My Children

Until last night, I’d never thought of what my child might have been like, had I fathered children. I’d never even thought about the “what if” before. Whether a daughter or a son, I’d never considered another human being carrying my DNA and the attendant physical and psychological characteristics. The thought stunned me. It didn’t cause me to wish I’d had children; it only struck me as a possibility I’d never before considered.

What would my son have looked like? What would my daughter’s personality have been like? What would I have looked like; as a father instead of a man without parental obligations? I’m surprised those thoughts had not heretofore entered my mind. At least I don’t think they had.

I don’t know what triggered those thoughts. They arose out of curiosity, not wistfulness. Whatever prompted me to think those thoughts also prompted me to imagine myself as father to an adult son. Would I be proud of him or would I be terribly disappointed that he became a misogynist who joined Proud Boys? If my son were a member, would I be as critical of that far-right neo-fascist organization that promotes political violence as I am now?

A few days ago, I watched a video that showed the mother of a young teenage boy arguing with police officers who had come to arrest him for threatening to shoot up a school. The mother insisted that her son was only playing; he was simply making outrageous statements the way boys sometimes do, she claimed. She could not understand why the police would arrest her perfect little boy. Would I believe my child could do no wrong? Would I defend his threats as simply a matter of “boys will be boys?” I’ll never know, of course. I suspect, though, that I would be fiercely angry with the boy while simultaneously frightened for him and his future.

I said I’d never thought what my children would have been like; and that’s true. But I have said that I think I would have been a bad father. I would have had no patience with a child being a child. That would have shaped my children in damaging ways. They would always be afraid they would not measure up to my standards. And that would crush their psyches in ways I can only imagine.  It’s probable that I would not have been willing to invest as much time with my children as they would have needed. I would have demanded solitude when they most needed a protective parental presence. I would have resented the children for snatching freedom away from me.

And what about my wife as a mother? I suspect she would have been a good one, though it’s possible she would have resented losing the freedom that childlessness affords. People like us should not have children. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to leave child-bearing and child-rearing to people who are better suited to the challenges and who want to have babies. In fact, that choice results in fewer children who suffer from parental neglect or, worse, parental abuse.

Still, it’s interesting to imagine my 35-year-old daughter, Maya, deciding to emigrate from the USA to New Zealand, where she plans to establish a sheep farm and, later, a textile mill that will produce custom wool fabrics for export. I’m proud of her! She has always been a bit of a rebel. And I’m watching Carson, my 33-year-old son who after attending college for two years opted to abandon the drudgery of a higher education in favor of learning a skilled trade. He learned welding and became extremely good at it. After a few years of working as a welder in high-rise building construction, he switched gears and turned his talents to art. Today, he creates elaborate metal sculpture and signage; all of his work is commissioned and he has a three-year wait list of clients who clamor for him.

In addition to Maya and Carson, there’s David, who just turned thirty. David went to college and, finally, finished with a degree in business. After amassing almost $80,000 in student loan debt, he discovered his bachelor’s degree in business was not much in demand. So, after two years of looking for a “suitable” job and one year in jail for stealing copper tubing from building sites, he finally went to work as an assistant manager of a rural RadioShack store in Missouri. When the company declared bankruptcy for the second time in 2017, his store was closed. He then went to work for Dunkers Radio and TV in Atwood, Kansas. He got the job because the store is an authorized RadioShack dealer. He’s not happy there, though. All he does, he says, is stock the shelves and deal with cranky, abusive customers. Despite his unhappiness, he isn’t willing to invest the time or energy necessary to find another job. When he’s not working, he sits in his apartment, drinking cheap vodka and playing video games. His apartment, in McCook, Nebraska, is an hour away from his job. It’s the closest he could find that he could afford. I’ve suggested he look for work in Denver. But he won’t listen to me. Ever since I called the police on his now former wife, a meth addict, he has given me the cold shoulder. He still has some growing up to do.

It’s a surprise that the children turned out as well as they did. We left the three of them at a gas station in Pie Town, New Mexico during a long, aimless road-trip vacation when they were youngsters, before Maya turned ten years old. It wasn’t intentional. We had stopped to get gas and some snacks. The kids got out of the car and ran around the way kids do, burning off energy that drives parents crazy during road-trips. When it came time to leave, we just got in the car and drove off, completely forgetting that the kids were with us. We didn’t realize what we’d done until three hours later, when we got to Winslow, Arizona.  When we realized that we’d left the kids at a gas station, we panicked. We hadn’t paid attention to the name of the town we had stopped in, much less the name of the gas station. Fortunately, it occurred to me that I had the receipt for the gas and the snacks in my wallet. We called the station and they told us the kids were in the custody of the Catron County Sheriff’s Department. Well, the Catron County Sheriff’s Department is not located in Pie Town. It’s in Reserve, New Mexico, a good hour and a half southwest of Pie Town. We called the Sheriff and explained what had happened and that we were on our way back to get the kids. It wasn’t as easy as just stopping and picking them up and leaving.

I tried to make light of the situation by saying to the Sheriff, “Silly us, we forgot we had children.”

The Sheriff was not amused and read us the riot act. Then we were reamed out by a woman from the Grant/South Catron County Children, Youth and Families Department. Two hours after we got to the Sheriff’s office, we left with the kids. They didn’t talk to us for two days after that.

And there you have it. What started as a real-world reflection on what might life might have been like had I fathered children turned into an absurd fantasy. Just like my life. It started out just fine but evolved into an absurd fantasy. I wonder whether I’m just a figment of someone else’s imagination, behaving as a puppet on a string and guided by my owner’s imagination. That’s an ugly thought; “my owner” sounds like a brutal and final pronouncement of a sentence. I’ll change my thought patterns. There, that’s better. I’m a little hungry now, so I’ll make some breakfast and reheat my cold cup of coffee.

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Meticulous Chaos

Brighton Davis joined the crowd of women surrounding the car. “What’s going on?”

A distraught woman replied, “There’s a baby in that car! We can’t get the doors or windows open. I’m afraid it might die in this awful heat!”

Brighton sprinted to his car, parked one row over, and opened the trunk. He drew out a hammer and sprinted back to the baby’s car.

“Stand back! I’m going to break the window.” With that, he smashed the front window on the passenger side and reached back through the broken window to unlock the rear door.

The baby’s eyes were closed and beads of sweat covered its forehead and cheeks. Brighton unbuckled the belt holding the child in the car seat and pulled the baby out of of the car.

Brighton, holding the baby tight against his chest, turned and ran toward his car.

A chorus of voices followed him. “What are you doing?”

“Where are you going?”

“Sir.  Sir!”

“I’m taking him to the hospital. There’s no time to waste. The child needs medical care.” With that explanation, Brighton jumped in the car, still holding the baby close to him, started the engine, and sped away.

Three of the women had the presence of mind to try to take photos of the car’s license plate. Two of them also got photos of Brighton’s back as he rushed toward the car. The plate numbers did no good, though. They belonged to a blue 2017 Kia Soul, registered to a woman in hospice care in Charlotte, North Carolina; not to the orange 2019 Ford Mustang that left with the child.

The crowd of irate women who had been ready to bludgeon the child’s mother when they saw the baby in the hot car softened as the reality of the baby’s abduction sank in.

Police checked every hospital in the area. None of them had treated a baby for heat-related illness that day. The child’s mother, a recent widow who had left the baby in the car, told the police nothing of consequence in locating the child.

“I am driving to visit my parents in Atlanta,” she sobbed as she explained to the police what she had been doing at the mall. “I stopped to use the bathroom. I was gone for no more than fifteen minutes.”

Her story checked out. She left her home in Portland, Maine the day before and spent the previous night in a motel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The only thing about her story that seemed slightly odd was her decision to get off I-81 and drive down I-581 to Valley View Mall. But her explanation was believable: “I knew how to get there because I’ve been to this mall before when I visited friends who used to live in Roanoke. I knew this place has good bathrooms.”

Brighton Davis seemed an unlikely opportunistic kidnapper. He was unmarried, forty-three years old, and traveled extensively for his job as an airport architect, sometimes spending months at a time in places like Hong Kong and London and Zagreb. He had no time for a baby. But, then, he apparently had time to steal an orange 2019 Ford Mustang; it was reported stolen from a dealership in Lynchburg, Virginia only two days earlier. And apparently he had time to steal the plates off a blue 2017 Kia Soul located three hours away.

Newspaper accounts of the abduction said the mother was suffering through a second trauma with the child’s kidnapping. Her husband had been killed just three months earlier in a random drive-by shooting in Washington, DC, where he had been visiting with Congressional representatives on behalf of his employer, the Portland International Jetport.

There’s something fishy about this story. Something’s just not quite right. Where is the baby? 

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Inner Peace

Inner peace.

Where does one go to find it? I’m not someone with experience in the elusive object of our aspiration, but I’ve read quite a lot about it. After reading and thinking about how people embrace tranquility so fully it becomes part of them, I have some ideas.

First, a person must be open to serenity. Not necessarily engaged in an active search for it, mind you, but willing to allow it to slip into one’s consciousness. I suspect the energy spent in an active search for inner peace would generate so much mental “heat” that tranquility would burn to ashes during the hunt. So, one must be willing to gently embrace a state of mental calm if and when it comes.

Next, one must be willing to abandon thoughts and activities that intrude on quietude. I do not know what thoughts and activities interfere with calmness; perhaps all thoughts have the capacity to derail our efforts to achieve inner peace. Maybe that’s why meditation seems to be an almost requisite endeavor for people seeking serenity. Meditation can, I am told, empty one’s mind of thoughts, replacing them with images or sounds that act almost like anesthetics; but they don’t dull the senses.

Another aspect of finding serenity, I’ve read, is accepting oneself without judgement. The idea is that we are not who we were, but who we are at this moment, having shed all the blemishes of history. Depending on who is writing about this element of finding inner peace, it requires either forgiveness of oneself or abandonment of the person we once were in favor of the person we wish to be. For me, that seems to be the most overwhelming stumbling block. I find it virtually impossible to forgive who I was and who I am. I would have to abandon my old self; that would require amnesia, because otherwise the memories would haunt me. I remember, when I was in junior high school, bullying a younger kid. I don’t even recall his name; that failure of memory means I can’t even find him to apologize. That flaw is by no means my only one and not my worst one. But, collectively, they paint a picture of someone I’d rather not be. But, still, maybe abandonment really is an option. Maybe.

Finally (maybe), finding inner peace necessarily involves engaging with others in ways that don’t interfere with their path in the march toward finding it. I think that must require active efforts to avoid reacting to one’s environment and, instead, responding to it. The difference between reacting and responding is a bit hard to explain, but I think it’s essential. Reacting is automatic and unthinking; it allows one’s reptilian brain to control our actions. Responding is analytical and measured; it requires us to process inputs and allows us to behave in ways that enhance communication. This non-intrusive engagement requires both empathy and compassion, two internal traits that I think most (but not all) people have but that can be trained (or beat) out of them.

So, where does one go to find inner peace? It’s in one’s head. It’s there, but it must be taken out of it cage, groomed, fed appropriately, and allowed to grow. I make it sound easy; it’s not. The cage is surrounded by by a thick webs of steel chains padlocked to one another and to the cage. Depending on how much rust must be removed from the locks, they may be very difficult to unlock. The chains are heavy and cumbersome. The hinges of the door to the cage are old and corroded; the door must be forced. But, wait, didn’t I say “I suspect the energy spent in an active search for inner peace would generate so much mental “heat” that tranquility would burn to ashes during the hunt.”? Yes, indeed. I said that. And that means one must first attempt to unlock the cage, doing everything in one’s power to remove the chains and the locks. Only then, when the one’s energy is spent and the cage is open, can one be open to allowing serenity to slip in.

I am like the consultant who offers expert advice on matters with which he has no experience. The advice may be good, but the consultant cannot point to examples in his own experience to prove it. And so it is with me and inner peace. I wish us all luck in finding it.

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Hunger and Everything Else

Those of us who have the luxury of savoring our food, instead of scraping just to get enough to survive, are extremely fortunate, indeed. Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of looking at recipes and thinking how delicious they might taste, I’m suddenly struck with an overwhelming sense of sadness and guilt. Here I am, over-fed and moderately happy, musing over how a spice might add a certain flavor to a protein, while somewhere nearby a person, maybe a child, is struggling to find barely enough food to stay alive. I don’t know if guilt is the right word. It’s shame, too; shame that I know hunger is a very real problem but that I’m doing very little to help solve it.

It’s not just about providing food to the hungry. It’s about teaching the unemployable the right skills so they can get a job and buy their own food. it’s about giving kids an education so they can escape the cycle of poverty into which they were born. It’s about convincing corporate overlords that a slight increase in shareholder profits is not a sufficient reason to shutter a factory and move somewhere else, leaving hundreds of people without work. It’s about persuading a grocery store chain to place a store in a “food desert.” There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other actions that can be taken to alleviate the problem of hunger.

Hunger is just one of the maladies shaping our world. Pollution, climate change, violence, political instability, natural disasters. The list could go on for pages and pages. Thinking about all the problems that affect humanity and planet Earth can paralyze a person into absolute inaction; there are too many problems and not enough solutions…I’m just one person and I can’t have an impact on problems that are so much bigger than me.

Yes, but as I’ve been hearing on a regular basis on Sundays of late, “you can’t do everything, but you can do something.” I often encounter this quote, attributed to Paul Spear (an English comedian and actor), “As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.” I’m trying this morning, but I still feel the shame of how little I’m doing in light of how much I know needs to be done.  I like the attitude the quote represents. I’ll try to adopt it if I can.

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The Dangers of Dissection

At 5:33 a.m. this morning, I learned about a company called Mopec, an organization founded in 1922. The firm sells all manner of American-made medical equipment and laboratory products to the pathology, histology, necropsy, autopsy, and mortuary industries. Among those products are several dissection tables, including a two-body rotating table; the two-body model calls for the two cadavers to weigh within twenty pounds of one another to ensure good table balance. Another product is a dissecting table with a dip tank (with a capacity of just under 120 gallons), advertised as “ideal for anatomy classes at teaching hospitals and universities.”

I came across the Mopec website while searching for something that, quite probably, does not exist: a psychic dissection table. But I looked for it anyway, just to be sure. The concept of a psychic dissection came to me as I considered what we might find if, instead of examining the physical aspects of a cadaver, we had the capacity to examine how experience and thought had shaped its life. What would we find if we were able to conduct an experiential, psychological, emotional autopsy? I suspect we’d find the sort of stuff that breaks hearts and triggers emotional meltdowns.

After coming up empty-handed in my search for psychic dissection tables, I switched gears, figuring I might inform my imagination by adapting my fanciful dissection in a  real-world setting. So, I looked for plain old dissection tables. That’s when I came across Mopec. During the course of skimming its website, along with a few others, my interest in psychic dissection waned; my curiosity about the equipment used in the “pathology, histology, necropsy, autopsy, and mortuary industries” waxed.

A fascinating discovery was the existence of several different autopsy saws, each with a different intended use. For example, there’s the Model 810 Stryker Autopsy Saw, “used for removing the cranial cap, making linear cuts or sectioning small bone specimens.” At $2419, it is not something one is apt to purchase on a whim; you have to be serious about autopsies to part with that kind of money. And where you have autopsy saws, you’re apt to have embalming sinks and cadaver storage racks. Of course, if you’re in the autopsy business, you’ll need scissors, forceps, knives, probes, and scalpels, as well as body bags. The variety of available body bags is truly stunning, as is their price range; from $14.68 to $249. The chalk calvaria elevator, 4-prong blunt flesh retractor, and double-ended section lifter are among a phalanx of other specialty tools created specifically for conducting autopsies (though, I suspect, some of the tools may be used in surgery, etc.). Fascinating!

I came across a dissecting kit for small animals at only $138.52 and a dissecting kit, student at only $103.96 (I assume the kit is not for dissecting students).

Specialty products come with premium prices. That’s true in virtually every industry and profession. Mass-market products can be mass-produced and, therefore, can be priced accordingly. But products that have limited markets, even if those markets are significant, just cost more. Mind you, most of the products sold by Mopec (not the supplies, but the equipment) are made from high-end stainless steel; that, in itself, means the prices will be high.

During my excursion into the world of cutting up dead bodies, it occurred to me that the terms autopsy and necropsy seem to be used interchangeably. In fact, a quick run to the dictionary suggests that is, in fact, the case. Why, then, I wonder are the two terms used in the same website to describe uses for different products?  I suppose I would have to contact Mopec to get an answer to that question. It’s not sufficiently important to me to make the inquiry, but I am curious about it.

While scurrying about, looking for answers about dissection equipment, it occurred to me that the fluids collected during the process of autopsies and such must be disposed of properly. I haven’t reached the point of learning just how that is done, but thinking of it caused me to jump to give thought to another specialty industry: wastewater/waste treatment. Naturally, I started exploring the equipment required to treat wastewater so as to make it at least safe, if not drinkable. And that little diversion led me to the realization that different types of wastewater/waste have different requirements for treatment. The specialization gets more and more complex.

To think, this wasted time that will never lead me to any answers of real consequence evolved from an imaginary exploration of psychic dissection. It’s a sure sign of madness, I tell you. This little brain of mine sometimes seems like it’s on high-dose uppers, even when it’s just French roast coffee doing its job.

 

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Bless Your Soul

The price the fellow offered to pay was more than Sleet McMaster could pass up. So, after an obligatory period of haggling, Sleet agreed to the terms: McMaster’s soul in return for thirty years of exorbitant wealth.

“Just to clarify,” McMaster said after their requisite handshake, “I relinquish my soul at the end of thirty years…after I’ve collected full payment from you.”

“I don’t do business that way,” the man replied. “I’ll pay you over a thirty year period for your soul, which I want right now.”

“What the hell? You didn’t take out a mortgage on my soul; I said I’d sell it. How am I supposed to live for thirty years without a soul?”

“Not my problem, Sport. You should have thought of the practicalities before you jumped on the deal. Greed will kick you in the nuts every time!”

“Look, I’ll live up to my end of the bargain. You can have my soul, but I want you to live up to your end, too. What’s to keep you from taking my soul and then reneging on the thirty year payment?”

“Nothing, actually. But I’ve never reneged on a deal yet and I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years.”

“Thirty-five years? I thought you’d been doing this since Adam and Eve.”

“Who are Adam and Eve?”

“What do you mean, ‘Who are Adam and Eve?’ They’re the source of original sin. I mean, you’re Satan. You should know that!”

“I beg your pardon? I’m not Satan. I can understand from the context of our transaction why you might think it, but, no, I’m Tim Ledbetter. Just a soul trader. Well, not just a soul trader. I’m the best there is. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years.”

“Listen, you misrepresented yourself, so the contract is null and void…”

“…the hell it is! And I did not misrepresent myself. In your hurry for a quick buck, you just failed to do your due diligence.” Ledbetter’s beet red face and clenched fists highlighted the intensity of his anger.

“Okay, okay, don’t get crazy on me. How ’bout we work a compromise, okay? You can have my soul, but you wait ten years to collect. That way, I have ten years with my soul intact and you still get my soul.  I get my payment. Everybody’s happy. Listen, the deal is still on, we just fiddle with the terms.”

“You want to renegotiate the terms after the deal’s done? Okay, I’m flexible. I’ll meet you half way. I’ll wait ten years to collect, but you only get fifteen years of wealth. Take it or leave it. If you leave it, I’m taking your soul right here, right now.”

The stoop of McMaster’s shoulders and the look in his eyes expressed his defeat. Ledbetter probably had seen those signs of resigned failure in hundreds of people during his thirty-five year career. But that’s only supposition because, as you know, we’re not privy to his thoughts.

“Wait,” you’re saying about now, “who are you talking to? This is a little confusing.”

I’m not “talking” to anyone, dear reader, but I’m writing to you. That’s right, I’m interrupting my story to engage you in conversation. Let’s just drop the quotation marks, okay? They seem a bit pretentious, inasmuch as this is a one-on-one conversation between you and me. Let me fill you in, ex parte, on some details about Ledbetter and McMaster.

First, McMaster. He is the personification of greed and sloth. The man is lazy on steroids, but he’ll clean up his act for a moment if he smells an opportunity to make a buck. He’s an advertising copywriter by profession, if you call such a noxious endeavor a profession. He doesn’t do much writing, though. Instead, he skims magazines, looking for catchy phrases. He marks them with a yellow highlighter and, later, has his secretary create lists of phrases from the words he marks and then uses them to craft ad campaigns. In other words, he’s a word recycler who’ll sell those words to the highest bidder.

Now, about Ledbetter. The one word that best describes him is this: delusional. He can no more trade souls than a Siamese cat can speak Portuguese through a drinking straw. But he talks a big game. Scares the hell out of people. Makes them think he’s Satan or Satan’s diabolical twin. But, like I said a moment ago, I don’t know what’s in his head, not really. What would cause a man to lure people into bogus contracts to sell their souls? I haven’t the foggiest idea. But it’s interesting to watch.

Back to the situation at hand. I’ve seen this scene with McMaster and Ledbetter play out hundreds of times. Not with McMaster…he’s a new mark…but with Ledbetter. He attracts offbeat targets with the scent of money, then springs the trap with a cockamamie story about buying their souls for preposterous sums of money. “Money for nothing,” as the song lyrics say.

Well, McMaster was especially easy prey, it seems. He had just invested the last bit of money to his name in a business that was doomed to failure from the start. He’d had the absurd notion that he could sell his recipe for spicy chicken and papaya corn dumplings. He paid five thousand dollars for a web site and hired a competing ad agency to create an ad campaign. (If that doesn’t tell you how much confidence he had in his marketing capabilities, I don’t know whether you’re going to be able to cross the street by yourself.) When the agency finished creating the campaign (and, in the process, emptied another $80,000 from his 401K accounts),  McMaster paid a food marketing guru a flat $14,750 fee to get Costco to let him offer free samples of his dumplings. It seems his expectation was that, once people tasted them, they would happily pay $39.95 to buy the recipe. Not only did people not want to buy his recipe, most of them who tasted his samples took one bite and spit it into the trash bins next to the demo stand, where they also discarded the uneaten remains of the dumpling they had just tasted. The web site did no better. At the end of 90 days, it had received a total of only 71 hits.

That little fiasco is what made McMaster such an easy mark for Ledbetter’s pitch. McMaster was flat broke and the riches beyond his wildest dreams that Ledbetter offered spoke to him in a language he could understand. Plus, McMaster probably never really believed in souls. Souls were the brain-children of people who couldn’t face the fact that humans are just animals that die and decompose, an ignominious end to an artificially fanciful existence.

To bring this little tale to a rapid conclusion, McMaster and Ledbetter came to a mutually agreeable compromise. McMaster expected unlimited wealth and Ledbetter expected another soul to add to his collection. What neither expected was an out-of-control van careening around the corner as they stepped out of the alley at the corner of First Street and Avenue M. The van, its side painted with the words “First Baptist Church of Trinity Acres,” was full of  youthful zealots on their first indoctrination field trip to the seedier side of town. The van’s driver, Pastor Bob Jeffress, if he saw McMaster and Ledbetter at all, saw them through bloodshot eyes. Pastor Jeffress’ blood alcohol level, at 0.242, was three times the legal limit. Neither McMaster nor Ledbetter had a chance of survival; the van’s speed on impact was estimated to be 55 miles per hour.

As you might imagine, the incident caused quite a stir in church circles. Pastor Jefress spent several months in jail before being tried and convicted of vehicular manslaughter, which was followed by a sentence of five to fifteen years in prison. Fortunately for him, Governor Sarah Sanders, a long-time member of the First Baptist Church of Trinity Acres, immediately commuted his sentence.

The uproar following the commutation led to an investigation of the relationship between Jeffress and Sanders, which revealed their years-long extramarital affairs, both with each other and with several others unnamed in this story. Given the endemic hypocrisy one finds in both government and organized religion, the affairs were readily forgiven by the parties’ supporters. But, after their marriage to one another, both were arrested for bigamy, inasmuch as they did not bother to divorce their respective spouses before getting married. That infraction, we learned, was unforgivable. And, we also learned, the punishment was equally harsh. They both were sentenced to death by hanging and firing squad, the sentences to be carried out simultaneously. Public executions, which had been brought back during Sanders’ first term in office, attracted crowds in excess of eighty-thousand. Food trucks park on the streets around the execution site, offering execution-viewers a number of options for lunch: Indian, Chinese, soul food (hmmm), Panamanian, hamburgers, hot dogs, Peruvian (check out the roasted guinea pigs, they’re delicious!), and several Uzbek and Mongolian choices.

On the day of the executions…wait, you’re wondering how I’m bringing this tale to a “rapid conclusion,” aren’t you? Well, I understand. So I’ll just stop here. But, really, try the Peruvian food truck if you get a chance.

 

 

 

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Kisses and Stings

Hypnic Jerks

I experience, with some regularity, something I have come to be believe (as of yesterday afternoon) are hypnic jerks, involuntary muscle contractions that some people experience as they are falling asleep. These involuntary spasms also are known as hypnagogic jerks, sleep starts, sleep myoclonus, and excessive fragmentary myoclonus. Hiccups, by the way, are a form of myoclonus, not that it’s related to this discussion. Never had I heard most of the terms until yesterday afternoon, when I stumbled across them from an online link.

Mine (the sleep-related hypnic jerks, not the myoclonus hiccups) tend to take place while I’m sitting in front of my computer, rather than in bed. Especially late in the afternoon, I can be mindlessly reading something online when I am startled to feel like I’m about to fall off a cliff at the precise instant my body jerks. I guess I’m about to drift off to sleep, but my body warns me against it for some reason. From what I’ve read thus far, they’re more frequently experienced by people who are in bed, about to fall asleep. I want to know more about hypnic jerks. Someday I will, but I doubt today is the day.

Men Want to be Heroes

I heard the tail end of a story on NPR yesterday afternoon that, I gather, dealt with a group of people who individually and in small non-governmental groups go to war-torn areas to offer help in any way they can. A man who once was a special operations operative (with the Army, I suppose) spoke about his reasons for putting himself in danger. “All men want to be heroes,” he said. “We all want to save someone’s life.” As embarrassed as I am to acknowledge it, I think he’s right. My childhood hero fantasies never disappeared. Of course I’ve never done anything heroic, but I’ve daydreamed about it. I wonder why that is? Would being a “hero” somehow add worth and value to one’s life?  Or is that fantasy a subliminal psychological acknowledgement that one’s life is missing value? I wonder how many men feel that desire to be heroes? I wonder how many would be willing to admit it? Men in general, I think, are incredibly fragile in some ways. The really strong ones admit their fragility, while the others (the vast majority) hide it behind masks of bravado and stoicism. Maybe. Hell, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m like most men, nor am I one of the strong ones.

Bacon-Wrapped Scallops

I took responsibility for last night’s dinner, which consisted of bacon-wrapped scallops, roasted in the oven at 425 for about 13 minutes. In addition, we had steamed asparagus, and sliced tomatoes and onions. I liked the scallops, but my wife was not particularly impressed. She said she prefers my usual way of cooking scallops: seared in butter on a skillet. I actually prefer that, too, but I really liked the pairing of bacon and scallop flavors. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to combine seared scallops with bacon next time around. And the stalks of asparagus, though nice and thin, were rather woody.

 

The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin

Though I’m not a believer, I do believe in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but probably not uttered by him: “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Where that came from, I do not know, but I like it.

According to something else I read online, the reality is this. He wrote in a letter to Abbé Morellet: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” As I see it, he was communicating to a French man, so wine was the appropriate vessel for the message; it could have just as easily have been beer.

Margie Reckard and Antonio Basco

Margie Reckard was one of twenty-two people killed in El Paso during the mass shooting a few weeks ago. Her husband of 22 years, Antonio Basco, survives. He was concerned that, because they had moved to El Paso only a few years ago, her funeral service would be sparsely attended. Thanks to traditional and social media, the story of his concern got out. People from around the country attended her memorial. Flowers and well-wishes were sent from around the world. The overwhelming outpouring of support for Basco in one of his darkest hours moved me to tears. An image of one of Reckard’s sons from a previous marriage, crying, was incredibly moving. I sometimes wonder how the horrors visited upon this world can occur in the presence of such overwhelming concern and love. But the horrors continue, unabated. And we do nothing to stem the flow. Are we all cowards, or is it just our elected representatives?

Nudity

I know, I know. I mentioned nudity in a post just a few days ago. But bear with me for a moment while I expound again on the potential value of “going nekkid.” Aside from the obvious freedom nudity affords to the nude, it has the potential of getting children (and adults) out of sweatshops. I’m sure you’ve read about the horrendous conditions under which workers toils in clothing manufacturing facilities, especial in Asia countries. Those of us in the west, with an insatiable appetite for inexpensive clothes, that follow corporate fashion trends contribute to those conditions. Our materialism and lust for the latest and greatest clothing design feeds that ugliness. Nudity would shut that bastard down!  Let’s either get over our titillation over the human body or let’s accept the human body as the inescapably alluring sex machine it is! If the latter, let’s just cast off our modesty about casual sex in public places and accept lust and carnal desire as natural and nothing to be upset about. I’m not asking that this be done tomorrow; let’s give it a generation before we legislate and mandate nudity (except for sunscreen and to reduce the discomfort of winter chills). You might think I’m not serious. I’m deadly serious. I’d just like someone else to take the lead on this.

Ghosting

I learned, by reading an article on the BBC website, that there’s a term for the practice of leaving a job without notice and without explanation: ghosting. Though I’ve never done it, it has been done to me. More than once. People who seemed perfectly decent employees just left and didn’t return after a few days on the job. In a couple of cases, they were offered other jobs for which they interviewed before accepting my offer. In another case (or two?), I think they probably felt they were in over their head. So, instead of admitting the reason they were leaving (and giving adequate notice), they just left.

A company in Japan has a quitting service, called Exit, that will resign on behalf of employees. For a fee equivalent to roughly $457, the service will provide an employee’s resignation in absentia. That seems a bit different from simply not showing up without notice or explanation, but it accomplishes the same thing, more or less. The article also relates the story of a contractor who simply disappears without explanation and, later, someone contacts the company on behalf of his family, requesting tax information. The family claims the contractor died in an auto accident. But the company searches social media and finds a photo of the contractor that disproves that claim. Interesting. Faking one’s death to get out of an unwanted job.

The term, ghosting, apparently evolved out of a similar practice in dating. One party to the relationship simply ceases all contact with no explanation. That sounds pretty cowardly and crass to me. But, then, I’ve been out of the dating scene for roughly 43 years, maybe longer. And, truth be told, I was never really in the dating scene to start with.

Belts

I need a new belt. But it’s hard to find a belt of the correct length. I don’t buy belts on the basis of waist size. I buy them on the basis of belt length. But belt sellers sell them on the basis of waist size; like other items of clothing, waist size varies wildly, depending on who’s selling the product. So, when I buy a belt, I have to have a tape measure with me. I know exactly how long I want the belt to be. If, like yesterday, I forget to take a tape measure with me, I can’t buy a belt. You might ask why I don’t just try it on? If I take off the belt that’s holding up my pants, my pants will plummet to the floor, that’s why.

Kisses and Stings

I had to come up with a name for this post, so I decided I’ll call it kisses and stings. No particular reason; it’s just what popped into my mind.

 

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Old Canadian Misfits

There are so many possibilities for this little vignette. But I’m getting tired of writing it and I don’t have the mental stamina even to go back and tighten up what I’ve written. Instead, I’ll leave it as a foundation for a future stab at writing a full-fledged story. This is what happens when one encounters insomnia, again, in the wee hours of the morning.

Once upon a time an old man by the name of Codger McDougal lived in a cabin in the backwoods of the Canadian north country. Codger built that cabin when he was a young man with a different identity and a promising future. Back then, when he was just thirty years old, he went by the name of Jeremy Chag. He had been an apprentice metal fabricator or fitter, well on his way to becoming a journeyman, when his life appeared to have come apart at the seams.

Jeremy’s cabin, which was to be a hunting and fishing retreat, was almost finished when things started to go haywire. One Sunday afternoon, upon returning to his home in the town of Orilla on Lake Simcoe, he was met at his front door by officers of the Ontario Provincial Police.

The stone faces of Sergeant Major Conner Stipple and Detective Sergeant Leona Bywaters suggested the purpose of their visit was grave. And indeed it was.

“We’re here to ask you some questions about your relationship with Mary Margaret Embra,” Stipple said.

“Yes, what of it?” Chag responded.

“When did you see her last? And where?”

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe last Wednesday or Thursday. What’s this about?”

“We’ll ask the questions,” Bywaters piped in, “and then we’ll fill you in on what you need to know.”

Stipple continued. “Where did you last see her?”

“At work. I checked in at the head office to get my assignment and she was there. She gave me my assignment and I left.”

“And that was last Wednesday or Thursday? Try to be more specific. Was that the last time you checked in to get an assignment?”

“Yeah. I took some time off in lieu. I have quite a few banked hours, so I took some. I went to spend some time in the woods.”

“You didn’t answer my questions. What day did you go spend time in the woods? And what do you do when you ‘spend time in the woods’? Are you a hunter?”

“I guess it was Thursday. So I must have been to head office on Wednesday. That would have been the last time I saw her.”

Bywaters chimed in again. “But you first said it was Wednesday or Thursday. How could you have thought you might have seen her Thursday if that was the day you took off for the woods?”

“I don’t pay much attention to the calendar. I just work when I have to and go out in woods when I can. Would you tell me what this is all about?” Chag’s voice was louder than before and his cheeks had begun to flush with pink.

“Well,” Stipple said, “Ms. Embra has disappeared. And we’ve been told you were in a relationship with her. Is that true?”

Chag’s eyebrows snapped at Stipple’s words. “No…well, I wouldn’t call it a relationship. We spent a little time together is all. And that’s been a while back. Wait, you say she disappeared? Like vanished?”

“Let’s just say no one has come forward to tell us where we might find her. We were hoping you might be able to help.” The edge had gone from Bywaters’ voice.

“When did she disappear?”

“She hasn’t been seen since last Wednesday morning, about the time you say you checked in for assignments.” Bywaters’ hesitated for a moment, then continued, ” That’s not to say you had anything to do with her disappearance.”

Stipple shot a sideways glare at Bywaters.

Thanks to a sloppy investigation and inept investigators, the OPP developed no evidence that a crime had been committed, but the rumors and innuendo surrounding Jeremy Chag did not need evidence. Even though the investigation was eventually abandoned, the stories about Chag’s relationship with the woman did not die. And those rumors made it impossible for Chag to stay on the job. Even after he left his employer, the rumors followed him. He couldn’t get work. Less than a year after the visit by the OPP, Jeremy Chag changed his name legally to Codger McDougal.

Even though the former Jeremy Chag had considerable experience as a metal fabricator, he opted to return to the Ontario College of Trades as Codger McDougal and become an entry-level apprentice. But that did not work out. Codger began drinking heavily. First on weekends, then weeknights, and finally whenever he thought he could swallow a swig without being seen. But, of course, he was seen. And, after wasting too many opportunities to turn his life around, losing job after job after job, he was out of choices.

Codger McDougal never told anyone he was building a cabin. When he said anything about his treks into the north country, he said he was going camping. “Spending some time in the woods,” was his refrain. He finished his cabin six months before he lost his last job, during one of his rare sober periods. During the course of construction, before the meltdown, he had dug a well, installed solar panels, and built a septic system, making his little cabin in the woods a fully functioning, self-reliant home. Once the last bit of trim was installed, he returned to his house in Orilla, loaded his belongings into a borrowed panel truck, and moved lock, stock, and barrel to his hermit’s getaway. By that time, he was four months in arrears on his mortgage (still in the name of Jeremy Chag) and six months behind on the payments on his very expensive Ford F-150 pickup. He couldn’t take his house with him, but the following day he drove his pickup to his cabin and disappeared into the woods outside Sahanatien, Ontario.

About the same time Codger McDougal skipped out on his financial obligations, Detective Sergeant Leona Bywaters was placed on administrative leave for an infraction the OPP kept confidential. Whatever it was, the offense was sufficiently serious that her employment with the OPP was terminated without fanfare three months later.

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Intellectual Refraction

My college sociology classes exposed me to concepts of social deviance I had never encountered in the “real world.” Once exposed to those concepts, I looked at the world through a different set of eyes. No longer could behaviors be labeled as simply good or bad; behaviors were expressions of a complex set of drivers shaped by the environment, by psychology, and by social structures. “Deviance” was a moving target; unacceptable behaviors during one time frame became not only acceptable but socially embraced in another. Societies changed in much the same way that biological organisms evolved in response to changes in the world around them. Social deviance serves an important role in society by establishing, at any moment in time, boundaries of “good behavior.” But those boundaries never have been solid, firm, or immovable; they are constantly under assault by sociological forces.

The reason social deviance came to mind this morning is that I listened to a StoryCorps conversation between a 42-year-old woman and her 71-year-old aunt. The aunt had come out as transgender in the late 1960s. Her parents had sent her away, concerned that the condition might be contagious. A few years later, she underwent sex-reassignment surgery, now called gender confirmation surgery. Over time, her family came to accept her; she was no longer the deviant outcast she had once been.

The woman’s experience seems, to me, a great example of how social deviance exists—at least in some cases—at the intersection between psychology, biology, and sociology. Her family’s eventual acceptance of her as a woman is evidence that love can overcome fear if given a chance. But her family’s initial rejection of her demonstrates how perceived “otherness” can be a powerful negative motivator. “If you’re not like me, you’re bad or dangerous; not to be trusted, not to be allowed into my inner circle.”

I’ve expressed regret that I didn’t pursue and complete graduate coursework in sociology. I really loved learning about social structures and how they form and change and disintegrate and re-form. I’ve forgotten almost all I learned from my sociology classes. When I read something written by sociologists, some of what I learned tries to surface in my brain, but it never comes fully into my consciousness. And, of course, since I completed my undergraduate work forty-four years ago (!!!), the academic world of sociology must have changed radically. I’m sure some of what I learned has been replaced by better, stronger, and more complex theories. It would have been fun to have stuck with a subject I found so fascinating.

It’s silly to even think it, but I think the world would be a far better, more peaceful, more accepting place if everyone in it had been exposed to some of the concepts I learned about social deviance when I was in school. Though I don’t recall being told this specifically, I remember receiving the message, loud and clear, that social perspectives at odds with one another are not good or bad, they’re just different. Sure, there’s good and bad in the world, but we need not—and should not—look at everything through the lens of righteousness. I think people would be more open-minded if they had been exposed to the things to which I was exposed during my education. That is not to say I am the poster-boy for open-mindedness; my embarrassing biases and prejudices are the stuff of legends. But a little more willingness to accept that people see the world through the lens of different experiences would go a long way toward greater serenity.

I suppose it’s never too late to learn, or to re-learn. But I’m not sure I have the energy nor the discipline to recapture what I once knew, much less to catch up on a discipline that has had forty-four years to mature.  So, I’ll be satisfied, to the extent I can, to learn a little here and a little there and to continue to allow my early education to shape the way I view my world. I think of this concept as intellectual refraction; rather than seeing the world through a black and white lens, I try to see it from a perspective that reveals all its colors and requires me to concentrate on what all those colors mean.

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The Allure of Skepticism and Belief

I remain extremely skeptical. But there’s room in my skepticism for the remote possibility that others have discovered aspects of reality that I haven’t experienced. An example of my skepticism that leaves open a possibility that goes against the grain is the Japanese healing art of Reiki. According to the website naturalhealers.com, “Reiki uses only touch and sometimes merely the proximity of the healer’s hands to particular parts of the body, using 12 to 20 prescribed hand positions, depending on the training tradition.” I can readily buy the concept that touch, even light touch, can have an effect on one’s physical and mental condition. But the idea that the mere proximity of a “healer’s” hands can have the same effect is what I find difficult to accept. Again, I’m not rejecting it outright; I’ll readily admit that my immersion in western culture makes me prone to disbelief, so I have to pry open my skeptic’s brain in order to entertain the possibility that such an impact is possible.

The reason the subject of Reiki enters my mind is that I’ve been offered treatment sessions by Reiki practitioners. Two people offered, on separate occasions, to perform Reiki to help relieve the pains associated with my cancer treatments. I expressed appreciation for the offers and said I might accept them later, but I haven’t. At least not yet. Lately, though, I’ve thought to myself, “Why the hell not? The only damage it could do is to cause me embarrassment for involvement in something I consider deeply woo-woo.” I have an innate bias against woo-woo. Practices that seem to go against known physical laws just tend to leave me cold. Metaphysics in general, leaves me cold. One of the definitions of the term appeals to me for some reason: “philosophy, especially in its more abstruse branches.” “It more abstruse branches,” indeed! Follow the synonyms and you’ll find “esoteric” and “recondite” and “obscure.” Perhaps their very definitions lend strength to my bias against such philosophies that seem to have no grounding in the physical world; no basis in science, especially physics. Yet, I purposely try to fight my biases in an attempt to understand an aspect of the universe that has, heretofore, either remained hidden or exists only in the imaginations of people who tend toward the woo-woo.

Even as I sit here, writing about trying to have an open mind about such stuff, my mind keeps warning me not to allow myself to be a sucker. “Don’t buy into anything whose only evidence rests with the words of people of questionable credentials,” I hear myself say. “Don’t be so close-minded,” I respond, while wondering whether my reliance on reason and evidence and measurable facts should be considered biased or prejudiced.

One of the reasons I’m hesitant to allow myself to embrace woo-woo is this: the current administration is engaged in a war against science and the scientific method, preferring instead to rely on the unmitigated bias of people whose motives rest exclusively in the province of greed. I think there’s a significant danger is drifting too far into the woo-woo, giving credence to unsupported claims on all manner of things contrary to scientific evidence.  But that’s far afield of my consideration this morning of Reiki. I have to acknowledge the remote possibility that human bodies in close physical proximity can register some form of force field (I don’t know a better term) that could cause changes in one or both bodies. Electro-magnetic fields can be measured and demonstrated as real, though they are invisible; perhaps some similar phenomena, as yet unmeasured by science, also exists. I’m trying. I am.

Here’s another possibility: the knowledge that someone is holding their hands very close to, but not quite touching, one’s body could very well impact the “target” person’s brain functions. Without his knowledge, perhaps. His skin could become tighter, his muscles could become tense, his body could prepare itself for a potential but unknown sensation. That is, the mind can trick the body into behaving in odd ways.

Ultimately, it comes back to this: “Why the hell not? The only damage it could do is to cause me embarrassment for involvement in something I consider deeply woo-woo.” I still have no firm answer.

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The Color of Conspiracy

I wasn’t going to write any more this morning. But I did.

What color is a black object? That’s an interesting question whose answer is beyond my capacity to fully comprehend, much less explain. An object that absorbs all visible light appears black. Experts on color call black an achromatic color, a color without hue (so, it is a color, huh?). But if black objects absorb all visible light, when we see a black object, are we “seeing” the absence of reflected light? That is, are we seeing a gaping hole in the spectrum of visible light? Another question that rests just beyond my mental capacity to fully fathom is this: if a black object absorbs all visible light, is that object a vessel of visible light? Where does all that visible light go when it gets absorbed by the object? And how does one know an object is actually “there” if it does not reflect any light? And, if it’s true that a black object absorbs all visible light, when we view a black object, are we in fact viewing darkness, beyond which is a hidden collection of visible light?

It’s interesting to me that, when I enter a completely darkened room after having been in a room full of light, I can see absolutely nothing; I see blackness or darkness or emptiness. As my eyes adjust to the absence of light, though, I might be able to see something; the edge of a piece of furniture, for example. That means, of course, the dark room isn’t really dark; it’s just extremely dim. But what about that room in which there is absolutely no light of any kind? A tiny pinpoint of light at the end of a microscopically thin fiber-optic cable would be instantly visible in that darkness. Light instantly overcomes darkness. Try the opposite though: enter a room ablaze with light and look for the end of a fiber-optic cable that isn’t transmitting light. You won’t find it, at least not easily. Darkness does not overcome light. Obviously, the symbolism is not lost on me.

Consider this: as you read black text on a white page (or black text on a white screen), you are translating the absence of reflected light into words. The white page (or screen) means nothing until tiny strips of reflected light are peeled away, revealing a code you’ve been taught to translate into thoughts. It’s like magic, but with more power. You might imagine the white page or screen covers a field of black; scrape away fragments of white and you reveal knowledge hidden beneath. But if all the white fragments are removed, nothing but meaningless blackness remains. Understanding the code requires witnessing a complex dance between black and white. Thinking about this for long could make my head explode, so perhaps I should step away from the white screen for a moment.

I often refer to grey as dark white or light black. Not that my characterization of color (or, perhaps, off-color?) matters, of course. And, by the way, what is the proper spelling of grey? I much prefer to use the letter ‘e’ in my grey. Others seem to think the letter ‘a’ is the one and only proper way to spell the word. According to Dictionary.com, “…gray is the more popular spelling in the US, while grey reigns supreme in the UK as well as Ireland, Australia, and other places that use British English.” That distinction notwithstanding, I’ll stick with grey.

Speaking of colors (or, since I use the preferred British spelling of grey, maybe I should say colours), the shifting popularity of colors intrigues me. I vaguely remember a time when the pairing of pink and black was wildly popular. Or maybe I remember reading about it (it may have been before my time). Regardless of when, there was such a time. And avocado green and harvest gold appliances were all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. Why? I’m of the opinion that manufacturers and marketers have more control over our lives than we’d like to think. My theory is that manufacturers pay top dollar to people who have the wherewithal to influence the masses (the rest of us). When refrigerators and stoves and washers and dryers lasted longer than they do today (before engineered obsolescence and product demise were perfected), manufacturers hired these influencers to sell the idea that happiness required harvest gold and avocado appliances. Perfectly good white washers and dryers and ranges and ovens and refrigerators were discarded in favor of appliances sold under the guise of happiness-inducing devices. The cycle continues to be repeated, for some reason, even now when appliances tend to last only months instead of decades. Stainless steel (I call it burnished grey) became a symbol of the American dream, and remains so, even though fingerprints tend to ruin appliances’ appearance within days of purchase. Liquids sold as stainless steel polishes take care of fingerprints for several minutes before streaks begin to appear, never to be overcome regardless of how much liquid is used and how much polishing takes place. I noticed it, too; I’ve gone wildly off track. Stainless steel (burnished grey) may not be a legitimate color, though its appearance and its popularity suggests it has some relationship to color popularity. Okay, that’s where I was going.

For a time, and perhaps still, black appliances were quite popular. I suspect that was an artifact of the planet’s transition through its dark night of the soul, though that stage may yet occur in earnest. Seriously, I suspect black was popular because the “color influencers” decided to sell black appliances as “edgy.” It’s no surprise to me that many of the black appliances were found in architecturally modern homes, pure symbols of edginess. By the way, I am a huge fan of modern home design, which I define as reminiscent of the styles of Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and some of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. There are no doubt others; I’m not particularly knowledgeable about architects and architecture. My housing style preference notwithstanding, I’m not a fan of black appliances. I actually like stainless steel, though, except I’d probably prefer a stainless steel “look” to the actual stainless steel, thanks to the fingerprint and polish issues discussed above.

Aside from conspiratorial marketing and manufacturing, why do we tend to gravitate, collectively, toward certain color palates? Paint manufacturers, of course, hire the same color influencers, by the way, that the appliance makers use. But, again, aside from conspiracy, why does the obvious color synchronicity take place? Wall colors seem to go through the same sorts of phases. Sage green. Grey. Beige. Remember the washed pastels that defined “Southwestern” design in the 1980s? Even wood furniture was treated with pink color washes; we own such a piece to this day.  No, I don’t think there’s anything else. The conspirators are manipulating us. They have been since day one. We simply follow their subliminal instructions and lap up their directions. We like what they want us to like. We abandon old color palates in favor of new ones because we’re told to do it. Fail to act as instructed? Prepare to be shunned, at best, by the fashion police. Or to be raided by fashion interventionists who take on the personas of family and friends, urging us to adapt to the “new ways” or be forever cast as sticks in the mud; change-averse dinosaurs destined to extinction.

It’s not just appliances and wall colors. It’s clothes, too. Both style and color. Our options are limited. Buy what “they” sell or do without. Or buy used appliances, old or unpainted houses, and used clothing. Or go without. I’m not prepared to go without a refrigerator or a stove or a roof over my head, but I’m a proponent of going without clothes. I’ve written  about the appeal of nudity, so I won’t go into detail now. But nudity, shed of its titillating ‘naughtiness,’ has enormous appeal. The idea is so freeing! Now, when considering color in the context of the human form, one has to acknowledge that many natural colors do not appear on color wheels. We simply have no way of describing the incalculable number of colors one finds on a single human body, much less on the bodies of billions. Different pigments, different environments, and different foods all contribute to variations in skin color that exceed (in my opinion) the number of colors cataloged by all the color-wheel manufacturers in all the land. Yet some cosmetics manufacturers have the temerity to label their products’ color as “nude.” The gall!

I say we all gather in the streets, nude, and demand an end to corporate color oppression.

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Unasleep

Like clockwork. Fortunately, I went to bed very early again (around 9), so I got a few hours sleep before cramps and insomnia conspired to wake me. At my brother’s suggestion, I drank tonic water to ward off cramps; apparently it didn’t work (though I had some after I got up and the quinine may have done some good). It’s not just leg cramps. It’s snapping wide awake at 2:00 a.m. and feeling like sleep is not in the cards in the immediate future. Argh.

I’ve been up for two hours now and doubt I’ll try to sleep any time soon. Yesterday afternoon, I think I napped a bit, though my intent was only to relax in my recliner. I may have dozed. So maybe I’m getting adequate sleep, just on an unusual schedule.

The dream is only a vague memory now, slipping fast, but I dreamed I was involved in some way with a magazine about the Texas border with Mexico. The few scenes I remember make no sense to me. I should have written it all down when I woke up.

I don’t feel like writing. I think it’s obvious. So I’ll stop.

 

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Memorable and Not-So-Memorable Mugs

Mugs. Lots of mugs. Fifty of them, more or less. Many of them mementos of our travels over the years. The first time we hung this enormous mug rack (the photo captures only a tiny piece of it) was when we lived in Arlington, Texas, between 1990 and 1997. I don’t recall whether we hung it while we lived in Dallas; I don’t think so. But we finally hung it in our house in Hot Springs Village, thanks to my niece and her husband, without whose help the mugs would remain in moving boxes.

The only wall in the house that is suitable to the mug rack is in the guest bedroom that doubles as my office. (There’s a long, tedious explanation as to why the “sky room” next to the master bedroom does not fill that role; I’ll not dwell on that here.) So, any overnight guests who visit now have the pleasure of viewing our many mugs. Several of the mugs are from my unicorn-collecting phase, a long-since abandoned endeavor. When I first started collecting unicorns, unicorn figures and figurines (and mugs) were rare; today, they are as common as toilet paper. As we continue collecting mugs from travels near and far, we’ll replace the unicorn mugs with more memorable stuff. And we may eventually replace the mass-produced mugs in favor of one-of-a-kind, hand-made works of art (or even just works of craft).

The concept of collecting for the sake of collecting occupies opposing places in my brain. On the one hand, the mementos give me pleasure; on the other, they represent mindless, conspicuous consumption. I view our mug collection as an early symptom of hording behavior. I’ll admit that I’ve not given any thought to it until just now, but I suspect the psychology of collecting and hording both relate in some fashion to an unhealthy attachment to “things” that represent an experience with some form of anguish in one’s past. Probably a childhood trauma indelibly etched in brain tissue.

In the case of our mugs, I wonder whether the decision to collect them involves an effort to reduce the likelihood that we will forget the experiences that led us to purchase them? That is, if we have a mug from Barcelona, will our memories of the brief visit there so many years ago retain their brightness, as if the experience was recent? The answer to that, incidentally, is “no.” I remember seeing La Sagrada Familia and I have vague recollections of seeing Gaudí buildings; maybe a visit to a famous artist’s home, but not much else.  I have never been very good at taking photographs while traveling. I would rather experience the sights and sounds of a place through my own eyes than through a lens. But that preference allows images to fade much faster than those one captures with a camera. So, I sometimes regret not taking pictures. I used to think mugs were stand-ins for photos; no more. Now, I think old-fashioned picture postcards might be the way to go. Forget the photos until you’ve seen things you’d like to have photographed. Then, find a picture postcard rack and buy cards that reflect the places you’ve seen. Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? Somebody could make a killing out of selling postcards. And they probably will.

But we’re here to talk about mugs, aren’t we? Indeed. So I shall. One day, if the mood strikes me at just the right time, I will photograph each mug on our rack and will record (to the extent memory allows) where we got it and what I recall of the place. Assuming each mug will require at least sixty minutes of viewing, recalling, photographing, and writing, I have around 50 hours of work to do before I realize it’s a pointless exercise. Actually, I suspect I’ll catch on much sooner than 50 hours in; perhaps 15 minutes, instead.

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Dark Hour Conversations with Myself

Yet again, insomnia and muscle cramps. This is becoming habitual. Yesterday, as I was attempting to find a “cure” for my muscle cramps, I came across an article that suggests drinking pickle juice can put an end to muscle cramps. I haven’t tried it. Not yet. But if these damn cramps don’t abandon my muscles of their own accord, I might opt to attempt to drown them in pickle juice. Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m not there yet, but I can see the destination from here. And the insomnia. Perhaps the cramps are causing me to awake and, in spite of my best efforts, fail to fall asleep again. I went to bed early again last night; getting a few hours sleep starting around 9 or 10, though, isn’t an adequate substitute for a full night of restful sleep.

Naturally, after I got up around 1:30 or so, I checked email. And there was a message expressing concern about a blog I created for a church; the concern is that the blog’s URL address seems (to the concerned party) to imply that it is an official site for the church. In my sleep-deprived state, augmented by a not-very-forgiving mood, my immediate reaction was to wonder whether people have run out of legitimate concerns so, in the absence of real-world issues, they just make them up. My next reaction was to consider suggesting that someone else create a blog whose URL address begins with “unaffiliatedwith” or “notanofficialsiteof” or “wedonotspeakfor” or something else that clearly illustrates bureaucratic thinking at its most fulsome. All right; enough of that. I should be more charitable. But, really? You’d think I had crafted a contentious declaration of dangerous church doctrine. It’s a blog, for God’s sake. Opinions, ideas, something intended to provoke thoughts. Arrgghh. Whatever. I’m not going to waste any more energy on it. If there’s opposition to it, fine. I created it, I can kill it if necessary.

My visit to the ENT doc yesterday was not revelatory. Nothing that suggests clues to the cause of my chronic cough. But I’ll have x-rays done today; doc wants to rule out any issues with sinuses. I suspect he suspects the issues are related to the lungs; he seemed stunned that I do not have a pulmonologist. He did offer one possibility; acid reflux that’s not severe enough to cause pain, but bad enough to trigger coughing fits. I’m not sure whether he can nail that down, though. I’m getting more than moderately frustrated with this chronic cough. I’m probably more frustrated with it at this moment simply because I’m awake and it’s approaching 4 a.m.

I have plenty of other topics to write about, but I’m not going to write about them now. I think I’ll see about a dark hour snack to accompany my dark hour conversation with myself. I could try to go back to bed, but that would probably result in sleeping in (like I did yesterday), which I do not like to do. I wonder why I find awakening after 7 a.m. so offensive? Not in others, only in myself. I’m thinking in unlinked circles. That’s not good. I should stop now.

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Sleepless in the Ouachitas

It’s nearing 5 o’clock in the morning. I’ve been awake for hours, having been ripped from a fitful sleep by horrific cramps in both my legs, beginning sometime between 1 and 2 a.m. The first time, the cramps resolved themselves relatively quickly and I was able to get back to sleep. Not so the second time. The 20-30 minute period of off-again, on-again cramps was enough to keep me up. Finally, about 4, I decided to make breakfast; two thin patties of Jimmie Dean hot sausage between two pieces of sourdough toast, dressed with sliced tomato and a bit of my tomatillo-based salsa verde. The house now smells like a small town diner crowded with farmers waiting for sunrise, thanks to those sizzling sausage patties.

The weather today and tomorrow promises to be brutally hot and humid. Even at this hour, the outside temperature is roughly 80 degrees and the humidity is probably about the same. Tomorrow’s heat index, according to weather forecasters, will exceed 115 degrees; that’s the stuff of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. We’ll spend most of the day indoors, crossing our fingers that the excessive heat doesn’t fry the HVAC system. Extreme hot weather tends to put excessive stress on air conditioners, it seems; either that, or karma is vindictive.

Odds are good that I will nap at some point today, provided the combination of air conditioning and fan can keep me sufficiently cool to permit me to sleep. I am not a fan of naps for many reasons, most of which are irrational. Chief among my complaints about naps is that I might miss something while sleeping. The same could be said about the almost universal practice of going to bed each night, though, so my argument against naps is flimsy at best. And, despite my objection to the practice of napping, I sometimes enjoy a good nap. Usually, that happens the day after a night like the one just now coming to an end; a night during which sleep was a rarity.

All right, then. I’ll give sleep another try.

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Pseudo-Scientific Rambling

The universe adjusts to accommodate us. As we move through space, the shape of the air around us adjusts to fit our forms. When the air moves to adapt to our motion, we do not propel only the molecules of air around us to change their positions; every molecule of air in every direction shifts, if ever so slightly, to make way.

If every one of these molecular adjustment were accompanied by a flash of brilliant, colorful light, the display would overload our senses. We would be dazzled by a constant rain of kaleidoscopic light, spectacularly vivid sparkles that would draw our attention away from mundane lives.

The butterfly effect, of chaos theory, pales in comparison to my theory that every atom of every substance—known and unknown—is in constant motion, making way for every other atom of every other substance. My theory, I’ll call it Steroidal Fractal Theory, posits this:  each movement of each atom causes every other atom to move an equal distance in a never-ending pattern that grows exponentially larger with each motion. In simple terms, if every atom in the universe were, at any given time, absolutely static, the movement of a single atom would cause simultaneous movement of every other atom; and their movement would cause identical movements of every other atom, adinfinitum. In other words, perpetual motion.

I find it fascinating to think that a single note of a whale’s song in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean can trigger a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Of course, it’s a bit of a stretch to say the note “causes” the eruption, but it’s more gripping to make that claim than to attribute the explosion to an impossibly complex interaction between every atom in the universe with every other atom. Speaking of every atom in the universe: how many are there? Can we even begin to conceive of a number large enough to encompass every atom? I have a hard enough time thinking of the number of all the leaves on all the trees in all the forests, let alone the number of atoms constituting those leaves. But, then, to attempt to go beyond that incomprehensible figure to grasp at a number…it’s too hard.

How efficient would a human brain have to be to catalog all human knowledge? To know every language, every mathematical equation, every historical event, all medical and biological and chemical data? Absolute knowledge of even a fraction of human endeavor would take up more space and/or require more efficiency than we’re capable of achieving, I think. Take metallurgy, for example; is it possible for one person to know absolutely everything about metallurgy, beginning with the very first understanding of metal to today’s enormously complex body of metallurgical knowledge?

The first paragraph of this post unintentionally suggests, I think, that the universe revolves around”us.” Humans, that is. Intellectually, I believe that it absolutely false; the universe does not revolve around humans. But emotionally I think we cannot help but make that assumption, even though we know it is a bad assumption. How else can we process this experience we’re living with, though? I think our understanding of the universe is automatically processed through the lens of human perception; we can’t have it any other way, no matter how hard we try.

Although these topics intrigue me, they do not hold sufficient interest for me to explore them more deeply. That’s true of most topics, unfortunately. My interest seems to parallel my discipline; both wane quickly. It’s not with pride that I say my interests are as wide as the ocean and as shallow as the morning dew. I know very little about many things.  That’s the very definition of shallow, I think. Maybe shallow isn’t the right word, though. Shallow suggests there’s a motive toward ignorance. That’s not it, at least not with me. I’d like to know more; I just don’t have the mental stamina to do the work. I’d be thrilled to be enormously intelligent and knowledgeable; if I could achieve such a status with regular injections, I’d happily lift my sleeve and swab my arm with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab.

I have a very intelligent friend who refuses to write because she is afraid her writing would be embarrassing in its display of ignorance. Listening to her talk, one is immediately struck by her superior intellect. But she insists that she would embarrass herself by writing. I could slap her!  On the other hand,  I think I’m a pretty good writer. But my intellect is far inferior to my writing. If  I knew as much as my writing sometimes suggest I do, I might be pretty damn bright. Perhaps it’s not so much a paucity of knowledge as it’s a dearth of critical thinking capability. Or, if truth be told, outright laziness. I have the capacity to know more and think more critically, but I just don’t want to invest the energy and the time to improve. So I remain my slothful self, my communication skills sufficient to fake my way through intelligent conversations, forced to regularly admit gaps in my knowledge.

Sometimes, I think writing fiction is a coping mechanism. Rather than invest the time and energy to learn new things, I can just make stuff up. Like Steroidal Fractal Theory, which allows me to cope with my ignorance of physics by manufacturing BS that may have some remote connection to facts, but only tangentially. I do the same thing with characters. Rather than engage with people on a level sufficiently deep to really know them (and vice versa), I manufacturer characters. It’s easier than wading through the debris and detritus of personal relationships. And it’s far easier to eliminate bad relationships; with writing, the delete key is readily available, whereas deleting in the real world is both immoral and illegal.

I wasn’t always this lazy. I suspect unpleasant outcomes in the past to my hard work might have something to do with my torpidity. That’s a topic for another time, perhaps in the presence of a trained psychotherapist. For now, it’s time for breakfast.

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The Diagnosis

I was shocked by the prognosis; even more surprised that it was delivered in such a matter-of-fact way, utterly without emotion. The doctor explained that the persistent cough I had been experiencing was symptomatic of an unusual form of lung cancer.

“It’s always terminal, but we never know how quickly it will develop; it could be months, it could be days. There’s just no way to predict how fast it will evolve. You should try to make the best of the time you have left.”

I tried to make sense of it, but it was pointless. Ultimately, I thrashed about enough to wake myself from the dream. It wasn’t real. But it felt real. There was more to it. Much more like reality than dreamscape. I couldn’t sleep after experiencing it. I felt certain that it was, somehow, real. I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out how to organize the limited time left to me so that my unexpected death wouldn’t be so traumatic to my wife.

That dream wasn’t especially unusual. Ever since my lung cancer diagnosis last year, I’ve had dreams like it; never quite the same from one night to the next, but always sufficiently troublesome to ruin what otherwise might have been a good night’s sleep. I’ve never revealed these dreams to anyone because I know they might disturb people. But, given the fact that they have become a regular part of my life, I guess they’re no longer quite the horrors they once were.

The dreams have changed over time. They are not always so shockingly hard on me or others in the dreams. Sometimes, they bother me because I am the only one in the dream who seems to be upset by the prognosis; I am the only one who is bothered that my death is imminent. In one dream, at least, the fact that I’m upset by the prognosis seems to be an annoyance to other people. “We KNOW you’re dying. Can you just let up on it for a while?” I don’t know how to respond to that; I just choke down a sob and turn away.

Given that my cancer is, as far as anyone knows, long gone, I don’t know why I keep having these damn dreams. Maybe my fear hasn’t diminished, in spite of the good news. Or maybe the recurrent issues, like the persistent cough, have convinced my subconscious that the doctors haven’t quite figured out what’s wrong with me. Hypochondria is not outside the realm of possibility; maybe I’m just faking sickness and that artificial illness is invading my dreams.

I’ve said, aloud, that I’m not afraid of whatever it is that I’m facing. That would be a bit of a lie. I am afraid, of course. Who wouldn’t be, knowing the disease that was surgically removed from one’s body was capable of killing its host? From a purely logical, rational, intellectual perspective, I think the likelihood that lung cancer is killing me is slim. I think they got it. But my emotions don’t allow me to be entirely logical. They still permit me to be scared. Though I don’t know what I’m scared of. Only the pain, I guess. I have no fear of death; only of the processes leading there. And, of course, death’s debris; the aftermath that those left behind have to address.

These thoughts are gloomy, drab, ugly ideas. But I can’t help but think them. They emerge from my dreams and infect my waking hours. We all die, don’t we? We don’t need to spend time dwelling on the inevitable, but sometimes I have no control over my thoughts. Well, I never have control over my thoughts. They always have control over me.

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Time to Kill Rugged Individualism

Rugged individualist. Loner. Aloof. Outsider. Those terms once described the person I sought to be. A man of his own. A guy who steered clear of the crowd, preferring to make his own decisions and think his own thoughts. Someone who would carve his destiny out of solid rock.

I think television commercials encouraged the idea that the rugged individualist was the role model a young man should follow. “Joiners” were the same as “followers;” helpless and weak and as malleable as soft clay. The individualist was the leader. He didn’t care what the crowd said; he was going it alone. He was always taller than everyone else. And he was always a he. And, of course, he was a myth. A more honest description would be this: he was a lie.

Despite the fact that the myth was fiction, it caught on in a big way. Our entire society embraced it and honored it and taught one another to pursue it; each and every one of us on our own, of course. The concept that individualists were good, brave, honest, and hard-working swept through our collective psyches like flood waters pour through a failed dam.  We were engulfed by the flow and most of us drowned in it. I don’t know just when it happened. It may have begun long before I was born, even long before my great grandparents were born; regardless, it had carved deep canyons in our national soul by the time I was a young man. Those television commercials were just polished versions of the myth of the accomplished individualist.

Men who smoked Marlboro cigarettes and road horses into desolate canyons symbolized our national treasure: the rugged individualist. John Wayne, the actor, was the poster boy for the archetype.

Much of the hoopla about individualism either suggested or outright insisted that it was an either/or concept. You were either a loner or you were a follower, a nameless face in the crowd. Like most absolutes, that idea was invalid from the start. Humans have always been hard-wired as social creatures. We form collectives as naturally as we breathe. Families. Villages. Work teams. The rugged individualist would fail miserably in situations that require group efforts. Yet our society continued (continues?) to insist that only by his efforts have we achieved the great gains of which we are so proud. And we have continued to pit the concept of the individual against the concept of the group, as if the two cannot exist in parallel. The arguments against collectivism rely on powerful fear-mongering; democracy and capitalism, they imply, cannot survive collectivism. Those bastions of the modern world absolutely require rugged individualism.

I bought into the nonsense. In fact, I embraced it for almost all my life so far. Only in the last few years have I really begun to contemplate the ideas of individualism versus collectivism. The more I delve into it, at least from an intellectual and purely personal perspective, the more strongly I conclude that collectivism is far preferable. We accomplish much more together than I can accomplish alone. The sum of our joint efforts is exponentially greater than the sum of our individual efforts. The propagandists who serve the lord master of individualism don’t bother to recognize or acknowledge that collectivism cannot exist without the individuals who form the collective. It’s not either/or. It’s both. And it’s really not any different from the real world as it has been and as it remains. The myth of individualism versus collectivism is what it is: a myth. It’s a story without a plot; its main character is drunk on his own power over…nothing.

Agricultural co-ops. Buying groups. Condominium associations. Home-owner associations. Apartment dwellers, for god’s sake! Cooperative engagements are all around us. People recognize the fact that we’re stronger together. But the myth persists. Fear-mongering about communism and socialism persist, even in the shadow of grand socialist experiments like Medicare and Social Security and the tax code! We soundly rejected the concept of being royal subjects to a real loner, a true rugged individualist. Yet, still, the lie persists.

I believe the legend of the rugged individualist should be allowed to die or, if it won’t go quietly, be killed. The merits of collectivism should be talked about at every opportunity. The story should be retold. The successes of collectivism should be celebrated in every city and town. Co-ops should trumpet their own accomplishments.

“The most powerful individual is a member of a collective. The most successful collective thrives because of individual efforts.” How’s that for a tag line? Too long? Yeah, I thought so, too.  How about “I am, because we are?” Okay, enough of that.

I envision a national conversation about making things happen together. Not because of, or in spite of, powerful leaders, but because we are collectively much more powerful than we are alone. No individual, no matter how rugged, can do as much as a committed group of people who share a common vision.

And thus ends today’s rant.

 

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Nothing is Impossible

Imagine, if you will, an enormous United States rocket, poised on a launchpad for liftoff on a trip across the galaxy to a distant planet. Then, just moments later, deafening sounds engulf the sky as the monstrous beast’s engines ignite, spraying smoke and flames and heat a thousand yards in every direction. The spacecraft rises from its launching platform slowly, it seems, at first. As it climbs, though, its speed increases exponentially. In a matter of seconds, the vessel is a barely visible fireball in the sky. And then it disappears into the heavens, bound for a destination light-years away.

The lift-off went just as planned. Its timing was perfect; each element of the launch took place precisely as intended at exactly the right moment. The sequence of events leading to the successful launch followed the intended procedures down the fraction of a second. Launch could not have been any better.

Mission control watched as the rocket left the troposphere, pierced the stratosphere, the mesosophere, the thermosphere, and finally stabbed through the exosphere into the solar wind. No deviations from plan. Perfection at every stage. But, then, something went wrong. The moment the projectile flashed into the solar wind, the missile’s trajectory changes sharply into a huge arc.

Stunned engineers and scientists in the mission control room watch screens display a massive failure. In spite of the surprise, everyone knows what to do. They scramble to their stations to initiate responses to abort the mission. To their horror, though, none of their actions has an effect on the rocket. It continues on its downward arc. Almost instantaneous calculations suggest the spacecraft will, if allowed to continue on its present course, crash into a heavily populated area: Shanghai, China. Of course, the rocket is equipped with a self-destruct module, so that is not a worry. Right? We’ll see. And the object reentry risk analysis conducted before launch revealed the risk to human life to be small. So, we’ll have lost a lost of money, but no lives. Yet…

Everything that could go right, did. Until everything that could go wrong, did.

You are witnessing the latter. The self-destruct sequence did not begin as planned. The breakup on reetry into the atmosphere is not taking place, thanks to the trajectory of reentry. The rocket will hit Shanghai, a city with more than twenty-two million inhabitants, in a matter of minutes. Urgent high-level diplomatic communications take place almost immediately in an attempt to avoid retaliatory measures. Chinese fighter jets scramble in a vain attempt to destroy a rocket traveling many times faster than the jets’ maximum speed.

One extremely important bit of information, hidden from virtually everyone until this moment, is being relayed to the Chinese: the rocket’s payload includes nuclear devices with the destructive power of 40 megatons. The U.S. intended to test the device on Saturn upon completion of the mission. Now, instead, the bomb is heading toward Shanghai.

No one, not even the Chinese, know what the response will be when the world’s most populous city is destroyed by a U.S. nuclear bomb. Will a U.S. apology be enough? Will the Chinese people accept it? But wait, we don’t know yet whether the bomb will be detonated on impact. It’s too early to worry about that scenario. Right now, we need to focus on what can be done to stop the explosion from happening.

Too late. It happened. Now, we await the aftermath. And we wonder what we’ve done.

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The Price of Engagement

At some point, it becomes obvious. “I’ll get back to you” becomes an unfulfilled promise. Sure, there are reasons. But they’re never especially strong. Certainly not strong enough to merit trust. Believing them. Accepting them. And, so, you move on. You find someone else worth your time. Eventually. Or you don’t. If you don’t, you come to realize what you thought were trust and friendship and dependability are just myths. And you harden, if you can. And you withdraw into the shell that has been your protection for so long.  The only thing you can count on, really. The only dependable, but tolerable, pain is recognition that the old camaraderie is part of a grand show, an elaborate put-on designed to follow a script written as a ruse. The rehearsals for this spectacular production have taken place over the course of a lifetime. Every day is practice for the next, each scene carefully crafted to slide flawlessly into another act, as if the entire farce were designed to manipulate the audience, of which you were a part, into believing. You are not blameless, you know. You engaged in that time-worn undertaking, the willing suspension of disbelief. The ticket for admission comes at a cost; the pain of knowing, in the end, that deceit is just part of the plan. Everyone has his own pain; but not everyone has to share it so freely. Or is that the price one pays for engagement?

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Practical Compassion

An occasional “feel-good” story can go considerable distance toward restoring one’s faith in humanity, if only briefly. One I read about a day or two ago helped reduce the span between despair and hope. I don’t recall all the details, only that a single working mother whose child suffers from autism (along with other maladies, I think) received a note in her mailbox. The note chastised her for allowing the exterior of her house to look shoddy; the yard was unkempt, it seems, and other evidence pointed to neglect. The writer urged her to “do better” so her house would not reduce the value of other homes in the neighborhood. The woman posted a copy of the note to Facebook; it went viral. Soon, an army of volunteers showed up at her house to do yard work, painting, etc., etc.  End of story. Goodness prevails.

But, as is usually the case with me, that’s not the end of the story. I was curious about the untold story. (I still am, inasmuch as I’ve learned nothing else about the situation.) While I was heartened that strangers jumped in to help a person obviously in need, I wondered about details the story did not reveal. Did this woman’s house become neglected because she had to choose between caring for her child and caring for the house? After the clean-up, does the woman (or the volunteers…or anyone) have a plan to ensure that the house and yard are maintained? I wanted to know that, somehow, the cycle of demands on the woman’s time and/or the limited resources that might have led to the problem had been addressed. I was happy about the altruism of strangers, of course, and I felt a knot in my throat as I considered how compassionate those people were. But was that overwhelming urge to help just a band-aid over a severed artery? I don’t know. Perhaps the matter was resolved and everyone will live happily ever after. Or perhaps not.

I remember when the December 26, 2004 tsunami killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean. News of the event sickened me. I felt helpless to do anything but give money. Fortunately for me at the time, my small company was doing reasonably well and I was able to make a $1,000 donation toward the recovery. I think I gave the money to the Red Cross, stipulating that it was for tsunami relief. And thus my sense of needing to help was addressed. Not long after I wrote the check, though, I wondered what would happen to the affected people after the initial recovery needs had been met? Would resources be available and would they be used to create protective barriers? Would tsunami warning systems be installed or upgraded so people would have more time to flee when the next event occurred? On the one hand, I was glad I was in a position to make what was, to me, a significant contribution toward recovery. On the other, though, I wondered whether the donation was just a band-aid, soluble in the next wave of sea water.

Doing good, or learning that others are doing good, in service to others in need is uplifting. Sure, acts of helping are valuable to the  helped, but they are salve to the broken hearts of those doing the helping. Reactive help in the moment, though, usually is just a temporary respite from the pain, not a permanent analgesic. We need both.

I wonder how we, collectively, can respond with empathy and compassion tempered with hard-headed practicality? How can we rush to help people who need it, but in that rush insist that short-term help MUST lead to long-term solutions? I’m just thinking with my fingers here, but I have an idea: with respect to cash contributions, we could stipulate that three quarters of the money go toward immediate needs and one quarter be invested in long-term solutions surrounding the problem. For example, $100 in tornado relief might be divided into $75 for immediate aid and $25 invested in research into and/or production of building products that can withstand tornadic winds. Maybe non-cash contributions, i.e., helping hands, could be handled the same way; show up and commit to X hours of work. You’d actually work for X * .75 hours; the remaining X * .25 hours would be “banked” for follow-up work to find permanent solutions. It’s cumbersome and probably too bureaucratic and complex, but I think it’s worth thinking about. At least it might get the process of assessing the issue on track.

The obvious solution to all “people problems” would be for all people to be empathetic, compassionate, reliable, dependable, loving, kind, practical, sensitive, forgiving, caring, nurturing, helpful, social, supportive, and otherwise possessive of all the traits of damn fine humans.  Easy fix.

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Letting It Ferment

Writing allows me to process my thoughts and experiences. It is therapeutic in the sense that it allows the “poison” of experience to be diluted, while being flushed into the wider universe. Often, I don’t quite know how an experience is affecting me until I’ve taken time to think it through, deeply. I need to let it ferment so I can better understand it.

I write the way I think; in fragments. My vignettes capture snapshots of the way my mind works. Rather, they capture mental images of what my mind sees and experiences. Only after spending literally hundreds of hours reading and reviewing and thinking about the vignettes I have written have I been able to see the cohesion. Yes, they are fragments, but they are not haphazard, random, unrelated scraps. I’m gradually reaching the conclusion that they represent an intricate web of thoughts that, though perhaps convoluted, fit together like an enormously complex three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

When I refer to my “vignettes,” I include both my fiction and my idea dumps; the latter, those essay-like rants that look and feel like a physical expression of the thought process. Collectively, they represent evidence of the way I think and what goes through my mind. Sometimes, my mind is a densely packed jumble of volatile ideas at risk of detonating at the slightest provocation. Other times, my mind is an empty, cavernous wasteland, devoid of intelligent, much less rational, thought. When the two combine to form a swirling, pulsing mass of yin and yang, I think the possibility exists that the developing patterns are aligning themselves in such a way as to form cohesive ideas out of what might seem to be a primordial soup. At least I hope so.

At any rate, I’ve spent considerable time trying to identify and contemplate patterns I’ve seen in my writing. And I think I’ve succeeded in finding them. That’s not to say the patterns contain any particularly meaningful messages, nor that they are the stuff of literature. But neither are they entirely meaningless drivel. Granted, many are, but not by any means all. There’s some “meat” there. I have yet to discern whether it’s pork, chicken, goat, beef, or iguana; but there’s something there. It’s there, almost hidden in the themes and patterns that keep repeating themselves in my writing.

Some days, I feel confident I’ve almost identified the core themes and the connective tissue that weaves them together and keeps them alive. But, then, I temporarily lose the sense that I’m almost there. I suppose it’s cyclical, though the cycles seem almost random.

I understand I am the only person who can make any sense out of this screed. Anyone who’s not inside my head must read these paragraphs and assume I’ve been eating mushrooms and drinking whiskey all night. That’s assuredly not the case. But my vocabulary isn’t sufficient to describe what’s going through my head. That notwithstanding, I think I’m onto something; just by catching a glimpse of the patterns of how I think gives me confidence I’m making headway. Whether that progress continues remains to be seen. Whether I can stitch together a decent intellectual robe from mental debris is a question still unanswered.

There’s still room for more fermentation. The outcome could be drinkable wine or putrid vinegar. Time will tell, in its own good time.

 

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All This, and Without Drugs

In my head, I’ve constructed an absolutely gorgeous painted wood and metal wire railing for the back deck. It is modern in appearance, strong in stance, and allows for broader and more appealing vistas than we’ve ever had before.

The problem is that I’ve done all this in my head. Without having purchased a single piece of lumber or the hog wire that is to fill in the frames between the outside edges of the railing panels. “The problem.” There are more. The old railings must first be removed. The remaining posts must be stripped and painted. The new frames must be cut, precise dadoes made to accept the wire, hog wire measured and cut, frames assembled, and the wire panels carefully slipped into them. And, then, the final pieces of the panels must be assembled, the top rails cut and affixed to the posts, and the upper panels screwed into the top rails. Oh, and I want to paint the wood before all the cutting and, after assembly, do some touch-up. I have the vision. I just don’t have many of the practical skills, nor the tools with which to apply those skills if I had them, to get the job done.

I could hire the entire job out. But I’ve been burned so many times by incompetent “handymen” that I am more than a little gun-shy. So, what to do? I dunno. If my history is any indication, I’ll stew over it for quite some time and, finally, will hire someone to do it. I won’t be happy with their work, though. So I’ll fire them. And then I’ll hire someone else, who I will fire for the same reason. By then, the wood will have weathered so badly it will need to be replaced. And I’ll be considerably older and less willing to spend my rapidly-dwindling bank account.

So, instead of my grandiose plan, I’ll buy a roll of used chicken wire and staple it to the posts. Because I won’t have the proper heavy-duty staples, I’ll just use my desk stapler. One morning after I’ve completed the job, I will take a hummingbird feeder outside to hang it up (having brought it inside the night before to protect it from raccoons). The raccoons, having been deprived of sweet nectar for months and months, will have decided to ambush me that morning. Just as I reach to hang the feeder on a hook, an entire family of raccoons will spring from a hiding place just beneath the deck. They will grab the feeder from my hands and greedily drink up the nectar, spilling half of the sticky, sugary water onto the deck surface. I will slip on the wet nectar and fall against the chicken wire that literally is hanging on the deck with one edge of a lightweight staple. The wire will break loose from the staple. Wrapped in my chicken-wire shroud, I will plunge twenty feet, head-first, to the rocks below.

I know. I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even finished sanding and painting the floor of the deck. I have to think about whether I want to spend the money to do the job right. By the time I’ve reached a decision, I will have forgotten I wanted to have an improved view and will have concluded that I should build a brick wall instead of a deck railing. Half way through the wall’s construction, I will determine that I’d be happier with a cut slate wall, so I’ll tear out the brick. I’ll do that, of course, before I discover that the grey cut slate I envision is not available locally. I’ll have to import it from Italy.

So, I will learn to sail one of those big wooden ships and will sail it to Italy, where I’ll purchase the slate. On the way back, I’ll notice the ship’s railing allows far too much water to spray onto the deck, so I’ll begin constructing a slate wall around the perimeter of the boat to keep the water out. About the time the wall is done, I will sail into a powerful storm whose waves will cause the vessel to founder. I will abandon ship just as it begins to sink into the sea. Fortunately, I will grab the side of a skiff as it falls from the sailboat and will drag myself onto it. I will then float for days as the sun beats down on my head. Using fishing line and hooks I find on the skiff, I fashion fishing gear. A single piece of bacon that somehow found its way to the skiff will be the bait. I drop the line into the sea. Soon an enormous marlin takes the bait. The fish pulls me a hundred miles as it tries in vain to escape. I begin the admire the beast for its fierce determination. It dies. I pull its body to the side of the skiff. Sharks tear at its flesh. More time goes by. I recognize my defeat. I return home, broken. As I crawl up to the deck, I see that raccoons have built a string of condos all around the perimeter of the deck. Chicken wire hammocks, affixed to the upper railing with poison ivy vines, sway gently in the breeze. Empty hummingbird feeders serve as parasols, shielding the happy animals from the blinding, blazing August sun.

The scene is too bizarre for me to accept, so I turn and go into the house. Inside, I find a refrigerator full of cold beer and cold pizza. I slip into a gluttonous trance as I drink the fourth beer from the fifth six-pack and place the last slice of the third pizza in my mouth. Sitting in front of the television, I watch the credits roll on The Old Man and the Sea.

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For the Moment

A friend was to have arrived today, planning to stay several days. But her elderly dog got sick, so she had to postpone the trip. And, then, a wine tasting a nearby couple had planned for later this week had to be cancelled due to medical issues. So health-related matters have again interfered with our social lives. Such is life. That’s the way things go. My cancer and related maladies had the same impact just a few months (and weeks) ago. Life goes on. But the lessons associated with such detours ought not be ignored: we must be flexible; we must respond to deviations in our plans by adjusting without irritation, annoyance, or otherwise getting upset. That’s a lesson that took so bloody long for me to learn. I finally got it, but it took a good sixty years or so to get there. That’s so unfortunate. Life is so much easier and more accommodating when we can adapt to the environment in which we find ourselves.

Changes can present opportunities, too. For example, I’ll now be able to focus more attention on my deck; getting it scraped and sanded and painted. While I’d rather visit with my friend, I’ll adjust and adapt and give my experience a comforting massage. Now, if only I can adopt these smooth attitudes across the board, I’ll be a happier human. I’m trying. At least I am for the moment.

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Vishnu Islam Apollo Poseidon Chaucer-Townsend

My son’s given name is Vishnu Islam Apollo Poseidon. His surname, like mine, is Chaucer, but with the addition of a hyphen, followed by his mother’s maiden name, Townsend. So, his full name is Vishnu Islam Apollo Poseidon Chaucer-Townsend.  Alice, my wife, insisted on an impressive name for the boy. Her thinking was this: a child’s name establishes expectations from the beginning, therefore we should set the bar high for the boy. But, as anyone who has had children knows, diminutive nicknames, from the first breath, fall from the sky like raindrops. Our boy was variously known as Vishy, Ap, Posie, and other less family-friendly appellations. In hindsight, Alice’s insistence on an expectation-setting name was a mistake. But once you’ve filled out the paperwork, it’s hard to undo a baby’s identity. We were stuck with the names. I should say he was stuck with the names.

He hated us for saddling him with built-in bully magnets. And I don’t blame him. My recognition of what we’d done to the boy is what led me to train him in the practice of krav maga. Krav maga was developed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). It focuses on fierce hand-to-hand combat, incorporating grappling, wrestling, and hand strikes. It also teaches the student to use virtually any ordinary object in the environment—a stick, a cane, the lid of a garbage can, etc.—to fend off virtually any attacker, even one much heavier and larger.

After about a year of intense instruction, Viap (we called the boy by his acronym) became a spectacular practitioner of krav maga. Though he was only eleven years old at the time, he readily took down much bigger, stronger men. One evening, as part of his training exercises, I took him to an extremely dangerous neighborhood in the city, an area known for brutal muggings, murders, rapes, and fierce beatings. As expected, we were accosted by a group of hoodlums who taunted us and wasted no time in demanding we give them our wallets. Before I had a chance even to reply, Viap snatched a pipe from the ground beneath his feet and laid out one of the bastards with a brutal strike to the windpipe. At the same time, he kicked another man in the knee, causing a simultaneous loud “CRACK” and a howl of pain that was so horribly wretched that it wounded my soul. Finally, Viap jabbed his thumbs into the eyes of the third unfortunate, popping them out of their sockets onto the man’s cheeks. All of this was over in an instant. Before I even had a chance to move.

The exhilaration of that night lit a fire in Viap. He begged me to return to the neighborhood, where he could continue to practice his krav maga skills in the real world.  Thus began a three-day-a-week tour of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Detroit. Viap maimed at least eighty would-be predators and killed another twelve. The crime rate in those areas and, indeed, throughout the city, plummeted. People still locked their doors, though, because they had no idea who was ripping through the bad guys; rumors swirled about a monster ready to snatch people out of their houses and eat them.

Six years later, just before his eighteenth birthday, Alice and I told Viap he was free to go out on his own, without the requirement that one of us approve of his ventures in advance. He was grateful, though he had known for years that we could not have stopped him had he chosen to do as he pleased. On his eighteenth birthday, Vishnu Islam Apollo Poseidon Chaucer-Townsend went to a tattoo parlor, where he had his full name permanently affixed to the length of each arm in multi-colored ink.

Tragically, the needles used in the tattoo process were dirty. Viap developed a terrible infection and died. What could have been an inspirational story about overcoming obstacles became, instead, a cautionary tale about the dangers of body ink. We could have been writing here about a boy who became the god-like being his name suggested.  But, thanks to a conspiracy between parents, one with delusions of grandeur and the other with delusions of protection, the boy became no more than a footnote in fiction, an imaginary tale with neither message nor meaning.

And that, as they say in the newsroom in some newspaper somewhere, is a wrap.

 

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