaching used to be brought home on each visit to the outhouse in the wintertime. Several times each day I would be forcefully reminded – suffering exists.

Television is another item. What a resource it has been and continues to be as a doorway to learning and entertainment. The problem is that while that door is open quite a bit of swill washes in. Reference the entire Kardashian family saga, or the id-driven and air-headed Real Wives of various places, or one of the most unsavory of all, The Bachelor. Either they have had a negative effect on our collective intellect or they have revealed that our intellects weren’t so great in the first place. Lose-lose on this one.

A third example would be the plethora of appliances available that are designed to make life in the kitchen easier and more enjoyable, and they do all that until they don’t work. At that point you find that the manual for the appliance clearly states that “There are no user-serviceable parts.” That means either you mail it back to the company for repair or you throw it away. Typically a toaster that cost $39.95 initially will cost you $25.00 for postage to that service department plus another $35.00 for the repair. So economics dictates that you toss it out.

What you’ve lost is the feeling of accomplishment that came from getting out one’s tools and doing the repair. In the case of a toaster, for instance, after you tinkered with it you could hardly wait to test it out by loading it with a couple of slices of bread. You plugged it in and then had the chance to see a shower of sparks followed quickly by flames shooting out of the device as the innocent bread was converted to pure carbon. Those were the days.

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This year Robin and I have made the move to non-gifting one another. At least not a big deal gift. There will be “stocking stuffers,” of course, we are not Communists after all. We’re taking that money and making donations with it to favorite charities. Maybe some charities that we always wanted to help, but never got around to it.

We can do that because we really don’t need anything. There are lots of things we might want, but need … nope. We are roofed-over, fed, and clothed. We have luxuries, like this computer I am typing upon, but having a smaller home means you look carefully before adding to the pile of possessions already stacked there. Stuff in the garage or shed that you haven’t quite the heart to throw away yet, but that will remain warehoused until molds or insects take care of the problem.

If we decide to buy a new framed photograph or painting for our walls, for instance, something will have to go away to make room for it. A new shirt or sweater … same thing, because closet space is all taken up. If I ever start to feel sorry for myself, in that I would like to go back to bigger and better, I remind myself of a story told by a raconteur on the old (really old) Jack Paar television show. It went like this:

There was a holy man who lived in a small village and who lived so simply that he had only one treasured possession, a jar that he carried each morning to the village well to collect water for the day. The man was loved by all, so it was with horror that villagers saw him trip one morning and fall to the ground, shattering the water jar on the cobblestones.

As others moved to comfort the man, he raised his head from the ground and they were amazed to see the most blissful expression on his face. Seeing that their old friend was about to speak they crowded closer so as not to miss a single word. And this is what they heard him say:

“At last … I am free.”

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[I’ve told the above story before, I know, but this time I told it better.]

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A Very Merry Christmas to Everyone. May you and all those you love be happy and safe.

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Sweet, Sweet Jane

This one is for Lou Reed fans. The introduction to the vocal is several minutes long and is just outstanding. This album gets played often at my home address, and played as loudly as my equipment and neighbors will permit.

It almost goes without saying that the song Sweet Jane is about drugs. After all, this is Lou Reed we’re talking about. In this case the substance is heroin. You might miss that in the lyrics … I did for the longest time … but it’s there. Part of the problem is that the original and longer lyrics to the song were dropped from the most popular recorded versions. So I heard the sadness and longing and missed the rest.

But watch the video, check out the vintage hair and mustaches and clothes, and get in touch with your rock and roll side for a few minutes. You know you want to. That bass player … is he inscrutable or impassive or imperturbable or what?

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The last spate of elections are over, and the Democrats are exhibiting their typical Brownian Motion, running around bumping into one another trying to figure out why they did so poorly this time around. Nobody asked me if I knew the answer. So I will put it out there anyway. Let’s say a political party spends an entire year and can’t come up with the equivalent of a mission statement. Who squabble so much among themselves that they can’t get the things done that they need to do to hold our interest, much less retain our loyalty. Why should we vote for them except for the fact that they aren’t practicing Cluck-ism? That might have been enough in 2020, but it’s not holding up very well as a reason.

If there is such a thing as an average American, their lot hasn’t improved one iota in the last two or three decades, while our “leaders” are enriching themselves so fast the money changing hands never gets a chance to cool off but is always slightly warm to the touch. The one percenters are so bored that they are climbing onto the Musk/Bezos rockets like they were a new ride at Disney World. “Excuse me, Elon, but I’d like an aisle seat if you please, and did I miss the snacks being passed out … I love love your peanuts!”

Once upon a time there was a guy named Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, a singularly courageous Russian writer. He dashed off a bunch of books in his lifetime, eventually winning a Nobel Prize for his work. Among the titles were The Gulag Archipelago and One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. The books were very good and they were very anti-Communist, so when he was kicked out of the Soviet Union and came to America we all thought he might become our new BFF. But then he gave some speeches directed at us that were the literary equivalent of a swift kick in the pants with a hobnail boot. He thought we were weak, effete, and had lost our way in a maze and haze of materialism and secularism. Basically we were doomed unless we saw the light … and he didn’t think we would. Three of those speeches were gathered into a book called A Warning To The West, and some excellent excerpts are published on the Goodreads site. They are well worth reading, and I think their lessons are as applicable now as they were unwelcome news in the 70s.

What we needed then is what we still need now. Different flags to fly, different songs to sing – those that lift our spirits and bring us together in the common work that needs doing rather than focussing on our bottom line, which can only drive us apart.

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The music of Joni Mitchell’s Miles of Aisles album is doing its good work in my morning. That woman … what a talent … and what a fine double album this one is, recorded live in 1974. Music like this is never dated and sounds today as fresh as it did 47 years ago. The recording is clear and excellent as opposed to the mushy sound that live albums sometimes offer up. Here’s a photo of Joni and her backup band for the album, the L.A. Express.

It’s okay with me if you don’t rush out and buy this and listen to it just because I said you should. There is so much good stuff out there to listen to that it boggles the mind. As a matter of fact, I am having quite a bit of trouble getting unboggled this morning … perhaps the next cup of coffee should be intravenously administered rather than orally. I just wanted to let you know that this album was out there, in case you’d missed it the first time around.

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Grandson Dakota took his leave of us Thursday, on his way to the rest of his life. His car contained everything he owned, so off he went in a VW Jetta version of that famous truck in the movie, Grapes of Wrath. He is a fine young man and we are so glad we got the chance to know him better. ‘Twas a gift to us.

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As everybody knows, Paradise is located in Montrose County, Colorado. As of this morning our county is a Covid – 19 hotspot. Such news should not come, unfortunately, as a surprise to anyone. In the 2020 election, 2/3 of the county’s electorate voted for a presidential candidate who was completely unfit for the office, a charlatan of the first water. They knew it and they still voted for him.

Now, did anyone really think that having flunked Elementary Civics that these people would do any better at Preventive Medicine? The fact that we are now in a situation where nearly all of the deaths from this disease are in the unvaccinated segment of our society does not deter them from publicly refusing to be helped.

Denial? Death wish? Dumbassedness? Take your pick.

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Is Anybody Out There?

The artist Nick Cave has been around for a long time now, making music that is not for the faint of heart, but those songs of his that I have listened to carefully come out of a special kind of intelligence. He was a favorite of my son Jonnie, and was one of those musicians that Jonnie employed to make me crazy.

But this past week I came upon a letter that Cave wrote to a fan a few years ago, who was asking how he was coping following the death of his own 15 year-old son in a fall from a cliff in England. I’m going to link to the letter for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there isn’t a one of us that hasn’t grieved something by now – the loss of a family member, a lover, a friend,or perhaps of part of ourselves. We’ve been stunned but somehow made it back to where we could function once again, although forever we are changed in some way.

I’ve never read anything more honest and insightful than Cave’s open letter back to the questioner. When asked if he believed that his son still existed in some form and was available to him Cave said that he talks to the boy all the time … but “he may not be there.”

You might read the letter and remember the link, if only to be able to send it along to someone who can use it one day. Life can be awfully hard at times, my friends, and my simplistic counsel would be that the more shoulders that are available to be leaned on, the better.

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Found this critter when taking out the trash Monday morning. Mantises are common here in Paradise, coming in all sizes. They are fascinating little killers, aren’t they?

It’s that unlike a lot of insects they turn their head to look at you that gets me. You just know that they are trying to decide whether it’s worth the trouble to try to eat you or not.

“Let’s see … I know that thing is too big to drag around … but if I chewed it up into manageable-sized pieces … ”

(Perhaps you think that I’m being paranoid. But study the photograph. The bug was giving me some serious side-eye at the moment the shutter snapped.)

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I could almost accept the fact that so many of my fellow citizens have decided to follow blindly an immoral fool of an ex-president and have thus donated their brains to non-science. Almost. If it were only the adults that were affected, you could say “Well, I warned them,” and let it go at that. It is impossible to police our part of the universe so well that stupid can’t break out at any moment and in any place. Que sera and all that.

But right now their folly places their children and everybody else’s children at risk because these kids are not yet eligible to receive the vaccines. That’s where a line is crossed for me, and I have trouble sympathizing with those putting personal “freedom” over the common good. One of our duties as adults in a society is to protect the children in our care. In 2021, this means getting the damned shots, and doing it yesterday. Anything less is neglect.

End of story.

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From The New Yorker

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In my family of origin a garment was almost never thrown in the trash, at least not before it went through at least one transformation. For instance, my uncle Elmer was a portly man who sold insurance for a living. This made him the only person in the entire extended family who wore a white shirt to work.

When Uncle Elmer was done with them, these garments were handed down to my mom, who took those very broad shirt-tails and made clothing for my brother and I. When we outgrew them or wore them out, they spent the next phase of their lives in the rag-basket, and finally were thrown away when they became too threadbare for even this homely chore.

Occasionally these economies didn’t work out as planned. When I was about six years old, mom decided to take an old wool sweater that had belonged to some adult and make swim trunks out of it for my brother and I. What possessed her I don’t know, but make them she did and the next summer we boys put them on for the first time and dashed into the lake.When we emerged, we found to our horror that although the elastic at the waist was holding just fine, the waterlogged woolen fabric now weighed several pounds and gravity had pulled it down so far that the crotch was at the level of our knees, revealing our private parts to anyone who cared to look in our direction.

I don’t recall how we got from the beach to a sheltered spot where we could rid ourselves of the distorted garments, but once we shed them we never saw them again. However, those swimsuits lived on for years in family legends.

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You may have noticed a couple of changes in the weather listings. We closed the Washington DC offices of the Empire and opened up an outpost in Stockholm, Sweden. Granddaughter Elsa had been living in DC but felt she had to leave when the behavior of the Red Party threatened her mental health. Being that close to the seat of all power was more than a sane person could tolerate, so she chose a location about 3900 miles away and will now see if that’s far enough.

What I know is that Robin and I live 1900 miles from DC, and there are many days that I wish it were further – for instance, if that offensive political party could be relocated to a large ice floe within the Arctic Circle. We would give each member the health care availability and economic opportunities of a person living on public assistance and let them work it out. Oh, and we would give them all the handguns and assault weapons they wanted to assist in solving arguments, in marriage counseling, and in employment disagreements.

I think that I’d sleep better if that happened. Then we could devote our energies toward trying to help the Democrats become a functioning political party that consistently worked for the benefit of all of us, instead of the prima donna casserole it tends to be now.

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Our Cup Runneth Over

My friends, and I count all of you among this group, I am saddened to tell you this, but Colorado is apparently full. Last weekend Robin and I went to Silverton for a day trip, and on entering the Bent Elbow restaurant, we were greeted by a sign that told us that we would likely have to wait longer for our food because they couldn’t find enough wait-staff to hire because “people don’t want to work any more.”

That’s a little bit o’whininess on management’s part, to be sure, and may have something to do with the salaries being offered, but who knows? Lots of people all over our sometimes puzzling country are not returning to their old jobs, in droves.

In this part of the state many businesses are having trouble finding workers, especially in the service industries. Help Wanted signs are visible in shop windows everywhere. At the same time, the wildest dreams of the state’s tourism agencies of attracting more people to the mountains have come true, and travelers are flooding the towns, campgrounds, and trails to an extent not seen before. It’s a perfect example of being careful what you wish for.

So we are dealing with more people and more cars, but at the same time there are fewer folks to bring us our food, tuck us in at night and put that little mint on our pillow, or sell us yet another T-shirt guaranteed to shrink at least a size before you get it home.

In other words, we’re full, and while the mountains have not shrunk and (most of) the streams have not run dry, a visitor may not find the serene paradise they were seeking. Maybe next Fall, or next year … you could try then.

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On Wednesday Robin and I attended a Zoom meeting on how to do voter registration. We have volunteered to take a shift in a voter registration kiosk at the local county fair in a couple of weeks, and this session was training for that. Turns out that it’s a bit more complicated than smiling and handing out a form, but we think we can handle the details.

With all the ugly voter-suppressive things that Republicans are doing in many states, whatever we can do to help improve voter turnout seems to us more important than ever. This, even though Colorado is sort of a dream state when it comes to the election ritual. Here every registered voter is sent a ballot which you can either return by mail, or you can carry it to a special ballot box and drop it in, or you can take it with you and stand in a line on election day to vote in person. Most people take the mail-in option. No fuss, no muss, no scandals.

Also this year we can register sixteen year-olds. If they turn seventeen before the next primary, they can then vote in the primary. If they turn eighteen before the next election, they can vote in that. Lastly, if you are a felon and not presently in a lockup, you are allowed to vote now. Robin and I admire the Colorado system, and feel privileged to support it in our small way.

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Here’s a piece that is all about David Brooks being thoughtful, and he does thoughtful better than most people. Title: The American Identity Crisis.

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There are two threads playing out in the media right now that have to do with the Catholic Church. One is the discovery of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unmarked graves of children at former reservation “schools” that were operated by the Church in Canada. These sad and lonely interments represent still more examples of the damage visited upon kids by the representatives of the Church over the past century. In this case, their cooperation with the Canadian government in the ugliness that was the attempt to blot out the cultures of the indigenous peoples in that country.

The second thread is this: Should Joe Biden, or any other Catholic public official who supports women in their struggle for rights over their own bodies, be denied communion? A group of conservative bishops is pushing this as their agenda.

It strains belief, watching these two stories play out. If there is any institution in America with less moral credibility right now than the official Church, I don’t know what it would be. So to watch these bishops thundering about moral rectitude and who is pure enough to be allowed at the altar rail is to watch yet another act in a play that is the very embodiment of cynical.

Children at the Kamloops residential school in Canada in 1931, where 215 unmarked graves have been found.

There are other venues where Mr. Biden could take communion, perhaps he should explore one of these.

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Because I watch the world of fashion as closely as I do, it has been obvious for a long time that one of my favorite garments of all time is held in very low regard. A garment that I had waited for all my life without knowing it until I owned my first pair and discovered how eminently useful they were.

Of course I am speaking of cargo shorts. Here are examples of the scorn that has been heaped upon this item of clothing and its wearers. (BTW, I said that I watch fashion, I didn’t say that I wore it)

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On our Saturday morning bike ride, I saw a bird species that was new to me, Gambel’s Quail. It was standing in the middle of the road up ahead of me, and at first I thought it was a mourning dove, it being slender and about that size. But when I got closer, that feather in its cap and its coloration identified it as a quail of some sort, but making a real ID meant getting home where my field manuals were.

The quail are only 10 inches long when fully mature, and as you can see in the photo (not mine), they are beautiful birds. They like the kind of desert scrub we were pedaling through when we saw them.

I say “them” because about a quarter-mile further along the same road there was a hen with a dozen chicks, each no bigger than a marshmallow.

So, two sightings on the same day. SCORE!

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Snap.

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

But I digress already.

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

The dead at Antietam

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

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

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

Jim Brandenburg

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

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

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

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

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

Selfie, anyone?

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From The New Yorker

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

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

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

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

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

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From The New Yorker

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

I know that others have worse weather than we do.

I don’t care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Saroyan: The Time of Your Life

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

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Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth, and I’m not even going to tell you when my ignorance about this topic ended, except that it was last year. Yes, I know that it’s hard to believe but I hadn’t heard of Black Independence Day, the Black National Anthem … or many similar important things, and even though I could blame others for those gaps in my knowledge base (blaming others being my go-to move), for a change I’m not going to do that. It’s a case of mea culpa all over the place, I’m afraid. Whenever Black History Month rolled around each year I skipped past most of those stories that were being told. Stories that I realize now that I needed to hear.

Way too often I was just another clueless white boy living in white boy la la land, untouched. So now I’m playing catch-up, and while I know that time is too short to make up for all that I might have learned and done in the past … you gotta start where you are, non?

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From The New Yorker

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In honor of the day here are six fine songs by a group called Our Native Daughters. Songs that touch on the experience of being black, played and sung by four excellent musicians, including (left to right) Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah.

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Moon Meets the Sun

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You put the shackles on our feet
But we’re dancing
You steal our very tongue
But we’re dancing

Brown girl in the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing us solace
Sing us freedom
Hold us steady
Keep us breathing
We’ll endure this
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

You steal our children
But we’re dancing
You make us hate our very skin
But we’re dancing
We’re your sons
We’re your daughters
But you sell us
Down the river
May the God
That you gave us
Forgive you
Your trespasses
We’re survivors
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

Like the rabbit
We won’t bend to your will
Like the spider
The smallest will still prevail
The stories of our elders
We find comfort in these
We smile to the sky
We move to stay alive
And we’re dancing
You steal our work for your profit
But we’re dancing
You think our home we have forgotten
But we’re dancing

Step into the circle
Step into the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing freedom
Sing freedom
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
We’ll be dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)

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Here’s Rhiannon Giddens telling the story behind one of the songs. The tale and the tune are both harrowing and moving.

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Juneteenth. I don’t think I’ll forget that date now. In case I need a reminder, just this week it has become a federal holiday.

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No one ever inquires of me – how it is to get old? Either they are my age and know all about it already, or they aren’t my age and are afraid that I’m going to bore them with a litany of stuff they have no interest in and certainly don’t want to hear about. I understand. One of the cool things about being the hyperannuated guy in the room is that you’ve played on all those other stages during your life. This does provide some perspective.

The teenager can’t even imagine how it is to be seventy while I can remember clearly how it was to be eighteen. Gives you an edge, if you care to use it. What the geezer lacks in energy and flexibility he often makes up for in craftiness. And crafty can often be enough to win the day. (Now, that rare person who is a crafty eighteen year-old, there’s someone that’s scary and nearly unstoppable).

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Holy Fools In Short Supply

Once in a while I meet extraordinary people who might be classified as holy fools. They don’t come along every day, and definitely not often enough. Such a man was Herb (not his real name), who I met in AA meetings in Yankton SD. When it came time for him to share, even the littlest things like his name, you never knew what would come out of his mouth. Where I might say in a meeting “My name is Jon, and I’m an alcoholic,” he might say “My earthly name is Herb but who really knows who and what I am.”

As a result, there were some who groaned when his turn came to speak, and waited impatiently for it to pass. I admit that at first I did not appreciate what he had to say. But for whatever reason, Herb would sometimes seek me out at meeting breaks, and much of his conversation was scrambled and hard to follow. But then there would be an amazing flash of clarity. A sentence that would stop you right where you were and show you something that had been there in front of you for the longest time but you never saw it.

So when Herb rushed up to me one day and pushed a recording into my hands and said “You’ve gotta listen to this, it will change your life,” I paid attention. I listened to it, and while I’m not sure that my life turned at that moment, I am still grateful for his gift.

Such was my introduction to the work of Jennifer Berezan. The recording Herb recommended was Returning, a 50 minute-long chanted meditation of layered beauty. You won’t find it on iTunes, but on her website, along with a lot of other beautiful things. Stuff that can be the antidote to some of the poison we take in every day through our eyes and ears without meaning to.

Since it is Sunday after all, I will share a short clip I took this morning from another long work of hers, entitled In These Arms – A Song For All Beings. The full work is more than an hour long. The last three lines of this clip are basically a short metta, or lovingkindness meditation. It is my gift today to you. You don’t have to take it, my part was to make the offer.

May everyone you love and everyone you never met be happy, safe, and free.

.

I cannot turn my eyes, I cannot count the cost
Of all that has been broken, all that has been lost
I cannot understand, the suffering that life brings
War and hate and hunger
And a million other things

 
When I’ve done all that I can
And I try to do my part
Let sorrow be a doorway
Into an open heart

 
And the light on the hills is full of mercy
The wind in the trees it comes to save me
This silence it will never desert me
I long to hold the whole world in these arms

 
May all beings be happy
May all beings be safe
May all beings everywhere be free

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From The New Yorker

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We’re watching a series from Iceland called “Trapped.” It’s a murder mystery set in a small port town, and it definitely has a flavor all its own. I won’t say anything about the plot here, so don’t worry about spoilers. Suffice it so say that it is said to be of the Nordic Noir genre.

What we love about it are the characters, exemplified by the chief of police. He is a quiet man, looks like he dressed in the dark in someone else’s clothes, and has two deputies who are very nice and very ordinary people. There is no Omigod you’re right moment, as officers dash to their cars for a wild ride to save lives. There is no tactical assault on an apartment building as a SWAT team piles out of a personnel carrier with guns drawn.

The first few episodes occur during a blizzard, which cuts the town off from the outside world, and is a great plot device. Freezing Icelandic citizens running around town in their little Isuzu SUVs, getting stuck, shoveling out, going into ditches, lost children, trying to solve a murder against significant odds … there was so much cold and blowing snow that I had to get out the afghan to stay warm for the hour each episode requires.

It’s on Prime. Season One was watched by 86% of the people of Iceland. That could either mean that it is pretty good, or that those people have way too much time on their hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From The New Yorker

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The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

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

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Musée des Beaux Arts

by W.H. Auden

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


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

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Icarus

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

“Why do you keep hitting yourself?”

“Because it feels so good when I stop.”

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

Be prepared … we may take photos.

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Something of Value

In 1955 I was sixteen and OMG was I impressionable. There were many things that made dents in my psyche that year, dents which still show if the light is right and if I turn my head just so … . One of them was the book Something of Value, by Robert Ruark.

It was a novel about the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which was very much in the headlines in the middle 50s. Lots of killing. More atrocities than you could shake a lion’s tail at. Colonials versus natives and all that. A very juicy set of horrors better viewed safely from several thousand miles away, which is exactly where I was.

Mr. Ruark was a White Hunter. Which means he was a member of a highly privileged group who traveled regularly to Africa to kill large animals for the fun of it. They would then take the heads, bring them back to the U.S. and build rooms in their homes to display them in, as evidence of their prowess. Ruark would write about his exploits, and publish these stories in magazines like Sports Afield and such. He was quite a good writer, actually.

When he decided to write about the Mau Mau, his informants were most often white people like himself. In spite of this handicap, he wrote a compelling novel that was very popular and which was my first little peek into the joys of colonialism. I learned that those brave and stiff upper-lipped British settlers could be quite awful at times in the way they treated indigenous populations. I learned that cruelty begets more cruelty, and that there seems to be no end to the creativity that can be brought to beat when doing harm to others.

It was a grim book, but had to be so if it were to accurately report the time and the events. The title comes from an African proverb which translates into something like: When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace it with
something of value
.”

It was that thought that stuck with me from then on. I remembered it when I began to be more aware, as a young man, of the true history in my own country of European settlers and Native Americans. (I say true as opposed to the heavily laundered version found in movies, which were my first source of information on the subject.) More cruelty, more horrors, more taking away without replacing.

They made a so-so movie out of the book which starred Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as the friends turned antagonists. If you think it might be hard to imagine the dignified and righteous Poitier doing very bad things, you are right. It was.

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Which brings me to Easter Sunday. I can almost hear you saying “Huh? What fool sort of segue was that?”

My personal spiritual journeys have taken me on a zig-zag sort of route, and some of those directions have disappointed people I loved. So far I have caromed from Lutheran to Catholic to Lutheran to agnostic to Lutheran to Buddhist. If I live long enough, I might add yet another category to the list. Two things stand out for me. One is that you never know where your studies and thinking might be going until you find yourself there, and then what do you do?

The second is that I have never felt so rock-steady at any of these stages that I was tempted to proselytize. When I would leave one tradition behind for another, I have always been cognizant of the fact that … well … I could be wrong. That what I was leaving behind could be closer to the truth than where I was going. To debate with friends about religions has been something that I have avoided for these reasons. And to a large degree, it went back to that phrase from the book long ago:

When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace it with something of value.

Something of Value, by Robert Ruark

So … if I were to argue religion with another person, and if I were successful in converting that person to my belief system, and if it turned out that my beliefs were wrong, what would that make me? What sort of friend would I have been?

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From The New Yorker

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All of the predictions are in place, the stars are aligned, and this Easter Sunday promises to be one of purely gorgeous Spring weather. It will be in the 70s here in Paradise, and there will be sunshine all over the place. Nor any drop of rain to fall. What will we do with this fine day?

We will have friends for brunch later this morning, for one thing. It will be our first indoor socializing since the onset of The Plague. Hopefully this is a true turning point in this disease’s dreary history, and a good first step back toward whatever normalcy will be.

I see myself lying back in the grass by a riverbank somewhere later on today, listening to the water and letting the unquiet air pass me by as I do the water in the river. I can almost feel the warmth of the sun on the aching places that I seem to have accumulated over time. And all of this in the company of my good and tolerant friend, Robin.

What a lucky man am I.

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Let It Be

It’s been an emotional week here in Paradise. The Pema Chodron book that am in the middle of reading is so applicable to recent events in our lives that it’s uncanny. Each evening I finish one short chapter before retiring, and it helps me to clarify and to center myself. To be present with what is, rather than resisting it sounds so dry unless you are actively practicing it. Until you really need it.

Of course I ‘need’ it all the time, but I feel that poverty most strongly in harder times. I’ve heard said more than once in AA meetings that “he’s not the first person to find God in the back seat of a police cruiser.” Those hard moments are the ‘foxhole’ sort of events, where the supplicant tries to make his deal with the Universe for a specific purpose. When we realize that our ideas of control in our lives were mostly fictions. Stuff we made up.

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We’re already in the beginning of mud season here in Paradise. Yesterday Robin and I took our regular 4-mile walk on asphalt exclusively, with exuberant gumbo on both sides of the trail. On one occasion I saw footprints in the mud that suddenly vanished, as if the person had simply been swallowed by the muck. Is there such a thing as quick-mud?

Yesterday was the sort of day that our cats just gave up on. Not so cold, not so windy, not so rainy, but a little bit of all of these. So they became part of the furniture, changing their sleeping stations every couple of hours or so. Whenever they did step out for three seconds, they would come back indoors indignant, giving us an angry Rrrowwwrrr as if we were to blame.

I just hate being judged by animals, don’t you? And it’s so frustrating that they won’t listen to your explanation that humans are not in charge of the weather. They walk away even as you are talking to them, tail in the air, the picture of disdain. So rude.

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There are interesting little dialogues that are happening between people who are receiving the Covid vaccine. What they all come down to is: When you’ve had both doses, are you going to manage your life differently?

So far my answer has been: Nope. When most of the rest of the Coloradans have had their vaccines, then I will walk out the door without a care. But a new category of entertaining does open itself up. We have several friends up and down the street in our little part of town, all of whom are senior citizens, and all of whom will have been immunized within the next month or so. From my standpoint, I think that they would be safe to have over for dinner and a chat. Like in the good old days when I was blissfully unaware of the novel coronavirus’ existence.

The reason for persistent caution in approaching the general population is that the vaccine we received is 95% effective in protecting us, not 100%. That means that 5 out of every 100 people who receive their two doses are not protected, but they don’t know who they are, since no post-vaccine blood testing is being done. If I am one of those 5 people, it’s like I never got the shot.

It’s a numbers game, to be certain.

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Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

Praise the Rain

by Joy Harjo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking For Mom And Pop

We’re off to South Dakota later this morning. Plans are to bed down in North Platte NE for the night, then drive on to Yankton SD the next day. The total trip distance (to Yankton) is 866 miles, give or take a foot. North Platte seems a decent little town, with the usual cluster of motels, restaurants, and gas stations along the interstate. We’ve chosen the Husker Inn, which came up #1 on Trip Advisor. It looks to be a typical mom-and-pop establishment … one level, each room opening directly onto the parking lot. Seems just right for traveling in the Covid era, with fewer opportunities to actually come in contact with other living and breathing human beings.

Even before the pandemic came along, these little places were my favorites when traveling. Not when the hotel is a destination, mind you, but when all you want is a clean bed in a clean room for the night. Forgot something in the car? Why, it’s no problem at all. Your vehicle is just outside your door.

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The weather here in Paradise promises nothing but sunshine for the next week, with very moderate temperatures. It’s the golden time of year, when all the windows can be open and neither the A/C nor the furnace are needed. Most of the flying things that bite you are long gone, and you can actually walk to the end of the block without needing a full canteen.

Our cats love this weather. They tolerated (because they had to, as did we all) the slow roasting that this past summer provided, but now they can sleep or stretch out whenever and wherever. It is what cats do best. Total inactivity interspersed with bursts of intense mouse-chasing. Last evening Willow caught three mice in four hours, bringing each one indoors and being instantly shooed back out. Robin and I are just not into providing living space for small rodents.

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I was sitting here with my second cup of coffee as companion, thinking back on the good parts of our camping season this year, which did have its negative aspects, I admit. But in between calamities there were moments of great beauty and serenity. There was also the feeling that I get at those times of being, I don’t know, sort of capable. We pick a spot, we erect a shelter, we cook our food under relatively primitive conditions. We eat a pine needle or two in our chili and call it seasoning. If a fleck of forest duff blows into my coffee cup in the morning I fish it out and keep on drinking.

We clean up after ourselves while paying attention to what needs to be done to keep bears honest (and alive). In short, for a few days we take care of ourselves with few barriers between us and the natural world. It’s sweaty and dirty and showers are hard to come by but we do profit.

You don’t need to go to the woods or the mountains to meditate, to get some perspective, but it is just so much easier to do it out there. At least it is for me.

When I leave home for these few days each year, the absence of distractions helps me to be mindful. I am ancient enough that I had my brand of ADD for thirty years before everybody knew there was such a thing. Robin can tell you that taking me out to lunch in a sports-bar sort of establishment is a bad idea. All those television screens going at once makes me crazy, and I don’t get back to full self-control until we’ve paid the bill and walked out. I may not even remember what I ate, and my shirtfront is occasionally covered with mustard.

But put me in the woods, and you can have my full attention. I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel everything. I am entirely present. The real trick? To be able to do that when I return home. When the student asked the venerable Zen Buddhist monk how to achieve enlightenment, his answer was: “Chop wood, carry water.” Meaning you can achieve peace in your life by doing everyday tasks and living everyday life, but doing it all mindfully.

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From The New Yorker

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On Wednesday I went to see my grandson, the ophthalmologist. No, he’s not really. My grandson, that is. He’s just that young. I had cataract surgery on the left eye a couple of years ago, but the right eye wasn’t bad enough to please the folks at Medicare. They have their criteria as to when they are willing to pay for surgical correction. Time passes and the cataract worsens and finally you qualify. For about six months now I haven’t enjoyed three-dimensional vision because the right lens is mostly clouded over. So today I gave all the right answers on the questionnaire and got on the schedule for surgery at the end of October.

The surgery should be pretty much a breeze … for me, that is. I don’t know how it is for the surgeon, because I see him only for a nanosecond and then somebody gives me something very nice to tumble me off to sleep. When I wake up this time I will see well out of both eyes, thank the nurses, and Robin will take me home. Piece of cake. A miracle of sorts, made possible entirely through technology.

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I moved my writing station to the front of our home this past week. It’s less private, but I do get to watch a different set of people moving around, some of them in their automobiles. You remember autos? Before electric vehicles came around, people actually depended on those smelly and noisy internal combustion engines which did so much harm to the environment.

To make things worse, they had no guidance systems, but were piloted solely through the skillset of the driver. Which varied so much that there were tens of thousands of citizens who were mowed down by their neighbors each year in horrific collisions of flesh and bone versus metal and plastic. Of course we still have the odd collision nowadays, when an onboard computer develops a glitch. Like last year when that semi-trailer plowed through a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and when the police approached the truck they found no one in the cab. Somehow its program had gone off and started the engine without any human input, and that was all she wrote.

At any rate, there are still a few of those things around here in Paradise, and since most of them are operated by senior citizens, be aware of that fact if you come to visit us and set your EV’s hazard control systems to “High Alert.”

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Sunday Morning

Zoom-church hasn’t quite been cutting it for many Christians here in Paradise. I overhear their conversations and there is a longing in their voices to come together, to share the words and songs in the way that they love best, in a place that is sacred to them. A virus has taken this away, this ritual assembling that is the beloved focus of the week in normal times.

Oh, they’ve been using video very well, as ministers preach to cameras in empty halls, “coffees” are held on Zoom, and bible studies are planned and conducted by people who are miles apart from one another. But the synod of Robin’s church has not given official permission for their congregations to meet as yet, not in the “old” way. That does not make these parishioners less restive. Indeed, they chafe at the uncertainty as to when religious life will return to something like normal. This month? This year … ?

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My own spiritual life has been a solo one for so long that Covid hasn’t really made a dent in it. Small town America is not filled with Buddhists, and although there is a very small local group that meets in homes, I am reluctant to join it. There are Buddhists that can be just as annoying as any hard-core evangelical Baptist who won’t leave you alone until you are saved three times over. Such followers of the Buddha will natter away on arcane subjects that hold no interest for me. The intricacies of karma and rebirth, for instance. Or the purity of their religious practice. Since I am not required to believe in these things I don’t, and therefore discussing them seems time ill-spent, pour moi.

One of the first books I read on these subjects was Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Jack Kornfeld, and it remains my “gospel.” The title says it all, I think.

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I was about to close this blog post when a headline on CNN caught my eye:

Yellowstone Warns Visitors Not To Get Mixed Up In Elk Mating Season

Now I don’t know about you, but for me this falls into the category of things I never needed to be told but knew instinctively. If you want to read the story, here it is.

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No Title

Well, whaddya know? Less than 7000 of America’s finest showed up for the Cluckaganza in Oklahoma. The organizers were expecting … six times that number.

Turns out it was all the fault of outside protestors who were nasty radicals armed with unfriendly placards. And then there was the problem of the media that had told people to turn their cars around and stay home, and by golly, tens of thousands of them must have done just that.

All in all it sounds like a disappointing party. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

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Robin said: Whatever you want to do, we will do. So on Sunday off we went to explore new terrain. First you drive to Norwood, which is 66 miles south of Montrose. Then you turn left and go south-southwest for about 15 miles until you get to a reservoir named Miramonte.

It’s set in the beautiful broad valley that you see in the photo below. We had a picnic, explored the area, people-watched for an hour or two, and then returned home.

For most of this trip we were out of phone contact, which is par for the course in this part of the world. Since the entire drive there and back was through beautiful country, and the destination itself also very cool (in its own spartan way), we counted the day as a complete success.

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Good news and bad news from the garden. Out tomatoes are doing wonderfully, with fruit-laden plants approaching the size of the carnivorous one in Little Shop of Horrors. I never get to close to them for this reason, and water from a respectful social distance. I have also warned the cats repeatedly not to get near the tomato cages.

Which is where the bad news comes in. Tomatoes are awfully thirsty plants to grow. Ours are set in containers, which only increases their demands for water. They require around two inches every few days, and more when the weather is hot. Since we have been blessed with little more than a soupçon of rainfall this summer, nearly all of that moisture must come from the tap.

But those of you who have been forced to read my past rants on the subject of commercially grown tomatoes (which I will mercifully not repeat today) know that my duty is clear. Pay the water bill gratefully and enjoy the fruit when it appears … and don’t go picking them without another person nearby holding a rope that is securely tied around your waist, to pull you out of danger should those plants get frisky.

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Bob Dylan has a new album out, of all original songs. The first such album in ten years. For a change, I’m not going to tell you what to think about them. It’s Dylan, and listening to his music usually asks something of us that is very personal.

I will mention something about the title I Contain Multitudes. The phrase seemed familiar but I couldn’t place it. I had to look it up, and found that it’s from Walt Whitman.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman: Song of Myself

Here are the first three bands on the album. They are: I Contain Multitudes, False Prophet, and My Own Version of You. I’ll dribble the rest along later on.

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There are times when I am in danger of being swamped by the examples of the horrors committed by members of our species, as in the litany of murders of black people that we’ve heard read off repeatedly during the past weeks. At such times, I need to step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself that brutality is not the all that’s out there.

There is also beauty. Much of it created by other members of our same rough species. Beauty enough to wring the poison out of one’s heart and leave it open again to love and understanding.

For me it is poetry, music, and the natural world that I often turn to at those toxic moments. Or to the memories of everyday acts of heroism that I have personally witnessed. Or when I look deeply at those dearest to me and am warmed and humbled by the love and goodness that I find there.

It serves little purpose for me to turn away from the daily uglinesses – how can I begin to help in the repairs if I don’t see clearly what is broken? But I can’t look at them without using these resources to keep me from drifting into despair and cynicism.

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Solitaire

Got our taxes done and off in the e-mail. Our preparer is a down-to-earth woman who lives on a very small farm near Delta CO. She’s probably somewhere in her 60s, plain-spoken, always professional. Year before last she had gotten involved in raising sheep, but quit after a single year when “the coyotes got all the lambs.” The way she tells it, that episode broke her heart.

She’s the sort of person I have no problem visualizing on the seat of a Conestoga wagon heading West in the 1800s, reins in her hand and moving steadily toward an uncertain future and away from a grudging past. Her name is Darla Haptonstall and she’s a gem.

This year she doesn’t get to chat with her clients, which is one of her main reasons for getting up and going to work. Because of the emergency we all bring in our contaminated papers and leave them at the door, and she turns them into refunds, which are signed electronically. The work gets done, but is devoid of en face human contact.

I spoke with her briefly on the phone yesterday, and I’m not quite sure what I said but it had to do with toilet paper and it broke her up entirely. The poor lady must be starved for amusement.

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I don’t mind paying my taxes, because I know that our elected officials will use them prudently. If Pres. Cluck can take my few dollars and funnel them into some needy plutocrat’s pocket, why, isn’t that what he’s there for?

If I were to keep those pesos for my own use, I might squander them on fripperies like food and shelter and music and have nothing to show for them at the end of the day but a smile on my face.

No, it’s better by far that I send my shekels off to Washington D.C., where there are skilled people who know exactly what to do with large quantities of other people’s money.

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Here’s a touching John Prine story. If you’ve ever in your sweet short life known a 10 year-old girl, I guarantee you’ll like it.

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I am rereading Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. This will be the third time I’ve gone through the book, and this time promises to be the best of all.

I was a twenty-something living in Minnesota when I first read it, and had to try to imagine through Abbey’s descriptions what it was like living in Arches National Monument for those seasons. I read it the second time as a middle-aged South Dakotan when I visited Moab UT for a couple of days on a swing through the southern part of the state. I understood his book on a different level then, having actually seen some of the places he had written about.

But this time I know so much better all of those locales, especially Arches (which is now a national park) and the Moab area. I’ve spent an accumulation of weeks wandering about the red slickrock of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado and have a deeper appreciation for that desert landscape and what it does for my spirit to be there.

To be there and to take the time to do nothing at all. To walk without any agenda that the land itself does not provide.

[Wikipedia has a particularly good review of the book that I can recommend to you.]

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Moments

Forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a different past.

This pithy saying is a takeaway from an orientation talk at a rehab center many moons ago. It somehow made it through my muddy thought processes at the time, being one of those moments of clarity when I felt I was face to face with wisdom. Something to truly hang one’s hat on. I still see it that way.

The world of recovery is filled with slogans, enough to last a person their entire life without ever having to repeat one. They are all over the walls of AA meeting rooms, on the pages of the books and bumper stickers, etc. Some of them raised my gorge when I first laid eyes on them and still do. Some of them provoked tears of relief and have that power today.

Are you ready for a Sunday morning metaphor? When you are drowning in a rapids, as most addicts are, these slogans are branches floating by that you can grab onto for a moment’s rest from the need to fight the current continuously.

Most of the aphorisms are perfectly applicable to people’s lives who are not addicts, which is what you might expect since these sayings are drawn from all of literature.

Early on in AA, I began to feel a little sorry for people who weren’t addicted, because there was so much good stuff to learn in the world of recovery. The only problem was that you had to be a soggy mess in danger of losing your life to get through the door, and being so afraid of drowning that you were willing to do the hard work of learning, of letting go.

But there are really marvelous resources out there for us all, and we all have free access to them.

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So this year’s answer to the question – What did you give up for Lent? – will hopefully not be repeated in our lifetimes.

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I have recognized a feeling just this morning, and that is survivor guilt. There is a typhoon blowing through much of the world, but only the slightest of breezes here in our mountain valley.

Oh, we are doing all the moves along with everyone else – we wear masks, stay six feet apart, make only essential trips away from home, don’t scratch our noses, etc. But there have been so few positive tests in our county, so few hospitalized people, and the single death was just reported this morning. We are a smallish town geographically isolated. Once the ski slopes were closed, there were even fewer reasons to come this way in the wintertime.

It’s likely that there are harder trials still ahead of us, and we will yet be given the opportunity to be tested as our brothers and sisters elsewhere. But right now, we are watching the eastern cities burn while our tin-pot Nero fiddles. We help where we can and however we can.

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Daughter Maja related a story to me just yesterday that I am sharing with you with her permission. Adversity is not without its opportunities for grace, in fact, perhaps they stand out more vividly when we are under fire.

I will let Maja tell the story.

It is very common here in Lima to live in an apartment and have doormen as security.  Before the State of Emergency, there were 3 doormen in my building and now there is only one:  Giovanni.  He is here day and night every day, working tirelessly.  He keeps us healthy when we leave and return by spraying disinfectant on our feet, giving us hand sanitizer, spraying down the elevator buttons, etc.  The other day the hot water went out in my apartment and even though it isn’t his job he came and fixed it!!  I tip him exorbitantly whenever possible.

Every time I leave the building to get groceries, I ask him what he needs.  He only ever asks for water.  I always return with water and a small something else, usually a pre-made meal of some kind like chicken and rice.  Today, for some unknown reason, I brought him these items and also a large brownie cake with festive sprinkles.

He told me that today is his birthday and how did I know? I didn’t.  He started to cry.  I started to cry.  We couldn’t hug.

Small gestures to those around us mean a lot.

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God Bless The Equinox!

On our walks this week, out in the fields only a block beyond our home, we have encountered three new arrivals – robins, mountain bluebirds, and meadowlarks.

That lovely call of the meadowlark is unmistakable and a perfect addition to any warm afternoon’s perambulation. (Like that word? I’ve got a pocketful of ’em, all for shameless showing off that I used to comb the Reader’s Digest for new words).

But these birds’ presence means that the icy fingers of winter are well into being loosened from about one’s throat, and it happens just in time each year … about the time you start looking for a length of good hempen rope and a barn rafter.

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If you haven’t lived with a cat, you probably don’t get this next cartoon. If you have, you are ruefully smiling.

Poco, especially, is the master of walking from side to side across the keyboard. He will continue to repeat this maneuver until you either start to get serious about petting him or chuck him out of the room. My personal record for cat-chucking is from the bedroom/office across the living room and into the foyer.

There are sounds that the Macintosh makes when he wanders across the machine that I have been unable to reproduce on my own. A specific chorus of bleeps, warbles, and honks. They are sounds of computer distress, I think. Or perhaps of amusement … quien sabe?

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This is an interesting time for so many reasons, but one that Robin called to my attention the other day hadn’t occurred to me. It will be an Easter without a church service here in Paradise, for those doors are among the ones that are closed. Ministers are trying to come up with televised services, podcasts, and the like, but it’s obviously not the same as gathering together.

Way back when I was a student Catholic, I was taught that I needed to attend church a minimum of once a year, and Easter was that day. I wonder if that requirement still stands, and whether listening to a podcast would count?

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A Guindon cartoon

Which Wolf To Feed?

You know things have gotten serious when they close Aspen, Vail, and the other ski resorts where the one-percenters go to play, and that’s just what happened this past weekend here in Colorado. It apparently dawned on our government that these are very efficient distribution centers for a communicable disease.

People fly in, do their turns on the slopes, and then get back in their airplanes to sail off to somewhere else taking their wrinkled ski costumes memories and newly-acquired microbes with them. All over the world.

Folks in Denver, which is the largest village in our beautiful state, are wondering what they are supposed to do with these children of theirs who can’t be sent off to school any longer. Not only have they lost their 9:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. babysitter, but there’s no easy backup place to send them, what with all the closures of public spaces.

They are facing having to deal with their progeny 24/7, and that can be daunting indeed. A citywide overwhelming of mental health professionals is anticipated.

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Somewhere along the way I began to see that each painful experience in my life was not without some eventual benefit to me. Much was of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” variety. I have been known to bore others with the remark that “I learned so much because of what happened, but it was tuition that I would not have paid.”

What we are being given today is an invaluable opportunity to learn deeply about so many things. Things like interdependence, cooperation, human fragility, the value of science and factual knowledge in general. To bring our innate courage and understanding to the recognition that being a human on this planet is always, every day, a hazardous enterprise. That everything works better when we have something or someone to lean on if and when we are just plain worn out.

The only thing different about the coronavirus threat as opposed to that posed by the pathogens that we are surrounded by every single day is its scope. It is new, it is dramatic (and in many respects America is a nation of drama queens), but when Covid-19 has passed into history most of us will still be here, straightening up the mess it left behind and applying the lessons we are being offered

[To keep perspective, let’s not forget the hazards which are not infectious diseases. The average number of people who will die in the USA today in car accidents is 3,287. Using last year’s numbers, 42 Americans will die today of gun violence and accidents.]

Was Franklin D. Roosevelt correct when he said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” I think he was, and that he inserted a great truth into a memorable oversimplification. He was encouraging the American public not to fall into a panic which would make their daily lives a hell of useless worry and produce a paralysis that would prevent them from doing the next right thing, the necessary thing.

I love the following story, and you’ve probably all heard one variation or another on this theme.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Folk Tale

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From The New Yorker

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Robin and I are well into the second season of Manhattan, the series that deals with the lives of the residents of Los Alamos during those intense times in 1943-45 when the first atomic weapon was being developed.

We very occasionally have watched more than one episode at a time of any series we’ve tuned in to, but we routinely sit in for a double feature with this one.

The series’ designers have done a terrific job with the sets, the clothing, cars, and the dust … the dust of New Mexico is everywhere. You can smell it.

[Spoiler alert: Even though this is an excellent and thoughtful series, the wretched public in 2014 didn’t watch it in the numbers that they should have, so it only ran two seasons. Still way worth it.]

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I found some interesting statistics in Wikipedia dealing with the present-day town of Los Alamos.

The median household income in Los Alamos is $98,458, and per capita income is $54,067. Income is significantly higher than the rest of New Mexico. 

Los Alamos has the highest millionaire concentration of any US city, with 12.4 percent of households having at least $1 million in assets. This is a result of chemists, engineers, and physicists working at LANL since the Manhattan Project. 

Only 6.6% of people are below the poverty line; half the rate of the United States, and one-third the rate of New Mexico. As of January 2015, there were zero homeless individuals.

Wikipedia: Los Alamos

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This is a small but great story. Small in the numbers of people affected … great in pointing out a creative way to help out in this unusual time.

A handful of distilleries are using some of their alcohol to make hand sanitizer and are giving it away. Yes, friends, for free!

The companies explicitly and strongly recommend that their free product not be used for making cocktails. They have a line of other bottles for that.

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