When Life and Death Were Simple

In my mind, I picture an ancient cave-dweller, a man in his early twenties. During the time he lived, the average lifespan of humans was only twenty-six. The rare thirty-year-old or rarer forty-year-old were considered extraordinary. And they were. They managed, somehow, to escape the diseases and infections that came from living in the face of Nature and the danger Nature presented.

But my man has managed to live into his early twenties with almost no serious injuries or illnesses. He lives in a protected cave on the sea-coast, where food is plentiful. His diet consists of an assortment of plants and the bounty of the sea: clams, fish, crabs, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and various other sea creatures. It is a healthy diet, though he does not think of it that way; to him, it is merely sustenance.

One morning, I see the man bring in from the water several blue crabs. He puts them in a shallow pit filled with glowing embers and weighs them down with rocks. After a few minutes, he pulls the cooked crabs from the fire, rinses the ash from their shells, and crack them open. He picks out large chunks of meat from the broken shells and eats it. This is not an unusual sight; he follows a similar routine most mornings.

But this morning, something is different. Soon after he swallows the last bit of crab meat, his face begins to swell and turn red.  He struggles to breathe. He stands up, looking frightened and confused, and pulls at the skin on his neck. He pants and sweats and shakes his head fiercely, as if doing so might cast off whatever demon has his throat and his breath in its clutches. It does not work. In a matter of seconds, his energy is sapped; he sits on a rock, trying to breathe; his trachea is so swollen air cannot reach his lungs. Suddenly, he stands up erect. He puts one foot in front of his body, but it cannot hold him. He collapses. After a minute or two of tremors and seizures, he stops attempting to breathe. His body goes limp. He is dead.

No one witnesses this tragedy. No one but I. And I can do nothing because I see it from the distance of a thousand miles and tens of thousands of years. I cannot send anything to counter his anaphylaxis. I could not foresee it, nor could he. He developed a deadly allergy to a protein he had eaten hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times before. The protein in crab meat suddenly, and without provocation, turned against him. The man’s death in his early twenties contributed to the short average lifespan of his brethren.

The man’s mate, a woman roughly his age or a little older, will find his body in a short while. Returning to their cave near the water, after taking a bath in a cool stream nearby, she will see his body on the sand. She will go to him and attempt to revive him, but her efforts will be futile. She will sit on a rock and cry for a long time. Eventually, her tears will dry and she will do what must be done. She will fashion a sled from palm fronds, vines, and tree branches. She will roll the man’s body onto the sled and pull the sled along the beach about a mile. There, she will dig a hole in the sand, where she will deposit his body. She will cover it with sand and put the sled on top of the mound. Distance and sand will protect her from the odors as his body decomposes. She will return to the cave and seek out food. For that’s what she must do to survive for at least a while longer.

The woman may live to be forty. Or she may suffer the same fate at her mate. She may one day discover that shrimp, too, or mussels or clams can bring on anaphylaxis. But she will never know what killed her mate. She will have no way to “connect the dots.” His death was, to her, simply an unfortunate experience with no known cause. She may find another mate or another mate may find her. She may wither away or be swept away by a ferocious storm. We have no way of knowing.

I know only that I have lost sight of her. My mind’s eye has gone blind.

Posted in Fiction, Writing | Leave a comment

Vibes, Good or Bad

Perhaps I’ve been fooling myself into thinking the isolation and lifestyle changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have had little impact on me. Maybe this intrusion into my day-to-day life has actually had more of an impact on me than I thought. Or maybe something else is causing mood-storms so fierce that lightning bolts escape my eyes and mouth whenever I open those orifices. The way I’m writing about it seems that I’m making light of my moods, but I’m not. I’m distressed at my anger. It can be a raw, harsh, almost indescribable anger than bursts to the surface almost without provocation, responding like a cornered animal striking out against a deadly predator about to swoop in for the kill.

I don’t understand it. I am an introvert and I enjoy my time alone. Solitude sustains me. So why “enforced” solitude would trigger such visceral reactions is a mystery to me. Not that explosive outbursts are outside my realm of experience; I am more than capable of emotional flares. But lately it’s as though I’ve been actively on watch for something, anything, to set me off. Something to give me justification to attack.

But not this morning.

This morning I feel reasonably calm. The reason for the serenity may be that I’m just tired. Maybe I’m worn out by my own internal firestorm burning so intensely the flames doused themselves with water or sucked up so much oxygen the fuel could not burn. Whatever it is, I welcome it. My arms welcome it, though they and the other parts of my body feel weak as kittens. My muscles are sore from tensing, releasing, tensing again. This morning, when I feel my muscles begin to tense, I deliberately stop them; simply to avoid the pain, not to control my thoughts. But controlling my thoughts would be good, inasmuch as they are responsible, in large part, for the rages and the weakness. This morning, only the sorenesss and weakness remains. The rage is gone. Permanently, I hope. Forever banished from my mind and body.

I must realize, though, that if social isolation had any role to play in stoking the fires of anger, the fire is just playing dead. It can come alive at any moment, fueled by white-hot burning embers buried deep inside me. Maybe they always have been there, just waiting for the right moment to burst into full flame, consuming every scrap of fuel until all that’s left is ash and soot.

I’ve used the word “ash” too many times lately, referring to the residue of fierce fires. This morning, I awoke to find the fire extinguished. The ashes are buried in a muddy mess, a thick soup of formerly molten emotions awash in a slurry of the dry dust of anger mixed with a flood of tears. Perhaps a bit overly dramatic. I can be that way sometimes. I can carry emotions like a badge or a shield, depending on circumstances.

My chore now is to rinse away the mud and polish the pristine marble that’s left under my feet. Polished marble. Who knew that was what waited for me beneath a thousand layers of sediment, left there during the period of rebirth after the flood.


And, after a pause, the fire came alive. All it took to set the world ablaze was a tone of voice that suggested my stupidity knows no bounds. The volcano erupted, spewing clouds of pumice and sharp rocks into the stratosphere. The volcano exploded into my bloodstream; I could feel the molten rock throb at my temples and I could feel it course through my arteries and veins like pressurized hoses filled with blood heated to the boiling point. I’m sure they came close to rupturing.  I have to get out of this pressure-cooker, at least for a while. I have to give myself time and permission to release the steam and cool the vessel.

Part of the process necessarily involves looking inward to find the detonator, the fuse that catches fire easily. What amplifies a minor imbalance between positive and negative charges into a lightning bolt capable of knocking out power to the entire Midwest? Negative judgments normally do not spark forest fires, tsunamis, and nuclear force winds; something unnatural is at play here.

Suddenly, I feel incredibly tired again. I will try to get some more sleep. Maybe that will get the good vibes going again.

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Inside Stories

If I wrote what’s really on my mind this morning, people who read it might feel compelled to alert the authorities that they think I might be suicidal. I am not. If I wrote what’s bothering me, I might be dragged away for my own protection and for the protection of anyone within reach of my influence or my voice. I would have to work to convince them that I’m not a danger to myself and I’m not a danger, at least physically, to anyone else.

After reading, people might wonder whether they are in some way the causes of my angst. They are not. They are not to blame. I, alone, am responsible for the jumble of exposed nerves that crackle like bare electric wires on wet streets. But I can understand how my demeanor, both in words and in reality, might suggest responsibility falls to someone else; my reaction to the world around me might make it appear so, though that’s not it at all. The responsibility is all mine. It’s all driven by those sparking wires touching conductive emotional surfaces.

It’s fortunate that most of us have limited spheres of influence. Otherwise, our personal volcanic eruptions and our magnitude 8.0 mindquakes could cause substantial intellectual and emotional damage in a broad area. Our hurricane-force expressions of anger and offenses taken could be far more damaging if we mattered to the wider world. But, for the most part, we live within our own tiny circles; our own tiny little minds whose limits do not exceed the boundaries of our own skulls. We live in private little worlds that, to us, seem enormous but to those around us are invisible. The torrential rains and tectonic shifts and  fierce winds are, in fact, holograms of artificial events only we can see.

One day, I will gather the shards of my unseen internal emotional outbursts and try to piece them together so that they might make some sense. They could become inside stories of the creature who writes all of this crap but who can’t seem to bring himself to write the real stories that matter. Ultimately, though, the stories matter only to me, I suppose. And that means they don’t really matter much at all. They just take up space that could be used for more productive things. Spikes and spirals. Spikes and spirals. I get so damned tired of spikes and spirals.

Posted in Emotion | 4 Comments

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Back to my old habits. Up before 4:00 a.m., ready to face the day. The tune and lyrics to an old song were among my first thoughts this morning:

Well everybody’s heart needs a holiday, some time
And everyone of us needs to get away, some how
Some laughing light-hearted moods
Oh, sight seeing afternoons
And telling a joke or two
‘Cause everyday invites you to find your place in the sun

It’s time to find your place in the sun
Find your place
Find your place in the sun
Its time to find your place in the sun

Every so often, that music invades my head for a while. The song is “A Place in the Sun,” by the California soft rock group “Pablo Cruise.”

This morning, after the music took over my brain (with no help from outside sources; that is, I wasn’t listening to it or reading about it), I decided to explore when it was released. I assumed it was when I was still in high school, but I was wrong. It was released two years after I finished college. I finished my degree in December 1975 (I started the summer after high school and ripped through in 3.5 years); A Place in the Sun was released in February 1977. So, I would have already been working for Birkman & Associates and the Birkman-Mefferd Research Foundation by then.  The dates are a bit fuzzy; that was roughly 43 years ago, after all.

Those moments from 43 years ago began to coalesce, though, as I listened to other tunes from the album of the same name, songs like Whatcha Gonna Do, Raging Fire, and I Just Wanna Believe.  I suspect I still have that vinyl album, still neatly placed vertically on a bookcase. I haven’t owned a working turntable since I moved away from Chicago in 1989, but I still have a moderate-sized collection of records; maybe forty to sixty? Why I haven’t sold them or given them away is beyond me. I’m relatively sure every piece of music on them is available digitally now and the vinyl is just taking up space. That’s true of me, too, though, so I don’t want to be too quick to discard something old and essentially useless for fear of getting into a habit I wouldn’t have the option of breaking.

My sentimentality sent me exploring other music from 1977, songs that would have shaped me in ways that music seems to shape young people (usually earlier than it shaped me, I suppose). That was a year Fleetwood Mac was big and I loved their music: Dreams, Go Your Own Way, Rhiannon, Don’t Stop, You Make Lovin’ Fun.  I remember Don’t Stop being used during Bill Clinton’s celebration after winning the White House. It was a forward-looking anthem of hope that a new generation had taken charge of the country’s future. And now, here we are. Christ. We need to revive that anthem…like right now!

What I don’t recall, but what I read about Fleetwood Mac this morning, are the tales of infidelity and band infighting. Apparently, those issues were making tabloid headlines at the time (and, I gather, still are). I didn’t read the tabloids, I guess. The personal lives of rock stars have never held any particular appeal for me; it’s their music I want, not the drama entangling their lives.

Another song I recall from that period is Barracuda by Heart. I think it must have been mostly the rhythym I appreciated about the song; I remembered few of the lyrics and, when I searched them out this morning, they said nothing to me that made any real sense. I think that was true of a lot of the music I listened to. Another piece I listened to a lot and absolutely loved was a tune from considerably earlier, White Rabbit, by Jefferson Airplane. Google told me this morning that the tune was released in 1967 and first included on the Surrealistic Pillow album. It was just a few years ago that I learned a segment of the lyrics that I had never understood before: “tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has you given you the call.” I did understand most of the lyrics as a retelling of an experience with LSD or mushrooms or some such hallucinogenic.

I am sure I had a crush on Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and Ann Wilson of Heart.  I was attracted to women who I assumed, because of the roles they played, were strong and unconventional and willing to confront and challenge traditional perceptions of women. I think that’s what attracted me, anyway.  Interesting that thinking of Pablo Cruise, an all-male band, led me to thinking about women rock stars this morning.

Before I leave music, I listened to another track from Surrealistic Pillow this morning that I do not recall hearing before: J.P.P. McStep B. Blues. It was written by Alexander Skip Spence, who I learned was the drummer (at least for a time) for Jefferson Airplane and who also was a singer/guitarist/songwriter for Moby Grape. I looked him up because I like the music; the lyrics for J.P.P. McStep B. Blues appeal to me.

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And what else is on my mind and my agenda today? Well, I am scheduled to go to Grove Park this morning to pick up an order of veggies from Ouachita Hills Farm: okra and radishes. Then, I have a little gathering of men in the parking lot of the church for pastries and conversation, then a Zoom conversation with other people who attended the UUA General Assembly, then a Sardicado Sandwich Gathering; I’ll write about that another time. It’s a busy morning, that’s a certainty.

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And, finally, this morning, I think I’ll work on shedding some weight (not physical, though that would be a welcome thing); some things that I have allowed to saddle me with emotional burdens that I’ve hidden reasonably well, though not always. Life is too short to permit stupid personal imperfections—mine or others’—to stand in the way of happiness. That’s sufficiently opaque to be impossible to understand for others, but it’s sufficient for me to get me through the day; by tomorrow, I’ll have forgotten what I meant by it and, when I read these words a year from now, I’ll wonder what in the hell I was blathering on about.

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You, who have stayed with me this far, are a treasure worth far more than gold.

Posted in Memories, Music, Philosophy | Leave a comment

Message to Myself for the Day (that I share with whoever happens by)

I woke up much later than normal this morning, just shy of 6:00 a.m., leaving me precious little free time to engage in my normal morning routines (at least in their normal order). One of the first orders of business was to put some bacon in a skillet on the stove and let it begin to fry, ever so slowly. While it was releasing an enormous volume of fat, I finished cleaning last night’s dishes after putting away the ones that had been drying overnight on the rack next to the sink. With a clear counter, I could then prepare the other ingredients for breakfast: sliced tomatoes, thinly-sliced jalapeños, and slivers of purple onion. All of those things, and more, would go between two pieces of toast, making a BLT without the L and with the addition of O. Had I added the L, I might have made a BOLJT for breakfast. Alas, it was only a BOJT. Regardless of the absence of lettuce, it was delightful.

After breakfast, which was enough to serve as lunch, too, I went to church to record the video introduction of the Insight speaker whose talk will be broadcast on the church website Sunday. That’s my new job with the church: Insight host. Every two weeks, I’ll be recorded introducing the speaker. Eventually, if we ever get back to in-person services, I’ll be doing it “live.” Today, my voice was a bit scratchy, as I am still recovering from anesthesia administered Monday morning in part through a breathing tube. More on the outcome of that procedure in a minute.

I had planned to stay at church and wander around while computers were being refurbished (more on that, too), but those plans changed. I’m heading in to Hot Springs with my wife shortly, so she can run errands. She claims she does not need me to go along, but her leg weakness and her extreme difficulty making it up and down even low steps convinces me otherwise.

I will return before 2:30, when I will go to the church to meet with a guy who will help me learn the first steps of refurbishing donated computers that, ultimately, will find their way to kids who need them but cannot afford to buy new computers. It’s the other, later, steps I was planning to watch earlier in the day.

The procedure I underwent on Monday, known in medical terms as a cystoscopy and bladder biopsy, was uneventful. I got a call Tuesday morning from the doctor’s nurse, telling me the results were negative: no cancer. Whee! That made me happy. Then, this morning, I received an automated message about a lab update, so I went online to view it. That result said I was diagnosed with chronic cystitis. Not a terrible thing, but I was surprised the nurse did not mention it. Oh, well. The symptoms are not awful. At least they haven’t been.

My wife is ready to go to Hot Springs. So, this constitutes my message to myself for the day.

 

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Another Visit to My Mental Clothing Store

I sit at my desk in my “morning clothes” (t-shirt, gym shorts, flip-flops), thinking these clothes should be perfectly acceptable any time of the day or night and in any place I find myself. They should be just fine at the grocery store, at church, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, whatever. In fact, I wore essentially the same outfit (different shirt of a different color, and tennis shoes instead of flip-flops) yesterday morning (I had to be at the hospital at 5:30 a.m.; I am grateful to my dear friend for the ride to and from the visit) as I waited to be called back for my cystoscopy and bladder biopsy.

Once I was called back to begin the process, I was instructed to remove every stitch of clothing and to replace them with a gown; the right side of the gown’s shoulder area had snaps that formed an arm-hole, but the snaps on the left side were not closed. Try as I might, I could not form the proper left-side arm-hole. Fortunately, a guy came in shortly afterward to take my vitals; he snapped the left shoulder properly so I could slip on the gown and tie it, as earlier instructed, at the rear.

I have an idea for hospital pre-admission visits, like the one last week when I submitted to blood-letting and other pre-procedure tests and questions: why not give the patient a gown to take home with them? They could put on the gown before leaving for the next hospital visit, saving the embarrassment of hurriedly fumbling with snaps in an effort to be properly covered before the pre-procedure stabbings begin.

Once again, I swerved sharply from my intended lane this morning; I intended to write about comfortable all-purpose clothing and, instead, veered into the vagaries of hospital gowns. Mea culpa.

I have long been fascinated with various forms of Asian men’s clothing: tunic shirts, dashiki shirts, churidar pyjamas and lungi pants (both of which are comfortable-looking pants) and kurta (shirts), the latter three of the Indian subcontinent. I’ve never owned any of them, in part because I do not know where to buy them and, even if I did, I could not be sure that I was ordering the proper size. That is, a size that will comfortably drape over my overly-ample stomach. Also, my arms of unnaturally short, so the sleeve length would be problematic. The same is true for the length of pants legs; my legs begin far closer to the ground (or, conversely, end to soon before reaching the torso) than clothing manufacturers seem to think appropriate. I could, of course, have a tailor alter my clothes, but the expense of modification would probably compete favorably with custom-tailored clothes. That is an idea I’ve played with, seriously, for quite some time. Not seriously enough, of course. I’ve toyed with the concept of buying and learning to use a sewing machine, too. Again, I’ve stopped short of executing the ideas.

As I consider the desirability of simple outfits that ought to work in any setting (the t-shirts, gym shorts, flip-flops combos), I wonder about whether investing in custom-tailored lungis and tunics and kurtas and so forth makes good economic sense. Probably not. But, then, are my “morning clothes” as all-day, anywhere wear going to catch on? Probably not. It has considerably better chance of catching on than does my wish that societal condemnation of public nudity would disappear.

One positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that I am spending far more time at home, where I can wear my “morning clothes” far frequently than normal. But, as I venture out more and more (but still with social distancing and wearing my mask), I am forced (make that strongly encouraged) to wear clothes that are more constricting, less comfortable, and are considered more socially acceptable than my morning wear. Oh, well.

If I were reading this post, I would question why, if I’m so enamored of nudity, I wear “morning clothes” at home. Good question. The answer is simple: windows. I like to let the light in. There’s a window high about the front door through which people driving down the street above our house can see into the house clearly. I do not want to be responsible for auto crashes involving distracted drivers.

Tomorrow, I have out-of-house obligations that will require me to shed my “morning clothes” in favor of  clothing socially-suited to interactions with humans outside my household. Then, on Thursday, other humans will visit here, again requiring me to wear more socially-acceptable clothing. Ach. It’s a shame we cannot all be casual in the extreme. But, then, I wrote not long ago how I occasionally desire a more “spiffy” look, with traditional slacks, a shirt with buttons, and a stylish blazer jacket. There’s room for everything, I suppose. It’s the frequency, then, that’s of concern. That’s it. Maybe.

Before I leave my John-focused comfort conversation, I should say I have seen a number of memes on Facebook of late that say, in effect, that COVID-19 has allowed women the rare comfort of spending entire days, even weeks, at home in bra-less comfort. I’ll go on record, here and now, to say I think brassieres seem to be designed to minimize a women’s comfort and, therefore, should be abandoned (if that would suit women, of course…I don’t wear a bra and, therefore, don’t have a dog in this hunt). Of course, certain types of bras, like sports bras, if they actually add to a woman’s comfort, would be perfectly fine. At any rate, the acceptability of the social convention of bras for women should be determined by the wearer.

All right, that’s enough. It’s 7:30 and time for thoughts to turn to breakfast.

Posted in Clothes, Covid-19, Nudity | 2 Comments

Civic Responsibility and Civic Vacations

We should forgive ourselves, and one another, for our occasional retreats from the news of the day. We should not judge ourselves for clinging to the safety of ignorance about current events, nor for tolerating a desire to stay “in the dark” about important social and political matters. The alternative to a periodic escape from a frenzied world might well be permanent imprisonment in its swirling chaos.

Yet the legitimacy of one’s withdrawal from the news cycle does not extend to withdrawal from the obligations of citizenship. No matter how frenzied, one must not disengage from the political process because to do so puts at risk the very institutions that grant the freedom to enjoy those occasional retreats from daily news. Voting is a privilege, but I believe it also should be an absolute obligation. To safeguard against obligatory voting spoiled by being ill-informed, though, voting should follow testing to measure knowledge of the political issues at hand. An “issues measurement index” should be developed to accompany every ballot measure (both issue-based and individual-based); failure to achieve a satisfactory level on the issues measurement index would automatically void the vote and subject the voter to mandatory non-partisan issues education, plus a “time fine,” which would require the ill-informed voter to dedicate a reasonable amount of time to civic matters (e.g., cleaning roadsides, removing graffiti from government structures, etc.).

I’m only half-kidding about the punitive measures for demonstrable voter ignorance. The other half is at least a quarter dead-serious.

How, though, can we stay informed and simultaneously retain our sanity? It is not easy, but the process is relatively straightforward. First, identify reliable, unbiased sources of news. In my opinion, a very good resource for finding such news outlets is https://mediabiasfactcheck.com, which rates news media on the basis of factual reporting and editorial/reporting bias. A search on the mediabiasfactcheck.com website reveals the following rating for the Associated Press:

LEAST BIASED
These sources have minimal bias and use very few loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes). The reporting is factual and usually sourced. These are the most credible media sources.

Overall, we rate the Associated Press borderline Left-Center Biased due to left-leaning editorializing, but Least Biased on the whole due to balanced story selection. We also rate them Very-High for factual reporting due to proper sourcing and a clean fact check record.

Two factors play into media overload: 1) bias and 2) volume/frequency. Bias can rear its head even when facts are presented fairly; unnecessary frequency tends to exacerbate the perceived urgency and seriousness of subjects. So, fewer exposures to reliably factual sources can keep us informed, while dialing down the stress the 24/7 news cycle tends to bring on.

On the other hand, when the volume of reporting/analyses of issues one finds important shrinks, one’s own view of the importance of the issue can decline; so, even though I feel strongly about an issue, a reduction in the frequency of media reports about it might diminish my sense of urgency about it. Might I decide to skip going to the polls? So, it’s a double-edged sledge hammer, as it were. We can’t let frequency of media coverage influence us one way or another; we must focus on the issue, not the sound bites.

Does this sound remotely like I’m giving myself a pep talk and a warning? Really? I would never have guessed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Feelings, Food, and Film

I watched a brief, animated video produced by BBC this morning. Entitled, “Is a Crisis a Chance to Reset the World?” It parallels what I’ve been thinking and hearing from others who want the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as a trigger for massive, positive social change. The video gives snippets of information about other global crises that sparked enormous social changes, everything from ending the 100-Year War between France and England to spurring the creation of Britain’s National Healthcare Service.  I hope society collectively sorts things out to create good from the very bad that is the pandemic. Give it ten years; that should be enough time (more than enough time) to determine whether we’re taking advantage of a bad situation or simply using the pandemic as a nail in humankind’s coffin. I have a feeling we might know within months, rather than years.

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For the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we gathered last night at the home of friends who are members of our “world tour of wines” group. Some of them also are members of our church. Practicing social distance as much as possible, we gathered on the deck and enjoyed drinks, conversation, and a dinner of brats and potato salad and corn salad and various sides and desserts. Everyone brought something to share; we brought a dessert of coconut-topped brownies my wife prepared. I did not pay attention to who brought what, but while we were on the deck eating, I learned the source of a simple but delicious corn dish I want to make one day soon. One of my favorites was a fresh jalapeño salsa and chips;  I could have made a meal of that by itself. Everything was good, made even better by the presence of friends. Simple, face-to-face conversation is one of the things from “the way things used to be” that, apparently, I  miss the most.

During dinner, our conversation naturally turned to food. Among the myriad topics we discussed were sardines and steak tartar. One of the folks at the table loathes sardines, but her husband (seated elsewhere) loves them. Another of our table-mates loves them. The topics of our conversation included a dish my wife and I enjoy, named by Alton Brown, “Sardicado sandwich,” a concoction involving mixing together canned sardines, avocados, lemon zest and juice, and chopped parsley and served on dark bread. The outcome of that part of the conversation was to tentatively arrange for the sardine-loving husband and the table-mate sardine aficionado to visit us for a sardicado sandwich lunch sometime soon. The sardine-loathing table-mate asserted that steak tartar originated in France; I thought it was Germany. A quick look online this morning suggests it originated in some form or another in Central Asia as raw meat and was then adopted by the Russians, who exported the concept to Germany, where the additional garnishes (onions, capers, raw egg, seasonings) were added. This explanation came from frenchcountryfood.com, as well as Wikipedia. My assumption about the source has, therefore, been vindicated.

The hosts of last night’s dinner have a beautiful home, made all the more spectacular by her green thumb and his skills at design and building. Last night was our first time seeing a garden “wall” he built using wood and wine bottles (and a few colorful plates). He also built a walkway out of crushed stone, outlined with large stone blocks and hand-made concrete pads. Aside from the enormous amount of physical labor involved in the project, the planning and carpentry/building skills involved must have been quite significant. If I were ever to have such a feature in our yard, it would cost several thousand dollars more than I have at my disposal. My building skills would not do the trick; I would have to hire it done. Oh, well. Such is life.

When we returned home, I spent some time on the deck watching distant fireworks and listening to and feeling the concussions of their explosions. The moon was extremely bright, which made for a beautiful sight, especially when strips of dark clouds passed in front of it. A lunar eclipse occurred last night, but I became impatient waiting for it after viewing the fireworks, so I missed it and watched The Valhalla Murders, instead. The Valhalla Murders is an Icelandic-language (with subtitles, of course) Netflix police procedural drama series. I gather it is based, quite loosely, on a series of real-world events from the 1940s and adapted to modern-day Iceland. The series begins with a murder in Reykjavik harbor; I have watched only the first three episodes thus far; I am enjoying it quite a lot. We shall see how much I enjoy the remaining five episodes.

Most of my television viewing during the past several months has been Netflix-based. I think most of the series and movies I’ve watched since the beginning of the year have been thanks to Netflix.  I claim I do not watch much television. The list of things I’ve watched in recent months says otherwise. Here’s a sampling, off the top of my head (and with a little help from my tele-viewing notes and my Netflix viewing history):

  • After Life
  • Collateral
  • Pandemic
  • The Platform
  • Fauda
  • Unabomber: In His Own Words
  • Dead to Me
  • Ozark
  • Narcos: Mexico
  • Code 8
  • The Laundromat
  • The Stranger
  • American Odyssey
  • Happy Valley
  • Messiah
  • Occupied
  • Taken
  • Da Five Bloods
  • The Foreigner
  • Better Call Saul
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Of course, some of these are series I began watching last year (or even the year before). But, still. I am too entertained! My wife and I, though sharing similar taste in film to some extent, do not have the same viewing habits. So, I watch my television and she watches hers, nestled in her study with her television.

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Today, I begin my service on the board of my church with a “board retreat” via Zoom. Having spent several hours watching Zoom-based sessions from the UUA General Assembly in the past week or so, I can say with certainty that participation via Zoom is more taxing than being physically present. I do not know why that it, but it’s true. For me, anyway. I have no idea how long the “retreat” will last today, but I hope it does not exceed two hours. We shall see.

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Posted in Film, Food, Television | Leave a comment

Escapism

I said recently my writing is, for me, escapism. Escape from what, though? Specifically, from what does writing allow me to escape? When I insist on an answer, I feel like I’m taking on the identity of an unwilling patient, prodded and poked by a psychiatrist or psychologist and forced to divulge secrets to which I am not privy. It occurs to me that my role is judge, jury, prosecutor, defendant, and executioner; the finding of guilt was predetermined from the start, as evidenced by the fact that there is no defense counsel in the mix. The sentence, death by guillotine, seems harsh for a parking infraction. My thoughts seem to stretch around themselves like rubber bands; if the stress on elastic materials exceeds their elasticity, all hell breaks loose.

Writing is an insufficient escape. Escape involves digging tunnels and plotting ways to disable the guard for long enough to allow me to steal a get-away car. But maybe the prison has no walls, so tunnels and guards are not obstacles to escape. Maybe, instead, the obstacles are imaginary chains whose links cannot be broken with bolt cutters. Perhaps the chain’s links are hollow tubes, bent into ovals inside which my arteries and veins form intricate circulation patterns that cannot be safely interrupted. Ah, so it’s fear that prevents my escape? No, that’s not it. It must be something more powerful than fear. Few things are more powerful than fear.

Five years ago today, I captured the perfection that is chaos. I articulated escapism in words that cannot be enhanced. This is what I wrote:

Much is said about symmetry, but little about the divide between symmetry and satisfaction. We need a little chaos in our lives to appreciate perfect circles and dodecahedrons.

That having been said, I was mesmerized yesterday when I stumbled across an assertion that a tetrated dodecahedron is a near-miss Johnson solid—one with full tetrahedral symmetry—that has 28 vertices, 28 faces, and 54 edges. That explanation provided all the chaos my mind needed.

That escape took me places my mind had never been before and has rarely been since. It took me to a place where trouble cannot find a foothold, where worry is illegal, and where pleasure accompanies every breath one takes. Did I mention nirvana yesterday? It can be found only in the states of intense presence and utter absence. Escapism is available all along that spectrum, but nirvana only at both far ends.

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I purposely avoid writing much about Independence Day, the Fourth of July. If I were to write what I feel about that celebratory moment, I would be branded a traitor. Yet from my perspective, only by refusing to celebrate the hypocrisy of promises made versus actions taken can one truly be patriotic to an ideal. Only by acknowledging unforgivable flaws can forgiveness be received. Only by exposing and condemning oppression and imperialism and exploitation can we burnish the ideals that have been so badly tarnished by the mockery we have made of them.

I do not fly a flag. I read the Declaration of Independence and note the phrase “the merciless Indian Savages” in defending the decision to announce independence. I have pride in my country, but my pride is tempered with the knowledge that many of the great accomplishments of this nation were built on a foundation of genocide and slavery.

When we live up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I am enormously proud. When we are reckless in our disregard for our ideals, I get disappointed and embarrassed. When we celebrate our imperfections as though they were lofty goals, I get angry.

Enough about this Independence Day.

Posted in Patriotism, Philosophy | 2 Comments

Lonely versus Alone

I feel a need to capture discrete moments, incidents and ideas that grab me by the lapels and slap me in the face. In no particular order:

  • One of my brothers was told by his doctor he has bladder cancer; another brother had it and recoveredI am about to undergo tests that might reveal I suffer from the same familial affliction (though, based on the urologist’s comments, I suspect my ailment is orders of magnitude less severe).
  • Loneliness is not the same as being alone; being alone is a solitary comfort, while loneliness may take place in a crowded theater, at a family reunion, or on a desolate beach.
  • I startled three large deer yesterday afternoon as I stepped to my deck’s back railingas they looked up at me and froze, I could see the muscles in their backs tense, as if preparing to flee. I spoke to them softly, telling them I was not there to hurt them, only to admire them. They relaxed and returned to their business, tearing leaves from low tree branches and munching on ground cover.
  • My pre-procedure appointment yesterday did, indeed, involve blood-letting; the veins inside my elbows were uncooperative, so a vein on the top of my right hand donated a tube of vampire bait. My vital signs were measured and an EKG was administered; I had never counted the number of wires attached to my body for an EKG before yesterdaythe number was ten. I answered a battery of questions about my medical history and my habits; I lied only occasionally.
  • I think, as people get older, we shed embarrassment like dead skin. We’re no longer as conscious that things we say or do might cause discomfort in others. Or, perhaps, we simply don’t care to be held responsible for others’ sensitivities. I am of a mixed mind on this; whether it’s cruel or compassionate or neither. Not that the topic merits several sentences. Yet my habit is to use as many words as possible whenever possible. That is cause for embarrassment.
  • Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was reelected president of Iceland last Saturday with an overwhelming majority of the vote (92.2 percent). In commenting on his reelection, he said, ““It is clear that Icelanders do not want their president to be involved in politics. That would not be in accordance with constitutional practice or the public’s idea of the position of the president, who is meant to encourage unity and solidarity in good times and bad.” Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said of Jóhannesson’s win, “I’d like to congratulate the president on this landslide victory.” She went on to say the majority of Icelanders are pleased with the way he handled matters during his term. I think I like Icelandic “politics.”  By the way, I could tell Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, is not a native Icelander simply by seeing her name. I’ve probably written about that before. If so, excuse the redundancy. She’s a writer, by the way. And she was born Canadian.
  • I read with interest an article about the status of Brexit. The article notes that Britain had until June 30 to request an extension of the transition out of the European Union; apparently, it did not make the request. So, the U.K. will formally leave the European Union after December 31 this year, with our without a trade deal. Some say without a trade deal, the British economy will “rupture,” resulting in massive job losses beyond those already sustained as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m afraid the economic impact of COVID-19 thus far has offered just a hint of what is to come.
  • During my virtual explorations this morning, I came across Los Alamos, New Mexico and nearby (more or less) Cerros del Abrigo (a mountain whose name is translated into English as Shelter Hills). According to Livability.com, among the several reasons to move there is the fact that “the community is filled with hundreds of interesting intellectuals.” On further review, I found that Los Alamos County (and the town) are “leaning Democrat” and have been moving that way for several years. It’s worth exploring. Fewer people, smarter people, more progressive people. Definitely worth a look. A serious downside, though: housing prices are steep, steep, steep.
  • I bought a nice looking strip steak yesterday. We’re not eating much beef these days, but an occasional steak satisfies my yearning for warm flesh. I suspect I’ll grill it within the next few days. I’ll have to cut it in half first, as my wife and I like our meat cooked to different levels of done-ness: medium for her, rare and bloody for me. While I was at the store, store employees were smoking racks of ribs out front; they smelled absolutely wonderful, as always. We bought some once, though, and were unimpressed; they lathered them with a sweet sauce, which masks the flavor of the meat and introduces sweetness that is unnecessary and, in fact, offensive. But why am I complaining about ribs I chose not to buy? My curmudgeonly nature is showing.
  • It’s after 7; time for more coffee, breakfast, and a well-deserved nap for my fingers.
Posted in Just Thinking | 4 Comments

The World Around Me

When I walked out onto the deck this morning, the air felt like cracked, bone dry leather and heavily used, fine-grit sandpaper. Yet the density of extremely high humidity was unmistakable, a set of oddly conflicting sensations that felt natural. And just now, back in my study, when I hit the ‘period’ at the end of the preceding sentence, I looked up and saw the mottled greens and dull greys of an inhospitable morning brought to stunning bright life by the passage of a large deer, a regal doe, slowly making her way down the slope toward the back of the house. Both the deer and the environment around her, suddenly, were incomprehensibly beautiful.

Sharp contrasts often can fade into soft harmonies, each component accentuating the beauty of the other, if one’s mood permits. I suppose the mood is as soft as the harmonies it allows; or maybe one feeds the other and then the process repeats itself. As I think of this possibility, my eyes mist a bit, as I long for a return to a time of peace and mutuality among nations and humankind. As if such a time ever existed. Was there ever a time when the contrasts between cultures and skin colors and religious beliefs and all the other myriad attributes of humankind were allowed to fade into harmonies, each accentuating the beauty of the other?

Will that nirvana ever exist? Not if that nirvana depends on my behavior. I am too quick to judge, too easily rattled, too impatient to allow time to wear down obstacles to peace and joy. Sometimes, I think my absence might be the spark to ignite a passion for universal brotherhood. That’s silly, of course, but one’s subconscious can force one’s consciousness toward strange and dangerous directions. When sanity prevails, and the subconscious demons depart, I realize one person’s presence or absence rarely makes a difference. Occasionally, a truly charismatic leader can so engage so many people that they become followers, disciples as it were. But, as history has so often shown, even the words of the best and most generous and kind and loving charismatic leaders do not always lead to nirvana. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite. Often. Usually. Humankind does not seem universally inclined to accept kindness and generosity and love. But that should not stop us from endeavoring to make it so.

It’s nearing the time I have to leave for my “pre-procedure check-in,” which I assume will involve a little blood-letting, insurance verification, temperature-taking, and who-knows-what-other-forms-of-torture. After the process is done, I’ll drag myself to Kroger to do a little grocery shopping. I loathe the idea of entering a crowded grocery store, especially in an environment in which it seems the majority of people seem to discount the benefits of social distance and wearing masks. But I shall wear my mask. Perhaps I should brandish a weapon, too, just to assert my claim to my social distance spacing? No, I’d like to think I’m not entirely consumed by lunacy, stupidity, and testosterone poisoning. There you go, John, be the change you want to see in the world. Right. I’m not entirely judgmental; just mostly.

Time to go. Enough blathering about the world around me and the me within the world.

Posted in Philosophy | 2 Comments

A Course in Calamities

Before I begin, I note that my Google calendar tells me I have a pre-procedure check-in at CHI St. Vincent tomorrow morning. The procedure, a cystoscopy and biopsy of the lining of the bladder, under general anesthesia, takes place next Monday at 5:30 a.m.  I may decide not to write much, if anything, for a while. Or I may continue without interruption. Regardless of the findings from the procedure, I consider the process at least a minor calamity.


All right. Here we are at July 1, halfway through a year engaged in a competition to be named “Most Miserable Stretch of Time in the History of the Planet,” yet we struggle on. I suppose we know, in our hearts, that 2020 will not win. In spite of the Australian and Amazon wildfires, the ongoing pandemic, and the rampant racism and police brutality playing out on television, 2020 has failed thus far to equal the most brutal periods of time on planet Earth. Even the thoroughly incompetent and deeply dangerous dimwit in the White House, ripping the U.S. economy (and its moral standing) into tattered and torn shreds and taking the world’s economy into the sewer with it, has failed to push us forward to merit a win in the abominable competition.

Unless the remainder of the year brings with it pestilence and calamity several orders of magnitude worse than what we have experienced so far in 2020, this year can hope for, at best, a “seventy-fifth runner-up” ribbon. The years of the Irish Potato Famine would take a higher prize, as would each year between 1861 and 1865. And, of course, 1914 through 1918  and their younger siblings, 1939 through 1945, claim more prestigious ribbons. The year 1968 might do the same. There are dozens more. Maybe hundreds. The point is, in the vernacular, “you don’t even know what calamity looks like!” That is not to mock our pain (though it sure sounds like mockery, doesn’t it?), only to put it in perspective. And, by the way, I’m straying beyond the borders of the modern-day U.S.A. only a little, offering evidence of the provincial nature of my formal education.

But consider, for example, how awful the year 79 A.D. was for Pompeiians living in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Geologists say the volcano could erupt again in an unprecedented explosion any day; millions could perish in such an event, which could quickly propel the year of eruption beyond many other ribbon-holder years.

The winner of each competition thus far has been, and remains, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, that cataclysmic reordering of the planet’s priorities that followed the moment the Chicxulub impactor struck off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Geophysicists and their scientific brethren say the asteroid could have been as big as fifty miles in diameter when it struck Earth. The poor dinosaurs did not have a chance.

With the exception of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, all of the events I have mentioned were catastrophic simply because human suffering factored into them. What about the miseries suffered by other creatures? Does our empathy and compassion extend beyond the pets we coerce into depending on us for food and shelter? (Have you noticed a change in tone?) I’ll stick to human tragedies for the time-being, nonetheless.

Calamities and catastrophes and cataclysmic events occur at various scales. While death and suffering involving hundreds or thousands or millions is stunning in its scope, individual death and suffering is equally momentous to those most directly affected. When examining calamities on an individual basis, the loss of a parent or spouse or sibling or close friend is apt to be more devastating than the loss of a job or the assassination of a world leader. Yet we seem to measure the size and extent of horror based on volume, either of victims or of spectators. Even though we are emotionally crushed—with far greater personal consequences—by the death of a loved one, that earth-shattering occurrence is not judged by others to be as brutal and difficult as a flood that takes the lives of hundreds of strangers.

I understand all of this, of course. I comprehend the difference between the impact of an individual death and the emotional consequences of massive loss of human life. Because we are, indeed, all interconnected, rips in the fabric of our lives cause us pain, but those interruptions in the cloth have different effects on us, depending on the proximity of those jagged lacerations to our emotional core.

Calamities come in all forms, in all sizes and shapes. Regardless of their size or source, they transform us, either individually or collectively or both. Our private and personal calamities are, perhaps, the most impactful; they are the ones that alter the course of our existence more immediately and more deeply than distant, impersonal calamities. Yet, as philosophers and poets and deep thinkers over the millennia have suggested, each of us humans is simply a tiny cell in a much larger creature; were they thinking of us as cells of a parasite? Probably not, but maybe.

We hope to avoid catastrophic changes in our lives, upsets that upend the serenity we so fervently seek. But life can change, or disappear, in an instant. Our control is limited by circumstances. Everything we think and everything we do relies on context; when context refuses to adhere to our wishes, we must simply ride the waves and hope we do not drown.

John Donne wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, from which his famous poem emerged and was claimed by the world. His words, taken from a paragraph of free verse, (modernized in spelling, below) and immortalized were:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

To serve as a resource for myself, I will reproduce the Meditation XVII in full below:

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.  If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.  The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.  Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?  But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.  No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.  If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.  Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Posted in Philosophy | 1 Comment

Bear with Me While I Share My Thoughts

I read a letter to the editor in this morning’s local newspaper. The letter, in expressing appreciation for the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding LGBTQ rights, referred to last week’s regular column by our church minister. The writer wrote:

“…it was very encouraging to read Rev. Walz’s column in the 6/23/2020 Voice, offering to welcome members of the LGBTQ community and to share his church’s resources with them.”

The person who wrote the letter has been deeply involved in Village political matters in recent years; I found some of his positions irritating, annoying, and offensive. Based on positions he took and what I considered the “trouble” he caused, I have made a number of assumptions about him, some unconsciously. One such unconscious assumption was that he was probably intolerant of people whose sexual orientation did not fit his definition of what is “right.” His letter brought me up sharply; it reminded me I should not be so quick to judge without having all the facts.

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I know an American blogger who now lives in Sweden with her Swedish husband. Her blog is far more engaging than mine. Actually, I don’t really know her; but we’ve read one another’s blogs and we both comment on them from time to time. Neither of us are regular readers of the other’s blog, nor do we comment every time we read, but we pay attention on occasion.

The reason her blog is more engaging than mine, aside from her writing style and the content of her posts, is its frequency. Unlike me, this American-Swedish blogger apparently does not feel pathologically compelled to write blog posts almost every damn day. I checked this morning; her last post was made on June 14. She has gone roughly two weeks without posting. I pride myself on missing a day or two at a time. And I have, on many occasions, posted several times within a single twenty-four-hour period. Pathology.

The difference between us, then, is that she posts only when she actually has something to say. I other the other hand, feel obliged to write every time I feel words clogging my fingers, backing up from my fingers to my elbows to my upper arms, continuing on to my shoulders. When that happens—almost every day—I have to turn the spigot, releasing the linguistic pressure, lest my brain explode, flinging letters and shattered words and shredded syllables all over my desk. That would be an ugly sight, indeed.

I think the reason I write so often is to remind the few brave regular readers that I am still here. Were I to write less often, I fear those brave few would forget I exist; and, then, when I were to write, no one would remember to read. There’s a psychological connection between what I’m suggesting and my blogger friend’s point in her most recent blog post: that we all need to focus on being better at listening. She points out that, too often, rather than truly listening, we hear only enough to trigger a response about our own experiences. A response to really hearing someone validates the speaker’s experiences, not one’s own. More engaging, yes. And more thoughtful.

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Yesterday’s pounding rains flooded many local roadways, though only a few Village roads. I saw photos of Hot Springs that stunned me, cars submerged in several feet of water and rushing water that could have carried away houses in the current. We are fortunate to live on the side of a mountain, with natural drainage offering considerable protection from rushing water; no dams of any kind, either, to cause water to back up and inundate our house.

It was during some of the heaviest rains that I drove my wife to the dentist’s office to have  a permanent crown installed to replace a temporary one. After an hour, she called me to pick her up; the permanent crown was not made properly, so they reinstalled the temporary one. They will call to schedule a return appointment, once a new permanent crown is made and ready. By the time I picked her up to take her home, the rain had subsided.

We can’t control the weather and we can’t control the quality of dental crown manufacture. Lessons that, one day, will make sense as part of a pair of insights about life.

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How much of the time we invest in “making a difference” really makes a difference? How much makes a difference only insofar as our investment of time gives us a sense of value, accomplishment, relevance?  I ask the questions because I sometimes feel that “helping” organizations like churches are simply applying feel-good band-aids to problems; they feed the poor and destitute, for example, rather than enable the poor and destitute to buy and prepare their own meals. A food pantry, as vital as it often is, does not address the underlying problem of hunger. But it addresses an immediate need and gives donors of food, money, and time a sense they are contributing to helping the needy. Yes, food pantries are needed. But, at the same time, more permanent solutions that take far longer to create and even longer to implement are needed.  How do we balance meeting immediate needs with creating lasting solutions?

Structural change in society could be of so much more lasting value than temporarily filling a crying need. But if the choices are to allow some people today to starve or to enable many more people tomorrow to feed themselves, how do we justify choosing structural change over urgent care? That’s one of those questions whose answers prove how incredibly difficult life is.

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I think about a few people several times a day; people who are in my life only tangentially. If they knew how often they are on my mind, they probably would think it strange. Maybe it is. But I don’t think so. But I wonder why these people seem to matter to me more than others whose roles in my life are equally tangential? It’s not that any one of them “matters” more or less; it’s that something about them sparks my attention and ongoing interest.

As I consider this matter, though, if the shoe were on the other foot, as it were, I would find it more than a little strange. I might find that it borders on stalking…not behavior, but…what?  Why am I on that person’s mind? Is it physical? Mental? Pathological? What? So I would understand someone thinking it strange. I wonder whether I am alone in this odd sense that I cannot justify in my own mind why some people, some of whom truly are on the periphery of my life, are on my mind with some regularity?

Why is it, I wonder, that people seem to feel so constrained from revealing what’s on their minds? I suspect they fear how others will perceive their thought processes; that “they’ll think I’m crazy, or worse.” Maybe. I’ll probably never know. Because people are uncomfortable talking about matters that make them, or others, uncomfortable. And, so, we go on living in the dark.

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I cannot conceal,
how fragile I feel.
But I will reveal
what’s under seal,
what’s false
and what’s real,
if you will treat me tender.

~The Caretaker’s Son~

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Unintentional Explorations

It’s normal, I guess, to simply run out of creative energy from time to time. No one can sustain creativity every waking moment; not even half the time. Creativity burns a mysterious fuel that is most definitely not limitless. When the fuel runs low, when the flames turn to embers and the embers turn to ashes, it’s time to let the blaze die for a time. One must give the ashes time to cool before attempting to replenish the fuel and strike a match. I wonder whether the dissipation of the fuel is a conscious decision made by the fuel itself, in the knowledge that the inferno is capable of consuming itself if allowed to burn unchecked. Odd that I anthropomorphize a mysteriously combustible fuel that, I claim, sustains creativity. That’s what people do, though. We attribute human characteristics to animals and inanimate objects and atmospheric events. Thunder and lightning are expressions of the displeasure of angry gods; that sort of thing.

If I could remember the details of a dream I had last night, and could relate them here on this screen, readers who stumble upon this post might be shocked at what my mind is capable of creating. Nothing horrible like wholesale butchery. Just base human desires and behaviors that run contrary to the morality defined by our puritanical roots; libido unchecked by social convention and personal moral code. But my recall of the dream is fuzzy, at best, and subject to “inventive recollection.” That is, when I cannot clearly remember what took place or what I was thinking during the course of the dream, I think my memory manufacturers fantasies to fill in the gaps.

In my conceit, I thought I had coined the term “inventive recollection;” a quick gaze at the results of a Google search proved otherwise. I was intrigued as I read a few paragraphs from Narrating Desire: Moral Consolation and Sentimental Fiction in Fifteenth-Century Spain, by Sol Miguel-Prendes, published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and available at the discounted price of $110.65:

…I must stress that the act of writing depicted in penitential fictions is the meditation on, and moral interpretation of, an author’s own past or poetry, either read or composed. Tears, moans, and laments gesture toward the agitated mood that precedes inventive recollection. The initial mental disposition—their affectio—is identified with erotic desire and curiositas, which drive the protagonists to the darkest recesses of their minds—the memorial hells of Ovidian myths, passionate feelings and love poems—in search of subject matter.

As I read that paragraph from an academic treatise, I became enamored of the term “penitential fictions.” My interest in the phrase led me to a University of Texas doctoral dissertation by Catherine Marie Meyer, entitled “Producing the Middle English Corpus: Confession and Medieval Bodies.” Though I did not read Dr. Meyer’s work (I assume she was awarded her Ph.D.), I read enough of the acknowledgement section to learn that Dr. Meyer considers herself a medievalist. It is that sort of laser-focused interest that appeals to me most about academia; reaching the pinnacle of academic achievement (well, I suppose post-grad work represents an ongoing, moving-target pinnacle) gives one an expertise in a narrowly-defined subject that few others can claim. Non-academics and those who envy what they perceive as the impossible-to-attain knowledge of academics, laugh at academic precision and depth. I’ve gone off course again; my mind is sometimes incapable of even moderate focus, which explains in part the fact that my academic achievement ended when I withdrew from a graduate program, never to return to academia. Oh, well. “Penitential fictions.” I love the term because it can be interpreted in so many ways. I choose to view it as a reference to fictions produced by authors seeking penitence. I suppose I see it that way because I see my writing as a means by which I seek something like penitence (“like” but not really the same thing) for something (but not really sure what).

Like many mornings, my quick check of Google turned into a untargeted hunt undertaken for no other reason than to feed my curiosity. I learned, during my unintentional foray into Spanish literature, that the author of Narrating Desire, Sol Miguel-Prendes, is Associate Professor of Spanish at Wake Forest University. And, as I was wandering the internet in search of curiosities about Cathryn Marie Meyer, I came across Guy P. Raffa, whose latest book, Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy, was released last month by Harvard University Press.

Writing fiction vignettes and stream-of-consciousness drivel, along with conducting aimless, pointless internet research, is escapism. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. The question is whether those endeavors are attempts to escape from the world for a while—efforts to find peace and serenity in a chaotic world—or represent attempts to escape from myself (and my chaotic mind). Perhaps both. Perhaps that dual escapism is akin to burning the candle on both ends. Eventually, the creativity represented by the wax, melts away in response to the flame. Okay, which is it? The mysterious fuel that runs low and leaves ashes or the wax that melts? Maybe dual escapism leads to depleting two kinds of fuel. I doubt I’ll ever have an answer. Not just to these questions, but to any others. No question has just one satisfactory answer.

Last night, I read an intriguing essay, entitled, “Let It Fall: Collapse and Ecological Metanoia,” by Rev. Matthew Syrdal. These words, early on in his essay, struck me:

Anger at my own complicity and the church’s complicity in a system that is designed to suppress our connection with these deepest energies in the soul and Earth, as we turn a blind eye to the ravishing of ecosystems and poisoning of the soils and biosphere.

Complicity. That’s what I think I’m finding in myself. I am complicit in the same way Syrdal is, but in the context of what I’ve written this morning, my complicity is in participating for most of my life in a culture that eschews uncertainty and rejects interests and desires and ideas that fall outside a narrow framework we define as “normal” or acceptable. I have been complicit by failing to take an active part in protestation against both mindless individualism and the collective idiocy of group-think.

I could go on forever. But I won’t. One day I’ll just stop. We all do. When it all becomes too much, we simply reject the breath that follows the last one.  But until then, I will keep blathering on about things over which I have little or no control. I can do that, at least. I can shout into the wind, during a hurricane, after everyone else has evacuated. It’s what we do. It’s what I do. My fingers are experts at screaming in the wee hours, when no one is listening.

It’s almost seven o’clock, though, so I’ve been at this for a very long time. I got up at four and have spent the majority of those three hours right here at the keyboard; not always typing, of course. A good chunk of time has been devoted to reading abstruse literature intended for people more intelligent than I; that’s why it took me so long to wade through it.

My coffee mug has a quarter of a cup of cold French roast coffee, complete with thick sediment. I think a fresh mug is in order.

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Mixed Messages

The usual Saharan Air Layer is said to be between two and three miles thick, its base about a mile above the surface of the Earth. The size of this year’s phenomenon is, according to atmospheric scientists, considerably larger than usual; I don’t know if that means it is deeper or broader or both. I know it is not a sandy-colored layer of dust; it is more like grey putty, concealing every bit of sky. There’s not a trace of blue above. I question the distance from the ground, too; it seems to have filled the atmosphere all the way to the Earth’s surface. The fact that very high air quality indices (meaning very low quality air) are reported all along the southern/Gulf tier of states reinforces that perspective, I think. People with breathing difficulties are experiencing more distress than usual, according to what I’ve read. I would have thought the cloud would have moved on by now; no, but when?

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Last year, on my wife’s birthday, we went to dinner at kBird, a northern Thai restaurant in Little Rock. This year, we are avoiding restaurants entirely for the time being, so I will prepare her birthday dinner: sea scallops with a chipotle glaze (or something like that), along with boiled potatoes with butter (and loaded with chives from the chive farm on our deck) and steamed green beans. I may sneak out today and get some ice cream for dessert.

The only celebrations we ever have for one another’s birthdays are dinner out. Usually, it’s a more upscale, expensive dinner than normal “dinners out,” but rarely anything earth-shaking. We’ve been married forty years; even special occasions have taken on an aura of “routine” about them. We’ve even stopped buying cards for one another. I wonder, are we unique in the abandonment of that age-old ceremonial acknowledgement of such events?

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Spikes and valleys. That describes my intellectual activity of late. I go from excited enthusiasm about ideas that challenge my thought processes to a dull lethargy in which thinking is equivalent to mind-numbing factory work. Maybe it has always been that way. Probably.

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The sound of wind chimes, loud and intrusive, is interrupting my ability to think (or to work effectively on the assembly line). So, I will go in the kitchen and see what damage I can do. Pour a little wine in my half-empty coffee cup, perhaps, or have a bowl of cereal doused with tomato juice and dressed with salt and cinnamon. No, that won’t do. I’ll just engage in robotic actions that result in something moderately edible. More coffee, though; hot, strong coffee. That might get my head out of the Saharan Air Layer.

 

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