I have more things to say than I can put into words.
My thoughts are jumbled, random, unconnected.
I’m soaked in confusion, amplified by world events
and streaked with fear and anger, and muddled by beads of
hope so small I think they have little chance of
surviving the turmoil and chaos of raw bewilderment
that cascades down my brain like a waterfall.

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Wine and Cheese

After a long, strange day and evening, tonight just seemed to call for wine and cheese. It would be a relaxer, a way to slip into the evening rather than be thrust into it with no adjusting timeline. So I made it be so. Here’s bleu cheese, parmesan, and white cheddar accompanying a sliced plum and a nice fat olive. With a glass of cabernet sauvignon. I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed the occasional calls that had no voice on the other end of the line. I did not enjoy the sound, tonight, of acorns raining down on the deck in rapid-fire fashion. Before we left for our engagement late this afternoon, I used the lawn blower to remove all the leaves and acorns from the deck. A short while ago, the rain of acorns was incredibly loud. I suspect my work was for naught.  Notwithstanding the acorns, I do love the forests here.

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The bob of our pendulum is a razor sharp disk,
cutting the air with its long swings before
gravity and time curtail its trajectory,
when it cuts our ties with time and
severs the cables that bind us to this life.

Mathematicians and physicists calculate the
motions of pendula, predicting with certainty
the moment at which gravity and mass and friction
conspire to end their movements, turning
motion into stillness, cousin of death.

No calculus can forecast the moment at which
the bob of our pendulum will cease its
relentless pursuit of a goal we cannot
understand, a thirst for something language
cannot describe, for words never reach the end.

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Bless Our Souls

David Brooks is a New York Times op-ed columnist and frequent guest on NPR and PBS programs. In my view, he usually holds centrist Republican viewpoints, though he tends to run a little more left of center than what I used to consider Republican perspectives. Today, he tends to run considerably more than a little left of center when compared to what I hear from Republicans in Congress. But he’s no progressive, by any means. At least not in my view. The fact that he’s so rational in stating his positions, especially when they are counter to mine, is one of the reasons I respect him. Some of my left-leaning friends revile him as a Republican puppet; I see nothing like that in him. My perspectives usually differ sharply from his. But something he wrote in his New York Times op-ed yesterday, brought to my attention by a friend, entitled “Guns and the Soul of America” really resonates with me.

Brooks cited research that indicated explosive growth in the percentage of Americans who supported gun rights and a drop in the percentage supporting gun control. In 2000, according to a Pew survey, 29 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and 67 percent supported more gun control. By 2016, 52 percent supported more gun rights and 46 percent supported more gun control.  Brooks contends that the reason for the shift is that industrialization swept over the country more than a century ago. Monetary policy became the proxy for the fight over values and identify ushered in by industrialization. The tensions between people in agriculture and industry and those outside those spheres has been growing ever since. Though he didn’t say it, I think Brooks would argue that technology in recent years has exacerbated the divide, causing people in agricultural and industrial America to feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. Brooks says their fear is legitimate.  Members of those threatened segments have seized on issues like guns, immigration, and the flag as launchpads for their attack (“counterassault,” to use Brooks’ term) on postindustrialization’s attack on their cultural values and identity. Guns, he says, are a proxy for broader matters and simply represent a touch point for larger social issues.

Brooks asserts that the only way to address the divide “is to forge some sort of synthesis
on the larger postindustrialization/populism war.” He does not suggest how to forge that synthesis, but I wrote the following to my friend about my reaction to the article:

My gut tells me it might begin with a lessening of the shrill screams on “my” side of the argument about guns and hyper-patriotism/nationalism. Acknowledging that people “might” have legitimate concerns about cultural dislocations involving things like gun rights, respect for the flag, etc., could temper the rage that seems white-hot on the right. But, at the same time, I think it’s important that what I believe are legitimate positions of the left and the moderate center not be dismissed.

Acknowledgement must not equate to acquiescence. I suspect the fervor of progressives, particularly those on the far-left fringes of progressivism, has in part fueled the fear of people who find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum. The same is true, though, at the other end of the spectrum. When I see alt-right demonstrations that seem intent on instilling fear in progressives, I find that they work; and I become more intent at calling out what I consider stupidity, racism, irrational nationalist fervor, etc., etc., etc.

The solution eludes me. Frankly, I’m not sure there is one. But I am as close to certain as I can be that ratcheting up the tensions by moving more and more toward opposite poles will do nothing but make things worse. Perhaps a chorus of intelligent, rational, centrist voices from inside our political system would help. First, we’d have to find those intelligent, rational, centrists and put them in office. Perhaps a chorus of intelligent, rational, centrist voices from inside other social institutions would help. Churches, the news media, well-regarded authors and actors and others who really ought not so heavily influence our culture but do, nonetheless.

It ought to be obvious that screaming and name-calling and accusations thrown at a group of people will generate like responses from the targets of abuse. But we (and I include myself in that “we”) tend not to think in response to such barrages but, instead, to react. So it should come as no surprise to progressives that our shrill reactions to shrill voices will generate responses that are even angrier and more shrill. Conservatives ought not be surprised when progressives react the same way. But we’ve all allowed our emotions, not our intellects, to rule our responses. As a result, the people on both sides of the divide who do not think for themselves but, instead, allow others to think for them, just get louder and louder and more and more firmly ensconced in their positions.

Who are those rational leaders who will guide us out of the darkness? I wish I knew. Let me think on it through my fingers. From the “left,” I’m having a bit of a difficult time. As much as I agree with the ideals set forth by people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, their hyper-partisan words prove to me they are not the ones. The place to look for possible candidates in Congress is among those Democrats and Independents castigated by those further left as “turncoats.” The place to look for possible candidates on the right is among those Republicans and Independents castigated by those further right as “turncoats.” That is, moderates.  Ideal candidates would be Democrats elected in traditionally Republican states and vice versa. People already on the national scene might include people like John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, and John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado. Ohio has been a swing state (that went for Trump in 2016 but for Obama in 2012). Colorado has gone between Republican and Democrat in elections past, voting Democrat in 2016. Hickenlooper is a Democrat but one, I would argue, who could be considered moderate on many issues. There’s been talk in the media that he and John Kasich might be members of a two-party ticket in 2020.

Whether the two Johns join forces or not, they could be among voices nationally who might soften the conversations about guns, patriotism, etc. Both of them already have targets on their backs by people at the fringes of their respective parties, but they might be able to temper the conversations. Despite the massive numbers of posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, I believe the vast majority of Americans have more moderate voices than their more vocal cohorts. Perhaps, just perhaps, the more moderate people who refrain from joining the political conversations (or, the fray, as it were) might just join in and insist on respectful conversations in which facts matter more than volume and in which civility counts more than contempt.

David Brooks’ article was about guns and the soul of America. Bless our souls. Does America even have one?


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Mom’s Birthday

My mother was forty-five years old when I, the sixth child, was born. I cannot even imagine the stresses she must have endured, rearing six children from birth through young adulthood. Each of us required at least eighteen years of discipline, instruction, tolerance, and of course love. That is the equivalent of one hundred and eight years devoted to her children. She would have been one hundred and nine years old today if she were still alive. But she died at age seventy-eight. It’s hard for me to believe that she’s been gone thirty-one years.  And it’s stunning for me to finally realize she gave her children more time than she had to give. On this, her birthday, I offer another reminder of one of her favorite flowers, yellow roses.

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Patriotism versus Nationalism

I wrote the following on Facebook on September 25. I’m copying it here just so I can more easily find it; to know where my mind was on that day.

Remember. This country was founded on principles of decency and honor. We’ve failed to achieve our objectives many times, but they’ve remained. Even in dark times, when “leaders” are ignorant and blind, the rest of us must remember our direction. We must remain true to the compass that guides us. Patriots love this country and rightfully call its failings into question just as they celebrate its greatness. Nationalists love themselves and do their best to paint themselves as patriots. They’re not patriots. They are narcissists whose only value is in attaching themselves to empty promises and false pride.

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I Cry Too Easily

From the very first moment I heard it, Pachebel’s Canon in D reached into me and drew out tears. I cannot for the life of me understand what it is, but that music always reduces me to tears. It’s not that I associate it with any specific event or category of event; the music has no connection (in my mind) with weddings or funerals or anything of that sort. It just causes me to well up with emotion unlike anything I’ve known. If I were a religious man, I’d say the music conjures God. But it’s not that. It’s something real, something enormously moving. I decided to see if I’d written about it before. I have. Five years ago, I wrote “I always come back to this music when I need to feel that the world is beautiful.” That’s all I said. And maybe that’s all I need to say. Tonight, perhaps I need to feel the world is beautiful. I know better. It’s ugly and dangerous and lacking compassion. But it has potential.

Tonight, as my arm and elbow throb and my shoulder aches, I listen to Pachelbel and I wish I had been born in a different time, a time in which one person’s empathy and compassion mattered. “As if we mattered.” Ach, but we don’t. We matter to a precious few, but we don’t matter to most. That’s the problem. We should matter, but we don’t. And that may be the final bell that tolls. When we come to realize we’re just a mistake, an error that had potential but failed to meet it, we ought to seek out that bell and make it ring.

I’m just so tired of pain and Trump and people wallowing in self-pity because their views did not prevail.  So I listen to Pachelbel and realize the two pity-party people who’ve opted out of the experiment don’t matter. But I weep for them, too, because they’re lost and searching, too.  Some days, I wish there were a God. Or a Devil. I’d be willing to make a deal with either of them if I could erase the pain of generations and educate the uneducated about the demon they worship.

I write “stream of consciousness” stuff that makes no sense to anyone but me; I know that. But I write it because I know that, later, I’ll come back to it and it will make perfectly good sense to me. And it will be fodder for something that may, in some tiny sense, matter to someone, someday. But probably not. I have to realize, too, that my words may mean nothing to anyone but me. That’s painful, but it’s a reality we all must face. Did our lives matter? Ultimately, in the big picture, probably not. In the more focused, smaller image: maybe. A little.



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Slow Return

I’ve been distracted. Mentally, physically, emotionally. My mind has been elsewhere. I suppose part of it has been fear. Fear that the cause of the pain in my arm and shoulder might be worse than a pinched nerve. Or that whatever the cause, it might be a permanent condition. Or that the solution will reveal that my horrifically expensive insurance was designed with an “out” for the insurance company, so that I’ll be faced with either permanent pain or financial ruin. These are worries that have no place in my brain. They’re manufactured from fear; they don’t arise from facts. They’re part of an enormous web of “what ifs” that, once allowed to fester into their ugly potential, seem to take on a life of their own. I can control those fears, those stories spun by my imagination. But I’ve allowed them to pull me in and spin me into a tightly wound rubber band.

Among the consequences of my distraction is what amounts to my abandonment of my writing. That’s not healthy, because writing is one of the things that keeps me partially sane. It provides a release valve, albeit not necessarily an obvious one, for pressures I create inside my head.

I can’t blame my distraction entirely on my fears about my arm and shoulder pain (which, incidentally, has declined significantly and is far more tolerable than it once was). I’ve given my calendar permission to enslave me, which is a distraction in itself. I have obligations damn near every minute of every day. Most of them are obligations I’ve taken on willingly. A writers’ group meeting.  Working on a writer’s group website and sending meeting reminders and keeping club financial records. A class on weather warning. Taking a vehicle to a mechanic. A driving class from AAA to cut my insurance rates. Another meeting with writers. An international wine and food event. A tour of garden railroads. And then there are obligations I take on begrudgingly; visiting the chiropractor and scheduling a CT scan (maybe).  None of these really command my time. But they fill my time. I could cancel any one of them or all of them, but that would create issues of another kind. All these obligations and commitments rob me of time I should use to do work around the house. And they rob me of time when I ought to be writing.

I look forward to a commitment that will take me away from all these other commitments. We’re scheduled to go to Mexico next month, where we’ll spend ten days without obligations (I hope); just being lazy and absorbing the gentleness of place. Maybe I’ll write. Maybe not. I will be “on vacation.” That’s such an odd thought; being “on vacation” from retirement. I thought retirement would be like a permanent vacation. But vacations of the past, of which there were precious few, carried with them their own stresses. I suppose retirement is like a vacation, after all.

Meditation. That has some appeal. Meditation to bring about serenity or, at least, cool acceptance of circumstances. I’ll get back here more frequently when I’m ready and when it feels right.

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Those of us who own computers—and there are millions of us—are fortunate in the extreme. The mere fact that we are able to play with (or work with) machines that give us capabilities far beyond anything our molasses minds could do on their own is amazing. It suggests we need not worry about where our next meal is coming from, nor where we will sleep tonight.

“¿Fuiste a la playa ayer?” preguntó Diana.

“No, fui al mercado y luego al cine.” Linda sonrió y se rió.

Perhaps I’d learn Spanish faster if, instead of writing in English, I wrote in Spanish.  Of course, I’d have to supply a translation, so that would add to the word count. Aha! I could write short novellas, offer translations, and could then say they were multilingual novels.

The translations, so far:

“Did you go to the beach yesterday?” asked Diana.

“No, I went to the market and then to the movies.” Linda smiled and laughed.

Tal vez aprendería español más rápido si, en vez de escribir en inglés, escribiera en español. Por supuesto, tendría que proporcionar una traducción, por lo que añadiría al recuento de palabras. ¡Ah! Podría escribir novelas cortas, ofrecer traducciones, y luego podría decir que eran novelas multilingües.

The last translation is not fair, as it was supplied by Google Translate.

La última traducción no fue justa, porque Google Translate lo proporcionó.

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“What in the name of God is that?” Brenda’s voice hissed, jarring Carl’s attention, as the unexpected sound erupted from behind his left shoulder.

“Why do you do that? You startled the hell out of me.”

“Sorry. Well, what is it?”

“It’s a snake of some kind.”

“Duh! I know it’s a snake. What’s it doing in the garage?”

“It’s taking dancing lessons!”  Carl spit the words from his mouth like they were bitter pills.

Brenda’s face contorted into a fierce scowl. “All right! You don’t have to get smart with me. I just asked a simple question.”

“I don’t know what it’s doing here,” Carl said. “I don’t know how it got here. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know its name. I don’t know its pedigree or whether it’s poisonous.”

Brenda’s scowl deepened. “Why are you being such an ass?”

“I’m trying to figure out how to get the damn thing out of the garage and you’re disturbing my concentration. Let me finish this and then you can ask your stupid questions!”

“As you used to tell me, there are no stupid questions. Only stupid people. And I’m not stupid, so that must leave you.” With that, Brenda wheeled around and stormed back into the house.

Carl opened a large paper grocery bag, placed it on the floor, and began to coax the snake into it, using the handle of a broom. The creature writhed, its red, yellow, and black rings around its body almost dancing, as Carl shoved at it with the broom. With the snake fully inside the bag, he pushed the open end down with the broom, gingerly folded it to close it, and picked up the trapped viper. Jeez, this snake is heavier than I thought it would be.

Carl took the bag inside the house and set it on the kitchen counter. “Brenda, it’s in the bag,” he called. No response. “Brenda, the snake is in the bag on the counter.” Still nothing.

What am I going to do with this damn snake? It’s supposed to be illegal to kill them, but…

The sound crinkling craft paper interrupted his thought as the snake moved inside the bag. Carl watched the bag bulge as the reptile made its way around the edges of its prison.

I’ll search Google to see what kind of snake it is and how to get rid of it.

Brenda’s voice intruded on his internet search. “What’s in this bag on the counter?”

Carl heard the unmistakable sound  made when craft paper is handled. “Don’t open it, it’s…”

Carl sensed that Brenda’s scream was from pain, not fear. But fear gripped Carl as he viewed an image of a coral snake on the screen.


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Gingerly Approaching a Moroccan Cooking Binge

Last night, our meal’s main course was Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemon, Olives, and Harissa. I made the harissa, which delivers one of my favorite flavors,the day before. I served the chicken over brown rice, alongside a few cucumber spears, some sliced tomatoes, and sweet peppers. I was generally satisfied with the meal, but not as thrilled as I had hoped and expected. I think it was the brown rice; its consistency wasn’t quite right. Perhaps my lower-than-expected satisfaction derived from the fact that the fresh ginger I used wasn’t really fresh. I bought it a week or more ago and wrapped it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. When I unwrapped it yesterday to grate it, I discovered that it had deteriorated considerably. Though I was able to salvage enough for the recipe, I question whether the stuff was adequate for the task. My experience with the unsatisfactory ginger led me to explore the “best” ways to preserve fresh ginger. My research suggests these as the best ways:

  1. Plant fresh, unpeeled ginger in potting soil. That, from what I’ve read, will keep it quite fresh and will probably result in the growth of some foliage.
  2. Place fresh, unpeeled ginger in a zip-lock bag, squeezed to remove as much air as possible, and put the bag in the refrigerator’s vegetable crisper.
  3. Immerse peeled ginger in a glass jar of vodka.

All three methods, according to the sources I found, will keep the ginger fresh for at least eight weeks.

I discarded the ginger left over after I made last night’s meal. So, I need to add ginger to the shopping list, along with ground coriander seed. I’m sure there’s more. But that will do for now.

My current fixation on Moroccan food shows no signs of diminution. For breakfast this morning, I used last night’s leftovers, which actually tasted better today than last night. I plan to make several other Moroccan dishes in the weeks to come, provided my wife does not tired of my experimentation. On the menus will be: Lamb with Couscous, Moroccan-Style Spiced Shrimp, Chickpea and Tomato Stew, and Méchoui of Lamb with Charmoula. I made enough harissa to last through all of them, provided I do not use it first in any number of other dishes I think would benefit from its rich, spicy flavor. The odds are good I’ll have to make another batch (or two) long before I get through the menus.

This morning, we’re attending the annual “water ceremony” at the Unitarian Universalist church. It will be our first “water ceremony.” My gut tells me it will be far too woo-woo for my taste, but we shall see. I’ll wager no one in the church this morning, aside from my favorite wife and me, had home-made Moroccan food last night. I’ll even up the ante and wager than no one else had the same breakfast we had this morning, either.

I’m getting slightly better at writing by speaking, but I still can’t seem to do fiction that way. I long for my wrist, arm, and shoulder to get over whatever it is that’s bothering them. Tomorrow, I may seek out a chiropractor.

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Here’s to Boston

Thanks to this morning’s newsletter (Fast Forward)  from the Boston Globe, I learned that today is the 120th anniversary of the launch of the first subway in this country. At 6:00 a.m. on September 1, 1897, one hundred people rode the subway through a tunnel under downtown Boston.  I had assumed that the first subway was in New York City, but my research this morning revealed that New York’s first underground commuter line did not operate until October 27, 1904. Almost thirty-six years earlier, the city’s first elevated line opened. New York’s rapid transit system is the largest in the western world, butsystems in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Guangzhou, and Moscow eclipsed its ridership. The New York system, though, is the largest in terms of the number of stations (472). On September 23, 2014, more than 6.1 million people rode the New York subway system,

But today’s celebration is about Boston’s innovation, not New York’s, nor the other systems with greater ridership. Have I ever mentioned I am easily distracted, starting my writing with the intent to write about one subject, but drifting off into other areas almost without realizing it? Maybe I should explore what I’ve written to determine whether I’ve mentioned that before. But not yet. Not now.

There’s much about Boston I find appealing. Even before I learned that it set the pace for public transportation in the United States, I liked Boston. I like the in-your-face honesty that characterizes the city. I like its rough-and-tumble personage. I like Santarpio’s Pizza. I like the JFK Library. I appreciate that Boston is largely a very progressive Democratic stronghold, a place where the obligations of society are honored and practiced. Obviously, not all people in Boston are progressive Democrats, but the city votes the way I wish the country at large would vote. Sure, Boston has its share of problems, but it leans left, the way I like a city to lean.

I like the fact that the Boston Globe (and other outlets, I’m sure) reminded the people of the City of Boston that yesterday at 5:00 p.m. was the deadline to take items to Boston City Hall for people stranded in Texas by Hurricane Harvey. The collection effort solicited baby formula, toiletries, non-perishable food, blankets, new clothes, and diapers. Additional collection centers were established throughout the city. The items are to be packed up and shipped to Texas today, September 1.

Congratulations to Boston the 120th anniversary of it subway system.  And for being the city it is. I’d like to visit again. I really would.


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Congressional Hypocrites

I read this morning that some people, especially in Congress, question whether a legitimate role of government is to help people deal with and recover from catastrophe. The argument, as I understand it, is that neighbors, not government, should help neighbors during catastrophe. Communities should help themselves; government should not step in to do what neighbors ought to do.

I contend that government is simply a formal version of neighbors-helping-neighbors. Government is an amalgamation of neighbors, joined together for a common cause. Government is of the people. It is the people. What is it about government that makes people feel so strongly that it is only a medium for handouts?

The Texas Republican delegation in Congress, almost to a person, voted against providing funding for the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The fact that they opted to abandon their neighbors to the north may come back to bite them; I hope that bite comes only in the form of a political lashing, rather than in the form of a lesson in hypocrisy. I don’t think there’s any question that the people in Texas want and need federal financial support to help cover from Hurricane Harvey. I wonder whether the Texas Republican delegation will be hypocritical, or whether they will vote against support for Hurricane Harvey victims. I hope they reveal themselves as hypocrites, rather than giving their political philosophies greater import than their constituents’ well-being.

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I think it’s impossible to write, with any degree of realism, about living through a flood like that facing the people in and around Houston, Texas today. It’s not just Houston. We ought to remind ourselves that Bay City and Richmond and Rosenburg  and dozens of small towns on and near the Texas coast are under siege. I believe, with all my heart and soul, that people with the financial means who opt not to donate money to address the catastrophe befalling our fellow humans in the affected areas are not decent humans at all. That awful judgment assures me a place at the uninvited fringe of decency. So be it. I am opinionated and judgmental. I am unforgiving at a point. I am unwilling to show mercy when mercy is unjust. But I hope with all my being that the people who live in the shadow of Hurricane Harvey and his successive iterative incarnations survive. Ach. I hate watching people lose everything.

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My post last night, in which I complained about not having speech-to-text software, led me to do a search this morning. Sure enough, I found free speech to text software online at https://speechnotes.co. I am surprised that it is reasonably accurate, though it does require me to go back in and make changes and corrections.

I remember dictating letters on my first “executive” job. I spoke into a microphone, recording my voice. I feel like I’m doing exactly the same thing now, inserting punctuation with my voice. My secretary transcribed what I spoke. I knew how to type; but I had no typewriter in my office. Instead of buying me a typewriter, my employer paid a secretary. To be fair, she did far more than type my correspondence. But it seems odd, today, that a person would be employed to transcribe the words of another, a person who is perfectly capable of typing for himself.

I hope I’m able to continue doing this with my real writing. That might make it easier for me to get to the point of having a book. Although I think I think better through my fingers then through my mouth. We’ll see. Now I will copy this and make the corrections necessary and post it. We’ll see how that works.

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Dangling from a mesquite shrub on the edge of a cliff, nothing below me but sharp rocks a thousand feet below, I reach up for that helping hand that’s not there. It’s dark here on the precipice, dark and lonely, a single grip away from salvation or eternity. I hear the sounds of stones hitting the rocks far below, pebbles that slid with me to the edge but, unlike me, weren’t saved by a stunted tree whose relentless determination to survive allowed it to live in a place unfit for survival. My right hand, the only thing between me and death, is losing its grip on the branch. My left hand, reaching up must appear to the circling vultures to be waving at them, calling to them to wait just a little longer. “Your meal will be available shortly.”

Why did I come, alone, to the desolate landscape of southern Arizona? Why did I climb those cliffs and expose myself to rattlesnakes and demonic heat? Why was I so careless with that last step, the one that resulted in my slide down the steep slope to the edge? I allow myself these pointless thoughts instead of struggling to pull myself up.

“Hold on! We’re lowering a rope!” The voice must be in my head. I am alone. No one is here.

“When the rope gets to you, grab it!” It’s unmistakable. It’s a human voice. A woman’s voice.

I reply. “I can’t see you. Where is the rope?”

“It’s almost there. You’ll see it in a second.”

And then I see it. It’s a thick hemp rope, a good inch thick.  As it gets closer to me, I see that it’s tied like a hangman’s noose.

Her voice spills over me again. “See it? Grab it and put it around your neck. We’ll pull you up.”

I grab the rope with my left hand and slip it over my neck as instructed.

“Okay. I’ve got it.”

“Let go of the tree.”

Sweat drenches the bed. My chest moves with labored breathing. My heart beats fast. I try to speak, but my mouth is frozen in fear. But I’m alive. And my dream is just that. My right hand cramps from the grip on that tiny mesquite limb.



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Orwell’s Legacy

I remember only vaguely reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London and Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But I read them all. My memory of the books is hidden behind too many years and drenched in impenetrable darkness, but I do remember I loved his writing. My developing sense of humanity was tethered to Orwell’s beliefs., though probably not all of them. Most of the time, when I read his books, I felt like I was reading the works of someone with whom I agreed almost entirely. I read his books as fast as I could lay my hands on them. And I sought out people with whom I could discuss them. It was as if the books sparked something in me that I had not, theretofore, known existed. They were like fire to me. I found few people who were as enthused as I, though. And, I suppose, that’s when things began to change. I don’t know how. Perhaps it was the unenthusiastic response I got from professors. Or students. Or who knows who. I remember, though, that I was disappointed somehow that my fierce interest in Orwell’s books did not meet with universal support.

There foregoing paragraph has absolutely nothing to do with what’s on my mind tonight. Tonight, I’m reliving an enjoyable day, a day during which we drove to the Shangri-La Resort near Mount Ida for lunch. I had a cheese burger with jalapeños. My favorite wife had chicken fried steak. My sister-in-law has a burger. Each of us had pie: lemon meringue for my wife, blueberry for SIL, and cherry for me. Good pie. Or, as I like to say, “Damn good PAH!” Then we drove to Mount Ida and wandered in a second-hand store and an art gallery. Both were intriguing. And then we drove home.

I’m not entirely sure what got me thinking about George Orwell. Perhaps it was our cheetoh-in-chief and his drunken-Facebook-equivalent speech in Arizona last night. Perhaps it was the thought that we may, at any moment, be involved in nuclear war. Or perhaps it was coincidental. The latter is unlikely.

To ease my troubled mind, I’m drinking wine tonight. I started with a delightful French rosé. Then I switched to New Zealand red. If I had any in the house, I might move on to single malt Scotch or mescal.

I’ve been thinking, seriously, about taking four days off from whatever it is I do and spending those four days, instead, at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs. I need a kick in the rear to get me writing. Solitude and guilt might do it. A .357 magnum pressed to my temple might do the job, too, but I have no energy in pursuing that possibility. Perhaps there’s no cure. Perhaps I’m a wannabe writer who won’t finish anything worth finishing. I do consider myself talented. I write well when I write. My writing no doubt needs improvement, but I’m pretty goddamned good. Except I don’t know how to write real stories. Stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end; stories that make people want to read them. Stories that pry emotions from hard hearts. I think I have it in me, but I can’t for the life of me drag it out. Instead, I seem to be a pretty decent tactician. I do dialogue reasonably well. I can grab the reader from the start with something jarring or stunning. But I peter out along the way in the process of telling the story. The novel I’ve been trying to write is losing interest; or, I should say, I’m losing interest in it. It’s not the challenge I thought it would be. Or, perhaps more realistically, I’m not the writer I thought the subject would bring out in me. Crap. I’m writing self-assessments, as it I were looking for pity. I’m not. I’m looking for something that might convince me I’m actually a writer and not a wanna-be. I think, though, that’s exactly what I am. I am like thousands of others who are decent writers, but not superb writers; they, we, are destined to wish for outcomes that will never happen.

I have said for years that I write for myself. That’s true, but only to a limited extent. But ultimately I write for an audience I do not know. I write for people I hope will be reached by what I write. The odd thing is this: I have no idea who they are. Are they aging geezers like me? Teenagers enmeshed in hormonic guilt? Who? I don’t know. Maybe the “they” I write for don’t exist. Maybe the “I” I write for doesn’t exist.

When I get into one of these moods, I wish I’d become a merchant marine. The salt water and hard work and endless loneliness would have cured whatever ailed me.

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The Price of being Pensive

I read this morning, in the August 3, 2017 online English version of Corriere della Sera about a German man named Roland Siedler, who made a habit of eating and drinking at multiple fine restaurants and bars in Florence, Italy and then refusing to pay. His excuse: “Italians pay. I’m German, I don’t pay.” He was arrested multiple times but, upon his release, returned to his practices of scrounging fine food from fine establishments. Siedler’s craven disregard for decency finally caught up with him.  He was sentenced to two years and two months in Sollicciano prison, after which he will be expelled from Italy.

After unsuccessfully attempting to read the original Italian version of the online paper (though I could make out a bit of the reporting), my wife woke up and I finished the breakfast I had started much earlier. Here’s a photos of it. In case you’re wondering, it’s a cheese omelet topped with five-pepper salsa (with a sprinkling of okra taco seasoning, which will be the subject of a future post),. In addition, there’s sliced peaches, blueberries, a sliced radish, and Canadian bacon. Thanks to the presence of ground coriander seed in the seasoning, the omelet’s flavor was (to me) a tad reminiscent of Indian cuisine. I told my wife the plate reminded me of a breakfast served to me by two little old ladies—one English and one Mexican—who jointly owned a little B&B in a village on the outskirts of Mumbai. She laughed, knowing full well I had never been to India. Her laugh, which sounded Canadian to me, made me think one of the two women should have been Canadian, inasmuch as the plate included Canadian bacon. But the Canadian bacon we buy is obviously processed in some strange way that’s probably not Canadian at all. Its shape is artificially round. And I wonder whether the pork is sliced from a whole piece of meat or, instead, cut from a loaf of meat chunks pressed together and “glued” with some form of animal fat and/or protein. I’ll have to explore that. I’d really rather be eating something natural; I want any flesh of an innocent animal I put in my mouth to be unsullied by artificial deformation and unnatural trimming.

Our conversation then moved to the mug from which she was drinking her tea. I told her I thought it was quite attractive. “I paid $3.25 for it,” she responded, proud of the seventy-five percent discount price.

“You could buy a lot of bubble gum for that much money,” I said.

“Are you sure? Bubble gum’s not a penny a piece any more.”

That made me think how important pricing decisions can be to producers. If you sell something for a penny, your only choice when faced with a need to increase prices due to increased costs is to, at minimum, double your prices. But then I thought, no, you could increase your price by one hundred percent, but give more for the money. Like four pieces for a nickel. That’s still a twenty-five percent increase, but it’s the best you can do under the circumstances.

Today is the day of a total eclipse of the sun. Here in Hot Springs Village, the eclipse won’t be total; it will be less than ninety percent but sufficient, I’m sure, to be a stunning experience. The partial eclipse begins at 11:46 local time and reaches maximum coverage at 1:16 p.m.; the partial eclipse ends at 2:45 p.m. In between waiting for and reflecting on the eclipse, I’ll sweep gravel from my driveway and contemplate what life might be life living alone on a lovely, cool, comfortable planet a thousand light years away, with nothing but ice cream and Indian food to keep me company.

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Nadir is the Cusp of the Fourth House

I thought something had changed in me. I thought I had become someone else. But, no, I’m back to the old normal. Back to the old me. For several weeks now, I’ve been getting up late. For me, late is between six-thirty and seven or, on occasion, a few minutes past seven. That’s deviant behavior. That calls for assessment, analysis, and quite possibly institutionalization. But this morning, the old me came back, just as comfortable as ever with my old habits. I awoke before five, got up, made coffee, and put a few of last night’s dishes away. That’s the old John. The John of my memories. The guy I prefer. The man far more appealing than the guy who slept late.

Early mornings are my refuge from the world. They are the tranquil sanctuaries that shelter me from assault by the media and my own unhinged thirst to know things over which I have no control. Deep morning, the time long before the sun rises, is a time of utter calm and absolute truth. A time when I confront things about myself and the world in which I live and decide to change them, by god. If that last sentence would have been subject to review by the one woman in my library critique group, at least one correction would have been made: “capitalize the word God,” she would have said. And I would have nodded and thanked her.  But this is my morning and she is not reading the sentence and I need not be docile and deferential to keep the peace. Yet, today, I would do it nonetheless, because I am in my refuge. I know that deference need not be defeat; circumstances can make it a nod to compassion. I am in my refuge. I am protected from the world around me, the world that slaps innocent faces and slams decent people into walls while greedy hands search for wallets or purses or wads of cash. I wonder whether my refuge is an amoral hiding place, a place where I can feel comfortable while the world victimizes people outside its safe perimeters?

I sense I’m leaving my sanctuary, venturing out into a world fraught with unnecessary ugliness and callous disregard for compassion. There it goes. My comfortable security’s out the door, wandering the back alleys of cruelty, the streets that attack kindness with clubs and white-hot steel rods. Pity. That comfort, that sense of being impervious to physical or mental assault, sits stunned on the sidewalk, wondering what happened to decency and mercy. But, then, I realize I’m still here in my cocoon, just as safe as I’ve ever been. My thoughts have been out for a stroll in a rough neighborhood, a place to avoid if I value my safety and my sanity.

The book I’ve been writing has lost my interest, as all my writing projects do. I will try to recapture my interest in the story, but the more I think of it, the more artificial it becomes. And my writing project with a fellow writer, in which we’re trying to capture the drama of an immigrant child’s adaptation to and success in the USA is just as hollow. Neither of those writing projects absorbs me; neither drags raw emotion from me. I think only real emotion, stuff I feel personally, can stoke my creative fires for long. And maybe even that can’t survive over time. I’ve been trying to compile my blog posts into something worthy of polish and publication, but the sheer scope of the project is overwhelming. I’ve written more than 2400 posts on this blog, alone. Coupled with the other blogs I’ve operated over the years, I’m confident I’ve written something like 4000 posts. The task of reading all those pieces, let alone determining whether a particular piece merits editing/embellishment to make it suitable for inclusion in a collection is overwhelming. Maybe if I commit to reviewing and editing/polishing/embellishing/finishing one hundred pieces a month, I can get through the task. That would take only about three years or so. Ach. But I know so many things I’ve written are just vignettes that would need a lot of work; many would need a lot of attention to make them into something worth reading. I could simply eliminate them, but so many of those unfinished pieces are my favorites. I couldn’t let them wither away; I’d have to coddle them and turn them into the works of art I wish they could be. And that would take time and energy I’m not sure I’m willing to give. So, instead of working on them, I’m writing more drivel. I’m spending my time complaining about the time I’d have to spend, instead of spending my time in productive enterprise. That’s me. That’s the old John, back to his old ways. Early to bed, early to rise, quick to complain about things to despise.

I should add “complete a thought” to my to-do list for today. So far, the only items on the list are: 1) view total eclipse of the sun; 2) make appointment with podiatrist; 3) revise the effing biography to satisfy my co-author’s desire to see progress on the work in which he has not participated in writing; and 4) become a better human being. There’s room for “complete a years-long task that’s only just begun.”

The title of this post, by the way, is an assessment by way of definition.

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Writing and Thinking and Feeling

We learn about ourselves from our writing. At least some of us do. If we study the words we use in stories and essays we write, we discern patterns that—admittedly beyond the edges of the scientific method—inform us about who we are. We learn our motivations, our fears, our struggles, and our triumphs. Writers may be in a better position than those who do not write to observe, measure, and contemplate the patterns. Written words can be counted, while speech disappears into imprecise memory. Written words offer evidence of who we are and who we have been. The patterns and evolution of the style of written words suggest who we are becoming or will become.

Today, I counted the number of posts in which I used the word “venom.” Eleven. I mentioned in a relatively recent post that my writing also seems to have a love affair with the word ‘detritus.’  If I were a psychologist, I think I’d make something of that. But I’m not and I won’t. Instead, I’ll complain about my corn. Yes, a corn that has effectively sidelined me from walking for exercise or even from wandering the grocery store. Today’s visit to Kroger was agonizing. Tomorrow, I’ll try to make an appointment with a podiatrist. My insurance won’t cover a penny of it; such is life. At times, one must simply choose health and/or the absence of pain instead of low prices.

I can’t announce it yet, but I think there may be big changes on the horizon. Changes I wouldn’t have dreamed of a few months ago. But I may be wrong. You may read my words for month on end without a single “exclusive.” And you probably will. I suspect that suggested “announcement” idea is based purely on a wish for more readership. It’s a classless act, I tell you.

Tonight, I received an email from a friend, a friend who had a devastating stroke several months ago. Early on, after he had the stroke, we were concerned that he might not make it. We visited him in the hospital frequently, though he was unaware of our presence most of the time. Fortunately, he recovered, even better than we expected. He sent a message tonight, saying his wife had read many of our emails to him. He expressed appreciation for our visits and our support. We never expected he’d see those messages. His message tugged at our heart strings in ways we never expected. The flood of tears seems unending. I love the connections between people, especially when those connections create bonds of humanity.

Some mornings, when I write fiction, it’s not fiction. It’s emotion transformed into story. It’s experience modified so that it fits a theme that may or may not mirror actual experience. If I wrote what I actually think and feel, I might be arrested and imprisoned or, even worse, taken to an institution and locked away. But my thoughts are not insanity; they are sanity taken to its logical conclusion. They are reflections of fears and worries and concerns that take root because I see reality before me and it frightens me. Still, for reasons that have no basis in reality, I have hope. I hope decency will return in public discourse. I hope rationality will overcome irrationality. I hope religion will become a respite from reality instead of a distorted interpretation of the real world. I hope people will, finally and without fear, embrace one another as creatures in need of support and love and comfort. While I’m wishing, I might as well wish for unicorns that give out free pudding; that wouldn’t be too bad, though, would it?

Some days, I’m shaken to my core. Some days, I want nothing but to leave this deviant cesspool we call humanity in the mirror. I want to move beyond disgust, toward something better, something more accommodating to decency. I guess that describes most days. One day, I might crack and do something about it. But not yet. I have an eclipse to watch. See, it’s the little things, the wonders of the universe, that matter.

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I do love this “commercial.” Would that it were not fantasy.

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Mourning, Anger, and Bleak Despair

Today, this day after the monstrous attacks in Barcelona and other parts of Spain, I mourn for the dead and injured and their friends and families. And I mourn for civilization, an experiment our species going terribly wrong. We are collectively breeding monsters and religious zealots whose beliefs are so utterly appalling that they merit nothing but contempt. It’s not just the religious, either. It’s the racists and misogynists and bigots of every stripe that claim to protect “their own” but who, instead, do everything in their power to denigrate and enslave people who do not share their skin tones or twisted sense of morality. Fear and anger, fueled by the narcissist in the White House, contribute to the swirl of ugliness that’s enveloping our country and the world as a whole. I read, a short while ago, that the victims of the attacks in Spain are from thirty-four countries. The psychotic bastards who conduct these attacks are killing and injuring people at random, without concern as to who they are. For all they know, their own families could be among the crowds they attack. These monsters are living, breathing representations of human garbage. Try as I might, I cannot find it in myself to understand their motives; I cannot find it in myself to think these people could ever be “rehabilitated.” The deserve, at best, to rot in solitary concrete cells, fed just enough so they don’t starve and never allowed to venture more than four feet from the sandpaper mat on which they sleep. Yes, it’s revenge, I suppose. And it’s punishment. And it shows not an ounce of mercy on my part. Today, I feel no mercy for the perpetrators of the attacks in Spain, nor for the domestic terrorist who took the life of Heather Heyer. For that matter, I have no compassion for the hordes of white supremacists and their ilk who stormed Charlottesville, Virginia, provoking the counter demonstrators with their nazi salutes and shouts of “blood and soil.” The chant of blood and soil  is an adaptation of the nazi chant of Blut und Boden, which signifies ‘purity’ and ‘homeland.’ What pitiful scum of the earth. 

Despair. That describes what I feel.

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I watched Desierto tonight. It’s not an uplifting film. It’s an action/horror film whose premise is that a group of illegal immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. are forced to abandon the truck in which they are being transported. Because the truck broke down, they must walk. A deranged man who patrols the border with his dog, looking for rabbits to kill, stumbles upon them and, with the help of Tracker, the dog, tracks them down and kills most of them, one by one. The entire film follows the murderer as he takes immigrants out with a high-powered rifle. The ending, even though it’s satisfying to the extent that the criminal bastard gets his (at least we think), is not satisfying. It’s a depressing film that ruins an evening. It did not help that, for the first 45 minutes, most of it was in Spanish that, try as I might, I could not understand because the voices were so low and my translation skills remain badly rusted, with some holes through the walls of my translation pipes. After 45 minutes, I discovered that my “display subtitles” had been turned off. The remainder of the film made more sense, but did nothing to improve my opinion of it. It wasn’t bad, really, but it was most assuredly not good in the sense I wish it had been.


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A Taste of the Globe

My global gastronomical journey restarted yesterday afternoon when my sister-in-law came to the house with a bottle of Babich sauvignon blanc, some grapes, crackers, and a couple of cheeses. We added to the feast with garlic-and-jalapeño-stuffed olives. As we sat at the dining table, looking out over the back deck to the trees and distant fields, I said it felt much like our experience last year with my brothers and sister and sister-in-law in France. Just whiling away an afternoon with conversation and wine and simple foods. I remembered the markets in the south of France where we bought olives and meat and bread and vegetables. And images flashed in my mind of huge outdoor markets where we saw more fresh seafood and fresh vegetables and spices than I’d ever seen before. It was exquisite. The recollections of France and the experience of seeing and buying and eating food propelled more thoughts of foods I want to make.

I wrote above that my journey restarted yesterday; it began while we were visiting friends in Fort Smith recently. There, we talked food as we often do and the conversation turned to paella. I expressed a desire to own a paella pan and an even stronger desire to have access to fresh seafood like mussels and shrimp and squid and octopus and to a source of saffron. My generous friends offered to let us borrow their paella pan. We declined, but said when we find a source for fresh seafood suitable for paella, we will invite them to rush down to visit and bring the paella pan with them.

In today’s mail we found an issue of Food & Wine dedicated to Spain. Any discussion of Spanish food includes the obligatory conversation about paella and tapas, and the issue that came in today’s mail does address those dishes. But it covers so much more. Reading it made me long for queso manchego, jamón Ibérico, grilled octopus (pulpo), and dozens of other dishes. I may get serious about learning more about foods from different countries and cultures and cooking and serving them in our home. I might have to translate the name of our kitchen, which we call French Kangaroo, to canguro francés or kangourou français or, because I’ve been quite enamored with Moroccan cuisine of late, الكنغر الفرنسي.


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A Diverse Ending

We saw the  Earth shudder when the first nuclear blast took place. Though we were only a few hundred miles above Earth, we could tell something ghastly was happening below us. The Earth winced, like a person stabbed with a sharp knife. Subsequent nuclear blasts popped up like measles spots in rapid succession, painting the surface of the planet I once called home with seething pockmarks. Even from space, we first heard Earth’s sigh, as if it was taking in news of its child’s death. And then we heard the shriek. The shriek of a planet undergoing transformation. A shriek so loud and so hideous that it never leaves the ear. It is imprinted on the brain as if it were burned into the psyche with a hot branding iron. That shriek told us all we needed to know. There was no going home again. We could either perish in the space station or we could take the spacecrafts designed to return us to Earth and use them to seek out other places to live the rest of our days. That’s what we did. Three former U.S. citizens, two former Russian citizens, and one former Italian citizen. We launched within ten hours of the nuclear holocaust below us. We left, not knowing whether our families were alive or dead, but assuming they were dead or dying. The horrors of an all-out global thermonuclear war were obvious to us; there was nothing to return to. And so we headed out, looking for something or someone who may or may not exist.


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