In an Instant

My niece called me this afternoon while my wife and I were eating an early dinner. We had stopped at the Bubba’s Catfish-2-Go food truck for fried shrimp, fried okra, and fries (a fry-fest, I guess). Just as I was biting into a large butterly-fried shrimp, my cell rang. Caller ID named my niece. She calmly informed me that her father, my brother, was about to be wheeled into surgery for an emergency pacemaker implantation. In mid-sentence, she apologized and said the doctor had something to tell her. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

She did. From what she had learned, a neighbor had taken my brother to a hospital in Huntsville, Texas because he was feeling very, very bad. The Huntsville hospital immediately transferred him to a hospital in Conroe, thirty miles south. The doctors said he needed emergency surgery for a pacemaker. And so it went. My niece said the doctors told her it would be about an hour.

After finishing our early dinner, my wife and I drove the forty minutes home. That forty minutes was a long time. We’d spent most of the day after lunch on an aimless road trip, driving to Malvern to visit a furniture store, then west toward Arkadelphia, then drifting back toward Hot Springs. Our day was as much decompression as anything. We both had been involved in planning for and executing an auction for the UU church; last night the event was held and I was responsible for entering data about each winning bid. Not a terribly stressful role, but more taxing than I might have thought. Anyway, the auction was a success. It brought in well over fourteen thousand dollars.  And our donations to the auction (a smoked pork loin and a tamale-making party (tamalada) from the both of us) did quite well. Three couples spent $230 each for the tamalada; another couple spent $90 for my smoked pork loin. We’d better be really, really good at what we do. But I digress. We headed home, expecting a phone call.

It didn’t take much longer than an hour to get word (maybe less). The prognosis, they said, was good. He was, by the time I spoke to my niece on the phone, barely awake and doing well. The surgery was successful; it accomplished its intended aim.

I’m available to drive to my brother’s home in Texas to stay with him for a while if he needs it. My many obligations suddenly seem like easy promises to break. In an instant, my obligations to everyone but my wife take second place to my remaining family. Even the auction can wait. I’m expected to finish up part of it, reconciling payments with bids, tomorrow. If all’s well, I will. But if not, I’m not irreplaceable in that role. I know that.

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Spilling My Nuts

I just watched an episode on CNN of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown that brought tears to my eyes. Seriously, it presented a city (indeed, a region) in which I spent eight unhappy years in an entirely different light. The city I remember as deeply conservative, decidedly unsophisticated, and intellectually stunted apparently has changed.

Before I go too far off the deep end, Houston wasn’t a backwater when I lived there. It had its share of ethnic expressions in the way of restaurants, “culture” in the form of opera and symphony and theater, and open-mindedness in the existence of the Montrose neighborhood. But it was in more ways than one a conservative and unwelcoming place, afraid of chance, proud of many of its uglier roots, and deeply in love with the automobile. Based on my last visit, I’d say its love affair with the automobile has morphed into a full-on and deeply unhealthy lust, exacerbated by combustion fumes that trigger explosive auto-erotic reactions. (See what I did there with words?) But otherwise, the Parts Unknown episode suggests the city has matured in ways that make it extremely attractive. In fact, as I watched people from Nigeria, Mexico, Viet Nam, India, Singapore, Zimbabwe, and other places express their love for the U.S. and what it has done for them and, especially, their love for the people of Houston and Texas who have welcomed them, my heart swelled with pride and hope.

For those who aren’t familiar with Anthony Bourdain’s program, let me say I once thought he was an arrogant blow hard. Now (not just because of tonight’s episode), I am ashamed that I allowed a closed mind ripe with preconceived notions to judge him. His ego must be pretty damn big to allow him to prance around the world as a food and culture expert. But his ability to pull it off with more than a little believability suggests to me that he’s a pretty damn well-qualified food and culture expert. His obvious embrace of the underdog appeals to me. His fierce opposition to (and mocking dismissal of) Trump’s imbecilic southern border wall gives him many brownie points, too. The people with whom he speaks also dismiss the wall as the work of an idiot, but they never say it. Smart. The asshole in the White House might well command their removal from the U.S., citizen or not. But I digress into my unadulterated loathing for the scum of the earth.

I love the fact that these refugees from around the globe retain and celebrate and share their cultures. I would hate them to renounce their life experiences in favor of adopting an imaginary “American” demeanor. “American” does not mean we behave or  believe or look alike. It means only that we live where we live. I’d relish knowing more about my English history. Or my African history, if there is any. I’d actually bounce off the walls with joy if I were to learn I am certifiably Canadian or Chilean or Icelandic! Ha! Back to cultural celebration. How might we continue to celebrate our cultural roots after that inevitable day when we become, in the eyes of the world and each other, merely “citizens of Earth,” eligible to move freely between continents simply because we’re human? I don’t know. But we should. Somehow.

With all the happiness embedded in the paragraphs above, I am deeply, deeply embarrassed and ashamed to be “American” today. That is thanks only to Donald J. Trump and the deviants who cast their votes in his support. I would give my left nut if it would cause this country to recover from that ugly, ugly mistake. Shit, let me go all the way: remove the billionaire bigot from office and you can have both!

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I wonder whether, given the opportunity in my thirties or forties or fifties, I would have moved to Mumbai? When I was an undergraduate in Austin in the mid 1970s, a friend and I talked about going to India. Our starry-eyed dream was that we’d walk across the country and, in the process, learn the secrets of humanity through experience. Both of us were dreamers. Neither of us had any inkling of what such an undertaking might involve. Perhaps that’s why we seriously considered it. The absence of experience in the world allowed us to ignore the potential dangers such an endeavor might have presented. We didn’t give a thought to the endless possibilities for calamity we might encounter on a walking tour of a country about a third of the size (in land area) of the U.S. Nor did we think for a moment about how utterly different the experience would have been, in comparison to our lives in the US. Only this morning, after reading a bit about the country, did I realize that India’s population is more than four times the population of the US. Imagine that. In a country a third the size. And consider the issue of communicating in a country in which the most prevalent language, Hindi, spoken by only thirty percent of the population. According to an article I read this morning, thirty languages are spoken by more than a million people in India and 122 language are spoken by more than ten thousand.

The trek would have taken more courage and money than I had at the time. And it would have taken more of both than I have now, I suppose. Once before, when I mulling over the fact that I didn’t explore India, I said courage isn’t born of youth but, rather, of a thirst for experience. So, I wonder, where was that thirst for experience? Thousands of other people did precisely what I said I wanted to do. Why didn’t I? Was my thirst for experience satisfied by entering graduate school in a small east Texas city? That’s what I did instead of travel to India. Hmm.

This entire stream-of-consciousness conversation with myself started when I read an article on BBC online about the extremely high cost of “ex-pat housing” in Mumbai, which corresponds to the extremely high salaries of ex-pats in Mumbai (I presume ex-pats from England), which average more than $217,000 per year. “Ex-pat housing” seems to be a euphemism for high-end housing that mirrors the kind of housing people would find “back home.” That is, lavish places with ample western amenities and with access to services reserved for those with the money to buy them. That’s not quite what I had in mind when I thought about trekking across India. I imagined myself a contemplative ascetic. Youth has a way of opening the doors of the world to impossible possibilities!

Though I’ve occasionally wished I’d taken action on my plan to wander the Indian subcontinent, my regret has not been so much that I didn’t make it to India as that I didn’t make time to explore the world in general. I’ve been a lot of places around the world, but not as a sponge sucking up knowledge of different cultures. Where have I traveled? Let’s see, I’ve been to Russia and Sweden and China and Saudi Arabia and Croatia and France and Portugal and Spain and Germany and Australia and New Zealand and England and Mexico and Canada and more. Reading off that list of countries sounds like I’m “well-traveled,” but most of my trips have been short stints on business or brief vacations during which I tried to cram too much into too little time. In most instances, I didn’t absorb the culture in any significant sense. I swept in, did my thing, and swept out. I suppose I could wallow in regret for a misspent life, but that would be taking my trip down memory lane down a dark alley, which I’d really rather not do.

Now, as I sit on the cusp of the trip toward old age, I’m not inclined to live the life of an ascetic. I’m not particularly intent on going to India, either, though I might go if offered the opportunity and someone else picked up the bill. I’d rather return to Sweden, I think, or Croatia. Or maybe take another overnight cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki. But this time I’d spend more than a day in Finland. I’d like to explore Canada more thoroughly than I’ve done in the past. A coast-to-to-coast train journey, with plenty of week-long stops along the way would be nice. I’ve tried, with no success, to interest my wife in driving to Nova Scotia. I visited Halifax on business once and was enamored of the place. An online friend who I’ve never met face-to-face lives in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. She describes the little towns around her in ways that make them extremely appealing to me.

When my wife and I retired, our intent (or maybe, on reflection, it was purely my intent) was that we’d take frequent extensive road trips around the U.S. and Canada. I retired seven years before “normal” retirement age in part because I wanted to have time to do that sort of thing. But that hasn’t transpired. We’ve settled into domestic stagnation. I shouldn’t call it that. We’re not stagnant. But we haven’t done much traveling. We did spend three weeks in France a couple of years ago and a couple of weeks in Mexico last year, so we’re getting around. A little.

My wanderlust and sad-eyed longing for life on the road is simply a mood I go through every so often. I invariably get over it in relatively short order. Sometimes, it takes a trip to do it. When we went to France two years ago, as much as I loved it, it felt good to get back home.  Yet I often contemplate whether I might feel like I was at home if I lived in another country. If I mastered the relevant languages, could I feel at home in Iceland or Denmark or Chile or Portugal? I suspect I could. I suspect I’d find the attitudes about society in general and community to be more appealing than in the U.S.  Ach, but I’m becoming less flexible as I grow older. I do appreciate my creature comforts. My American style bathrooms appeal to me. Electrical outlets and switches that I’ve lived with all my life are known quantities; might I find it difficult to adjust to other systems? If I had ample financial resources, I’d like to try. Maybe rent a house in a small Spanish village for three or four months. Or an apartment in Santiago, Chile or Oslo, Norway, maybe for just a month or two. I’m just day dreaming. There is about as much chance that we’ll do that as that we’ll win the Powerball lottery. What the hell, though. I can dream, can’t I? And it costs nothing but my sense of self. <Insert winsome chuckle.>

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Visiting Old Self-Inflicted Wounds

I read a question posed on Quora recently, asking whether something might be “wrong” with a person who others generally don’t like. A respondent then described a young woman who’s intelligent, witty, socially aware, confident, and physically attractive but who sometimes breaks down in tears during the school day because she has no friends. The respondent confirmed that, indeed, she has no friends. She then said the young woman was a little too perfect. She did damage to others’ fragile egos simply by failing to demonstrate faults and vulnerabilities. She was the sort of person against whom the rest of us measure badly, the response said.

The answer to the question took me back to high school. That situation wasn’t that the “perfect” girl wasn’t liked. Everyone liked Jane; she was almost worshiped. She was beautiful, socially adept, and as sweet to everyone she encountered as anyone I’ve ever known. She was a cheerleader, an accomplished artist, and of above average intellect, though not brilliant. I remember wanting to ask her out. But I was not of her caliber. I was painfully shy, socially clumsy, not very attractive, and avoided extracurricular activities for fear of making a fool out of myself. I remember thinking a young woman like Jane would never go out with me. Even though I never saw her make fun of anyone, I remember thinking she would laugh at me if I ever asked her to go on a date. So I didn’t. In fact, I asked only two or three girls out during the entire time I was in high school; each time, I felt like I was putting my life on the line.

Many years later, in my late fifties, I happened to meet Jane again. We had lunch and engaged in conversation about “old times.” I wasn’t quite so brittle as I had been as a high school boy. I told her I’d had a crush on her in high school but didn’t have the nerve to show any signs, for fear of rejection. She told me she’d felt that something was wrong with her back then. She was rarely invited to go on a date during high school. Later, she realized it was because she was seen as “too perfect” and other guys, like me, were afraid of rejection. We collectively protected our egos; by protecting ours, we subjected her to feelings of inadequacy. During high school, she’d felt unwanted. Her radiance and beaming smile concealed a lot of pain.

I have no children. I don’t know how to rear kids and can’t offer advice on how to do it. But I do wish there were ways to instill in children resilience in the face of rejection (so I would have not feared it so much) and deep empathy and acceptance of people at all stations in life. I’d like to see children taught to truly love and appreciate others and to reach out to those who seem isolated, whether drawn into themselves or standing alone on a pedestal. This is an aside; I don’t know quite where it came from.

My self-inflicted protection—against a make-believe wound from which I felt I might never recover—lasted a long time. I was shy all the way through my undergraduate years and into my brief stint at graduate school. Only in my mid-twenties—after I took a job in which only a gregarious, social, extremely outgoing person could excel—did I come out of my shell. That is to say, I faked it. I can’t say whether the forced extraversion was a good thing or a bad one. On one hand, I overcame (rather, I learned to disguise) the shyness that had impinged on my ability to have much of a social life. But on the other I may have erased the personality from whence that shyness grew. I may have “overwritten” the real “me” to such a degree that the person remaining is artificial.

Perhaps I’ve faked it for so long that I don’t know who lives beneath the armored veneer. The idea that I may not know who I really am, at my core, has been on my mind for quite some time. Years. It’s an odd sensation, wondering whether the person who speaks and behaves and thinks as I do may have been manufactured, as a defense mechanism, by the person I once was. There’s a story in there somewhere. It would be about a boy who is so afraid of rejection that he radically changes his personality;  later, he realizes he had rejected himself and can no longer even reach back to that abandoned child to apologize for the abandonment. That sounds a little too melodramatic, I guess.

Children can be fragile things, though most of them weather the bumps and scrapes of childhood and young adulthood to become reasonably well-adjusted adults. Some of us, though, create pockets of fragility that we carry with us well into our adulthood and even into early old age (I can’t bring myself to acknowledge that I’m in middle old age, at sixty-four). I wonder  at what age the act of exploring hidden aspects of one’s personality becomes a pointless endeavor? When are you too old to see a psychologist or psychiatrist? Of course, it may not be a matter of being too old. It may be a matter of being too afraid of what one might find. The fear that what may be uncovered will reveal inadequacies happily hidden for decades.

Five turkeys just ambled by outside, stirring me back to reality and dragging me out of the well of ennui into which I had descended. I take that as a sign. Onward and upward to face the day!

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Subversive Subconscious

My vivid dreamery outdid itself last night, offering up two utterly bizarre experiences in a single evening of sleep. The first dream started with my oldest brother taking me to his storage unit somewhere in Australia (my brother lives in Mexico, not Australia). The building was very tall, not the squat little sheds I’m used to. Two guys with Australian accents were busily sorting through “stuff” in the unit next door when my brother opened the door of the unit a crack. A kangaroo stuck its head out and my brother shouted at me, “grab it!” I grabbed it around the neck and it began pummeling me in the face.

“Just hold on, it will calm down,” my brother said.

“You’ve got quite the beanie there,” one of the Australians said. (I haven’t a clue what  a beanie is.)

After a short time of suffering scratches to my face, the beast did, indeed, settle down and stopped hitting me. During the onset of serenity, I turned to talk to my brother, but he had turned into someone else. He had become a guy, John Smith, who served on the board of an association I once worked for. For reasons unknown to me, this transformation did not seem out of the ordinary. Nor was it particularly unsettling when I looked back at the kangaroo I was holding to see not a live animal, but a larger-than-life stylized metal sculpture of a kangaroo head, shoulders, and upper arms.

The two Australians engaged in indistinct conversations with John Smith while I loaded the kangaroo sculpture into the back of John’s SUV. John suggested we take a drive to look for another of my brothers (who also does not live in, nor has he ever visited, Australia). By the time we got to an odd little outpost surrounded by metal barriers like an auto junk yard, I was beginning to wonder what John was doing in Australia (but I didn’t question why I was there). Before I could ask, though, John pointed to a shack beyond the barriers and said, “That’s his place.” I asked John how he knew how to find this place and he responded that he had moved to Australia a few years ago and, “I get around. I know what’s up.”

The dream sequence switched to a huge shopping mall. John was still with me. My wife joined us, though, and said she was going to look for fabric. John asked me to go with him while he looked for a cell phone. We walked around the immense perimeter of the mall. Crowded with high-end jewelers and electronics shops and all sorts of other very expensive places to buy anything a person could possibly want, the mall reeked of unprincipled money. And the place was absolutely packed with people. I was angry that we were there. My anger arose from feeling that our very presence was giving energy to capitalism gone awry, raw greed on full and proud display. I called my wife and told her I was leaving and asked her to meet us at a main exit.

When John and I reached the exit, I asked if he had bought a phone. I don’t remember his precise words, but essentially he explained he had not because he didn’t think phones should cost that much and he had just wanted to replace his address book. That’s where the dream ended.

Just before I woke up this morning, I was having another, very different dream. I was in a car at the intersection of Glazy Peau Road and Highway 7 in Hot Springs Village, trying to make a left turn onto Highway 7. Rain was coming down in sheets. At the intersection, enormous potholes full of water were visible on both highways. Traffic was heavy. I kept inching forward, hoping someone on Highway 7 would let me in. Instead, a van full of people attempting to turn onto Glazy Peau in the opposite direction I was traveling turned in front of me and just barely missed hitting me. I thought about backing up, but I was concerned that I’d drive into a pothole full of water. Just then, I noticed a semi with its signal on, indicating it, too, wanted to turn where the van had just turned. If it made the turn, it would crush the front of my car. I waved at the driver as if to thank him for his courtesy and pulled in front of him. I’m pretty sure he let me in, but that dream stopped. I assume that’s the moment I awoke.

These extremely vivid dreams seem to come in waves. I’ll have dreams night after night for a few days, then I recall no dreams for days on end. Sometimes, like last night, dreams get pumped out of my mind like cheap movies. I’ve explored the “meaning” of dreams in times past, only to conclude that there’s no way of knowing whether dreams are anything more than the products of an odd misfiring imagination or a subversive subconscious. But, if I record enough of them, maybe I’ll be able to look back one day and find a common thread that will explain it all. Maybe. Maybe not.

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Climate Control with Coffee Milk Stout and Olives

I sit in my study (the term is more appealing than “the guest bedroom”) staring out the window at the rain and fog. We’ve had days and days of very heavy rains. All the lakes are full and streams overflowing their banks. My NOAA weather radio has blared flash flood warnings at least a dozen times in the past 48 hours. The road behind my house, just down the mountain from us, is closed due to water rushing across the pavement. A car wandering into that fast-moving water would be swept across the road and several hundred feet down the side of the mountain. “Mountain” may be too grandiose for the terrain. Regardless, the occupants of a car washed off the roadway almost certainly would be killed and would ultimately end up several hundred feet lower than the road, probably in a pasture on the farm below us. But that’s not why I’m sitting here writing, is it? No, it is not. I am sitting here writing because I feel a need to share information about the food in which I’ve been indulging myself.

If you’ll look carefully at the photo, you will see a glass full almost to the brim with coffee milk stout. Slightly to its left and in front is a small plate loaded with two cheeses (manchego and extra sharp white cheddar) and large green olives stuffed with garlic and jalapeños. I find the image of the plate appealing, but not as appealing as emptying the glass and causing the plate to become bare. Yet I had a bit of a time convincing myself to ruin the “painting” I made without acrylics or oils. I’m enamored with the beauty of simple foods, put together in such as a way as to look elegant. While my photography skills may not capture the beauty of my culinary artwork, my eye appreciates it. And so do my taste buds. The only things missing from the plate were pickled herring and sliced radishes.

All this talk of food seems to be causing the fog to lift and the sun to reveal that it has not left us for another galaxy. Though the view outside my window is not bright, it is no longer a picture of doom. And the bitter cold weather seems to have loosened its grip. The world promises to reward our sullen days with a bit of warmth and, if we’re lucky, a few dry days. After a brief break, I look out the window again to see blue skies and real sunlight. I believe in my heart of hearts that my milk stout, olives, and cheese are responsible for the change in the weather or, at the very least, my change in mood.

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It’s Only Just Syllables

Yesterday’s fierce rains, still continuing but to a much lesser extent, have filled lakes, reservoirs, and roadways. The police and sheriff’s departments have issued warning about inundated roadways and impassable streets. Some water crossing roads may conceal wash-outs. The bottom line is this: it’s wet. Wet. WET! As I gaze out my window, I see fog. Or perhaps I see clouds. We often find ourselves inside the cloud layer hugging the higher ridges.

Aside from the gloom outside my window, what’s on my mind that prompts me to sit at the keyboard? Nothing, really. I just feel compelled to write something lest I lose my ability to think through my fingers. I’ve written far too little of late. I’ve ignored my “novel,” that thing that I hoped would snowball into a whirlwind of writing. I think the reason I’m ignoring it is that it’s plot driven. I’ve never been one to write plot-driven stuff, yet that’s what I picked as a major writing project. What I’ve written so far seems dull and lifeless. The people are wooden, two-dimensional, uninteresting. They’re not people I’d be particularly interested in knowing. I don’t like their jobs, their way of thinking about the world…I don’t even like the way they look. The only thing about them I find appealing is that they are all subject to my whims and that I could, if I wished, have them annihilated in a nuclear blast, a very real possibility given the plot that’s developed thus far. Like all my writing, the story developing in the novel goes in too many directions, none with a destination in mind. Maybe I should ditch the effort and return to focus on what I prefer doing, developing complex, troubled characters who mirror the man creating them.

Or, perhaps what I really need to do is get active. Not like jogging, but like fixing leaky faucets and showers, making and installing garage shelving, clearing out tiny pine trees growing behind the house, and installing the toilet I bought months ago when we replaced the one in the master bath (they both needed replacing, but the one in the master was in more serious and immediate need). I think I must be lazy. Actually, it’s not that. It’s that I’m no longer as willing to take risks with home repairs as I once was. The reason, I think, is that my wife gets nervous when I start talking about doing something, like she has no confidence that I can actually get it done. I don’t know why that is. In our first house, I built in a desk, then covered it with laminate that looked like cherry wood. That was a big job and I did it well, if I say so myself. And I built a workbench in the garage and installed fluorescent lighting about it. And I built a deck. I’ve replaced all sorts of broken parts of faucets, heaters, etc., etc. Yet she gets nervous when I talk about doing work myself. She’d rather we hire it out, paying exorbitant amounts to people who, I am convinced, simply use us as opportunities to learn how to do what we’re asking them to do.

Oh, maybe what I should do instead of writing or getting active around the house is to complain! Yes, that’s it! I do that so damn well. But you can never get enough practice. It pays to sharpen one’s skills by exercising them.

No, that’s annoying to others (are you with me?) and tends to make one’s thoughts get shrill and reedy. I envision my mind developing an underbrush of thin, brittle grasses that make high-pitched noises as the wind whistles between the empty spaces between ideas. If I were taller, the wind would make an even higher-pitched sound; but I’m short, so the sound is muted and slightly bass, if that’s even possible for a high-pitched noise.

Today, I will take no irrevocable action. I will do nothing that can’t be undone. Except this. I can’t undo the writing I’ve done, as much as I might wish I could. And I can’t unbreathe the breaths I’ve taken. So, I end this stream-of-consciousness blather with the admission that I’ve lied, even to myself, about what I will not do. That, in itself, is an assertion of what I will do, isn’t it? And that’s what’s wrong with the way this day has started.

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Duct Tape May be the Ticket

This will be repetitious if you’ve been around here for awhile. It’s even getting tiresome to me, and I’m the one thinking and writing it.

I embarrass myself when I cannot conceal tears that reveal my inability to rein in my emotions. Not just major emotions. Emotions one might feel in a movie theater. Or watching a newscast about the after-effects of a hurricane or wildfire. Or watching kids in a public park enjoying themselves so much it just moves me to tears.

This matter has been the topic of so many of my posts I’ve lost count. I doubt I could even find all the posts that deal with this. Apparently, I haven’t satisfied myself that I’ve adequately addressed it, so I’m trying again.

Friends and others poo-poo my concerns. “It precious that you cry so easily.” “You’re just in touch with your emotions, and that’s great.” “You are revealing a part of yourself that too many people insist on remaining hidden.”

Yeah, right. But it also reveals a weakness our culture finds inexcusable. Seriously. And it’s not just weeping men who bear the brunt of ridicule and criticism. Women, too, whose eyes leak too often are judged. They are weak, they lack emotional control, they are weak, their emotionalism makes them undependable, they are weak, their tears are artificial—just ploys in search of pity. Oh, and did I mention they are weak? That’s the bottom line. Tears, in this culture anyway, convey weakness. If they are infrequent and only spill in times of soul-crushing distress, they’re okay. But if they fall with any degree of frequency and, especially, if they flow in response to others’ distress, they signal fundamental weakness.

I watched a video of a speaker who issued one of those “tears are just fine” platitudes about people, especially women, in management positions, offering that “tears say you’re human and that you have emotions.”. And then she added, “of course, you can’t just cry at the drop of a hat.” And there you go. People who can’t simply switch off that automatic tear response to emotional triggers are in some way deviant, unsuited to positions of responsibility or authority or otherwise just a little “off.”

Knowing my propensity for spillage, I’ve tried a number of tactics to quell the flow. I distract myself from the issue at hand by diverting my attention to other subjects. What number category would apply to the number of leaves on all the trees on earth…centillion? What if salamanders could understand human language? I wonder why we haven’t figured out a way to construct a multi-lane causeway between the U.S. and Europe? By the time I realize I need the diversion, though, it’s too late. It’s my eyes that cause the problem. I don’t sob, my nose doesn’t leak, I don’t contort my face or wince or otherwise signal my emotions. It’s just my eyes. They fill with tears and, unless I dab them away, they slide down my cheeks in large wet drops. Even dabbing them away leaves traces. There’s evidence that I’ve broken a social rule. The eyelids are a little too pink, the reflections in my eyes shimmer a little too much.

I am not one to judge a person for his or her tearfulness, but I guess that’s because I’m acutely aware that it’s not something that’s necessarily easy to control. My wife knows that, when we’re together and hearing or seeing something that tugs at our heart strings, she should discretely slip a tissue in my hand. I then attempt to discretely staunch the flow. Of course, it’s hard to hide a wet and dripping facial tissue. That last thing; just kidding, they don’t get that wet.

There must be a biochemical explanation. It’s not just that I am abnormally emotional. It’s that my body responds to emotional stimuli more readily than most. That must be it. But even if that explanation is completely factual, it doesn’t relieve the embarrassment of too-frequent tears any more than knowing a person suffers from a biological need to urinate frequently doesn’t relieve their embarrassment (inasmuch as I don’t suffer from that, yet, I can’t make that last claim with any certainty). I try to make light of it. I do try. And I sometimes succeed. But, dammit, I wish there were a pill that would “fix” the free-flowing tear ducts.

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Escape from Dreamland

art by Austin Swinburn

Gochujang Deviled Eggs

For years, I’ve attached a name to the kitchen my wife and I share: French Kangaroo.  One of my nephews created the image to the left at my request; I use it on a Facebook page of the same name, where I show off photos of food we cook. The name is one of several I’ve decided would be in the running if I were ever to open a restaurant. Other prospective names include Scrawl and Cobra. I’ve written about those ideas before; no need to rehash them now. The idea of opening a restaurant of any kind is madness for someone with insufficient funds to invest and no food service experience. That notwithstanding, and regardless of the fact that I’ve let my desire to create ceramic masks dissipate for a couple of years, I am revisiting the idea with varying degrees of seriousness. You might think this a non sequitur. Give me a chance. Either I’ll knit myself a cradle in which my ideas can rest or I’ll braid a hangman’s noose for my neck.

Fake Japanese Kintsukuroi

For some reason, I have in my head this afternoon the notion that I might be approaching the point at which two of my more compelling interests might merge into a passion.  On occasion, I’ll stumble across a ceramic kiln at a garage or estate sale and begin calculating how to fit the thing in my work space (as unwise as that might  be).  Lately, I’ve begun to think, “Hey, if I were to open a restaurant, I might be able to operate a kiln outside, in back, where I can fire masks.”

Here’s where things begin to come together. The only way I’d be able to afford to create a restaurant would involve finding the cheapest, poorest-suited spot I could scratch up. It would require a great deal of work just to bring it up to code, much less make it a place patrons would feel comfortable. I’d have to do the work myself. Inasmuch as I have been having trouble pushing myself to take the risks associated with replacing a a valve stem in a leaky bathroom faucet, that could be problematic. But let me go on. Imagine, if you will, a kiln outside my kitchen where, late at night after the test patrons are gone, I could fire masks I made the week before. Once fired, I could hang them on the blank walls of the restaurant. My decorating problem is resolved! I need to decide, though, which masks pair well with which foods. I suspect the best way to find out is just to lay a bunch of them out in random order.

Yeah, I agree. The idea emerged from the brain of a madman. It has returned from whence it sprang.

Wild-eyed nutcase

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Reviving the Town’s Soul

I’ve played with the town of Struggles, Arkansas, using it in a few vignettes I’ve posted on this blog and in a few stories I’ve drafted. When I conceived of the town, I had a specific picture of the place in mind. I fabricated the town and its inhabitants, the bars and the restaurants and the court-house and police station. I manufactured the industries that had served as its life blood.

The town’s social scene was clear to me. I understood the relationships between wealthy land developers and investors and between business owners and their employees. I knew the economic and civil fabric of the town better than the mayor and the directors, better than the police chief and the head of the health department. I was so knowledgeable because, I created the place in my head.  I gave life to that place and its businesses.

But then, as I watched a century pass, the town changed. The products its manufacturers produced and the services its businesses offered became anachronisms. In a society changing at the speed of thought, their factories and headquarters buildings crumpled into useless hulks and breathed their last breaths. Large-scale lay offs transformed a once-successful town, its skeletal remains barely able to stand. Buildings stood empty and decaying. The mood of the dwindling population darkened. Gloom wove its way into the fabric of every conversation. A sense of the inevitable complete demise of the town was everywhere. A rancid, acidic slurry of hatred and blame for the town’s fate flowed through the streets.

But I had other plans for Struggles. I crafted in my head the town’s last bar, the Fourth Estate Tavern, and its owner and barkeeper, a mysterious character in his mid-sixties named (until I decide to change it) Calypso Kneeblood. Though Kneeblood was just barely scraping by, he frequently spent money he didn’t have to help patrons who frequented his place. Calypso Kneeblood looked like and spoke like a harsh, hard, gnarled old man, but his actions told another story. And the other story was unfolding when I killed Struggles, Arkansas. I closed the Fourth Estate Tavern without even the courtesy to tell Kneeblood nor to say why. In my mind, I sent the characters who frequented the place to the homeless shelter that, I knew, would close soon.

Like everything else in Struggles, the homeless shelter would lose its source of funding and the emotional energy to keep it afloat. Without the stamina to keep the story going, the town would shrivel and die. Struggle, Arkansas would be the victim of progress and apathy, a victim of egotism gone awry and lust for money gone utterly insane.

Ultimately, though, Struggles, Arkansas could have survived, except for the murderer who lived in the town’s soul and allowed his fingers to clasp Struggles’ neck in a choking death grip.

If it’s not clear, the stories in my head about Struggles and the afflictions the town faced were moving a story line forward, but I permitted myself to allow the powers that were pushing Struggles over the edge to win. I stopped writing about it. I starved the town of the energy I had given it.

Fortunately for Struggles (and, perhaps, for me), I think I’m about to resurrect my story, dust it off, and give new energy to the people inside the Fourth Estate Tavern. Calypso Kneeblood and his derelict patrons may yet return to life and may give Struggles, Arkansas another opportunity to come off life support. I know the characters and I know their stories. I don’t know just what’s going to happen, but I think there’s some new energy on the horizon. So, I’ll gather up all the bits and pieces I’ve written about Struggles, stitch them together as appropriate (and discard the detritus), and continue with its efforts to survive.

Onward and upward, as they say. But, this morning, I have to finish making the sausage and cheese balls to take to the UU church. A friend will speak this morning about Black History Month and her life growing up in the segregated south. My wife and I agreed to make the pre-program goodies; she is providing the sweet stuff, I am providing the savory.

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The People Who Feed Us

I’m embarrassed that I have not attached more value and significance to a large group of people who, collectively, play a vitally important part in my life. I’ve come late to an expanding appreciation that the food I eat has a fascinating history involving people I don’t know doing work I can only imagine. I’ve long understood, of course, that food I get from grocery stores and restaurants has a long history of nurturing and production and transportation. But only lately have I thought about it intently.

I have a better understanding of the farmers and ranchers and fishers and others who begin the process of feeding me than I have of some of the other folks involved in putting food on my table. I can imagine people on tractors plowing fields and planting seeds. In my mind’s eye, I see people on horseback rounding up cattle. I can envision people on large fishing trawlers casting nets and hauling them in, emptying their catch into holds filled with ice.

But I have a harder time imagining the people and the processes involved in the next steps. Who kills the cattle and sheep and pigs and how do they do it? Who skins the animals and prepares them for the butcher shops or mass-production outfits that package huge volumes of steaks and roasts? Who does the work involved in curing bacon? And what of the people involved “only” in packaging or the people who transform freshly harvested corn from corn-on-the-cob to creamed and cooked corn in a can? I haven’t even mentioned the migrant workers who do much of the back-breaking work involved in planting and harvesting crops. I could go on and on, all the way from factory workers involved in massive-scale canning to people involved in freezing and packaging frozen food to truckers who deliver the merchandise to grocery stores to the folks who stock shelves and work the cash register. There are so many more I’ve not mentioned—some because I didn’t think of them, others because I don’t even know what role they play or that there even is a role of the sort they play.

My fascination is only partly with the processes involved and the roles people play in those processes. Beyond those aspects of my curiosity is my interest in the specific people who touch my food in one way or another. I’ve been imagining a trek that begins with a conversation with the very first person involved with each item on my plate. For example, I’d like to have a conversation with the farmer responsible for planting (or having planted) the seeds for the tomato plants from which my tomatoes were picked. What’s his life like? Does he wonder about the people who consume the food he grows? Does she think about the importance of her work and how she contributes to averting starvation for so many people. And the person who artificially inseminated the cow that gave birth to the animal from whose carcass my steak was carved—I would like to talk to him. Or perhaps I’d have to go back even further, to the person who “harvested” the semen used in the artificial insemination. You can see, can’t you, how complex this matter of exploring how the food on my table came to be could get? What is the source of the seeds the farmer planted for his crop of eggplant? Who gets those seeds? Who packages them? I want to converse with those people, too.

Many books have been written (mostly in the form of exposé, it seems to me) about the horrors of packing houses and the hellish conditions to which field and factory workers are exposed. I may select a few of those books to read. But I sense, from reading the back covers of several, that I won’t get what I want out of them. In one sense, I’m certain I won’t get what I want—I want to engage in conversations with people involved in getting food to my pantry and my refrigerator. I want to know something about them, about their lives. Do they have children? Are their children aware of the parents’ role in feeding millions of people?

These questions came to me after, one day not long ago, a thought came to me out of the blue: What if all the grocery shelves were empty? What if all the usual sources of food I have always taken for granted dried up? A lot of people have gardens; living on a steep slope of rocky ground makes a garden almost impossible for me. So I couldn’t rely on growing my own food (and, realistically, even if I had access to rich, fertile soil, I suspect I’d starve before my first crop reached maturity).  We’ve allowed ourselves (at least most of us) to come to be utterly reliant on a well-developed system of food production and delivery that, if disrupted, could result in mass starvation. That is not a cheery thought. As I sit here at just after 5:00 a.m. drinking my coffee, I think I’d like to know a little more about the likelihood (or, I hope, the more likely unlikelihood…get it?) that the people involved in the process would allow it to happen.

Something else has been on my mind as I ponder these matters. I suspect most of the people involved in the process of feeding the rest of us don’t realize the importance of their roles. I suspect farmers realize how important a part they play in feeding us; their role is a frequent theme in public policy discussions. But people who work in canneries (are they called canneries anymore?) may consider their jobs just jobs. But without them, the system would not work as well. And the people who design the equipment used, from conveyor belts to food labeling equipment—they, too, make important contributions to the “system” of food delivery. Yet until just a few days ago, I hadn’t thought about it. It was all background noise that didn’t matter…well, it’s not that it didn’t matter, I just hadn’t thought about it.

I said these questions of  came out of the blue. Not really. I had been reading about meditation practices, a topic I’ve explored off and on for many years, and the matter of mindfulness was top of mind. I was attempting to “be present, in the here and now” as I was having dinner. That’s when the issue really entered my mind. I paid close attention to what I was doing. Who was involved in the process of getting my meal to me, I asked myself. That’s where it all began. I blame the Buddha and Ram Dass for my present fixation on the food production and delivery system!

If nothing else, my recent preoccupation with how food reaches my table has raised my awareness about the many, many people who play a part in ensuring I am well fed. Every one of them matter. And, I suppose, my interest in actually talking to them, conversing with them, is based on wanting to tell them they are appreciated—I appreciate them—for what they do. I realize, as I reflect on what I’ve written here, that I have simply never thought about so many of the people who play a part in feeding me, the people in the middle of the process, especially. I’m thinking about them now.

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Scurrying Between Pity and Decency and Rage

I just sent a long email, and a text message, to a friend I’ve not seen in a long time. As we grow older and our friends morph into the diaspora of the aged, I wonder whether it’s safe to make close connections at any point in life. Though that has rarely been an issue with me because I’ve been either unable to make those connections or unwilling to expose myself to what that could mean, it’s on my mind now. Invariably, friends and family move away or die, leaving empty spaces impossible to fill with new acquaintances. I can’t think of a single person I call friend today who I knew thirty years ago. I have friends I’ve known for twenty years and more, but they are part of that diaspora of friends, aged or aging, who wander in search of success, money, power, decency…who knows what?

Tonight, I feel sad and alone, though that’s probably just me lavishing self-pity on myself. I wish I could talk to someone who might understand, though, how rough it feels to be lonely even when surrounded by loving and lovely people. That’s not the way things should be, but occasionally, at least, that’s the way things are.

I have friends who will die soon. That’s hard to know. But it’s not impossible to accept. It’s not impossible to accept that I may die soon (though it’s not in my plans).  Would that we would all try our best to sooth the experience of one another’s time on his planet. Is that too much to ask? Wouldn’t we all experience more happiness, greater joy, if we just accepted and nurtured one another? Well, sure. But there are those among us who need superiority. Ach. That’s why they make drugs that make euthanasia more than a thought, but a reality.

—————-EDIT OF FEBRUARY 9—————–

I do, of course, have a very few friends who I’ve known for more than thirty years. God, I’ve known a few for around forty years. But last night, when I was writing this, I was in the midst of a strange tangle of self-imposed detachment. I do that from time to time. I’ve broken out of that web of emotional cables.

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Uprooted by Wind and Madness

Last night, I heard heavy rain slam against the composition shingles above my head. I wished I were a child again, the sort of child who would go outside to experience that cold anger of the winter sky. But I’m no longer a child. I avoid walking outside in the cold, looking skyward as frigid raindrops pelt my face. In so many ways, I hate growing old and inflexible, chained to my comfort like a man in bondage shackled to an immovable slave-auction oak. Fear of discomfort, I guess, bars me from the experiences I wish I wanted. If I had courage, I’d have walked outdoors into the bone-chilling wind and luxuriated in the experience, a testament to my strength and stamina. But I lack courage in the same way I lack vigor and endurance. Ach, what happened to that brave young man who wanted to experience everything?

I watched the last episode of the second season of Good Behavior last night. I relate too well to the character of Letty. She and I are water brothers, soul spirits, keepers of the ugliness that binds together broken people like glue. As I watched the episode unfold, I drank my glass of Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz blend and thought to myself:

“If my internal life weren’t such a tragedy, I’d share it. If my reality weren’t such a cruel story, I’d use it as a lesson. If people who know me realized how empty and aching I am, they would avoid me like an acrid wind carrying sarin gas and the seeds of bubonic plague.”

Yes, I get just a little dramatic in my self-pity. If I had the stamina and the intellectual strength, I’d turn my thoughts into drama and heartache worth sharing. But I can’t keep my mind focused for more than 15 minutes at a time. I get bored. Even with fascinating things. Something, methinks, is awry inside my head. If it weren’t for my ADHD (or whatever it is that keeps me from completing tasks like shaving or finishing breakfast), I might have been an esteemed linguist or an internationally famous detective or beekeeper. But, my thoughts ricochet like bullets inside my head, never staying in one place long enough to mean anything more than an echo.

Yesterday, I wrote about an “art inspiration” event at which writers viewed the work of an artist and then, using that art as a trigger, wrote something inspired by the art. I included the post that was “inspired” by that art. This morning, I’ll include here the piece I was inspired to write from the second piece of art.

As I explained yesterday, “The…painting shows two very colorful but very frightening clowns, one of whom is baring sharp teeth behind what I read as an evil grin. The other clown suggests, to me, an expression of insanity. The artist calls this piece ‘Clownopin.‘” I had a hard time with this one. It inspired several narrative fiction vignettes, but the piece that I finally read to the group of writers involved in the inspiration exercise was this poem, if that’s what it is:

I knew a man who thrilled young children with exaggerated
antics, a man with painted clothes and a maniacal wig,
who drew laughter from young throats and love from
tender minds, gently scaring children into delighted squeals.

I knew a man whose heart was woven from sunlight and love,
a man whose perpetual smile was painted on his face with
brushes made of compassion and adoration , using
pigments mined from quarries filled with lavender and lilac.

But I knew a woman whose personality was stitched from
weather-worn steel and braided brass, a woman whose
compassion dissolved before birth in a caustic bath of
corrosive, acidic amniotic fluid and palpable hatred.

I knew a woman whose disdain for empathy was etched
on her face like dates carved on a granite tombstone,
her sickeningly luminous derision as impossibly bright
as a deviant neon peacock preening for a public execution.

I knew a woman who cackled at others’ misfortune, her
throaty laugh riddled with phlegm and the odor of stale
tobacco, a mist of spittle spraying from her lips with
every vile cough and every shrill, convulsive chuckle.

I knew a woman who cared for nothing but herself,
a woman whose emptiness was as wide as the sky, a
woman who smothered sympathy under an air-tight
blanket of cruelty and scorn before it was born.

Still, I knew a man whose whimsical costume and silly laugh
hid sinew and force, sculpted muscle and a booming voice
with the strength to rip through barriers between
mistakes and madness, misdeeds and malefaction.

I knew a man whose depth of compassion was surpassed
only by his capacity for unbridled rage and whose thirst
for retribution could be quenched only by blood and whose
sense of justice was stronger than any legislative panacea.

That woman made a mistake, mocking a child at a town
circus. She made a mistake by failing to look behind her
as she walked home that night, a man following her, a
man with sharpness in his pocket and a mission in his mind.

That monstrous woman who spread misery with abandon,
who reveled in causing pain and whose happiness grew from
sowing seeds of sorrow in her wake—that woman is no more, thanks to a straight razor and a gentle man, Clownopin.

I wish I could have posted the two images with my two posts, but I didn’t bother to ask my artist neighbor before I started writing these posts. Maybe later.



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The Awful Secret

A tiny knot of local would-be writers has been playing with the idea of strengthening our skills by marrying art with writing. The idea is to use a piece of art (painted by the husband of one of the women in the group) as an inspiration for writing. A trigger, if you will. The artist and his writer wife live next door to me. He is a prolific and highly talented artist, so there’s plenty of art from which to choose as the inspirational trigger. In preparation of the gathering (which took place yesterday), my neighbor suggested that she and I both pick a painting and write something, then share it with the group. I picked two. The first painting shows two wide-eyed boys, one whispering to the other, standing in front of a female, who could be an older girl or a young woman. Her hand is held up to just below her face. She seems to be either mulling something over or using her index finger in a physical way to say “hush.” I may not be describing that well; I hope I’ve painted the picture, as it were. The painting is entitled “The Awful Secret.” The other painting shows two very colorful but very frightening clowns, one of whom is baring sharp teeth behind what I read as an evil grin. The other clown suggests, to me, an expression of insanity. The artist calls this piece “Clownopin.”

For lack of anything better to post here today (due, in part, to an attitude that seems to be trying to mimic the drabness of the cold, grey day), I’ll post the outcome that emerged from my thoughts about “The Awful Secret.”

The Awful Secret

Sierra Bunkerhouse had no proof of her husband’s infidelity until she overheard Cyrus say to her son, Calvin, when he thought she was out of earshot, “I told you your father was foolin’ around with Kenny’s mother. Did you see him kiss her a few minutes ago? That weren’t no peck on the cheek.”

Cyrus was Calvin’s new friend, who had moved in only a month earlier, from down the block. Kenny was the boy next door, whose mother was Lynn. Sierra had been concerned that her husband, Mike, was being a little too friendly with Lynn. Now, though, she thought her suspicions were confirmed.

Sierra didn’t hear the remainder of the whispered conversation.

“You dimwit, that wasn’t Kenny’s mother, it was my mom. Kenny’s mother wasn’t even in the kitchen.”

“Ummm. Uhhh. Oh. Well, they look a lot alike and—”

—“You’re a dimwit. And you’re a blind dimwit.”

The intensity of Sierra’s anger at the challenge to her marriage filled her brain to the exclusion of every other emotion for the rest of the evening.  The bastard. I ought to divorce Mike and clean him out of every penny he has to his name. Or maybe I’ll let Gary kick Mike’s ass and then divorce Lynn.

The next morning, as she was rinsing breakfast dishes and angrily gazing out the kitchen window toward the house next door, Sierra saw Lynn’s husband, Gary, step out of his back yard and cross in front of his kitchen window toward the front of the house, carrying golf clubs.

A moment after Gary disappeared from view, Sierra heard Mike’s voice behind her. “Hon, I’m going next door to replace a washer in Gary and Lynn’s kitchen faucet.”

Sierra spun around, her eyes wide and her nostrils flared. “Why the hell can’t Gary fix the damned faucet?”

Mike’s eyes sprung open wide. His eyebrow snapped into an arch. “Where did that come from?”

“Let’s just say I’m a little pissed off about something.”

“What is it? Is it something I did?”

Sierra imagined that her hot cheeks must be glowing red. “Just go ahead! Go fix the bloody faucet,” she snarled.

Mike cocked his head and opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, but then seemed to change his mind. Finally, spoke. “Okay. When I get back, talk to me about what’s got you upset, okay?” Mike hesitated for a moment, then continued. “You know, Gary isn’t a handyman. I told him I’d do it for him.”

Sierra, still feeling the heat in her cheeks, turned back to the sink to silently converse with her husband. Sure ‘Gary’ asked you. Do you think I’m stupid? She pause for another moment, and then said,  “Yeah. I bet he can’t even see something’s broken right in front of him. Go ahead.”

Mike sighed. “Yeah, right. Okay. Back in a bit.”

Sierra stood staring blankly out the window. Her emotions bounced between anger and despondency, hurt and rage, and then settled into numbness. She watched as a silhouette moved back and forth behind the slats of Lynn’s kitchen miniblinds. I wonder what she’s doing …Probably putting up last night’s dishes,’ she thought, as she watched the repetitive motions behind the barely open mini-blinds. Then she saw another silhouette, a taller one, cross in front of the window. The second silhouette raised its arms and merged with the first one in what was unmistakably an embrace.

Sierra turned away from the window. How dare the bastard take her in his arms right in front of me! She strode toward the door, but stopped midway and turned around. She shuffled back to the kitchen table and sat down. For five minutes she sat, her anger brewing into a dark, blind rage. Sierra stood slowly and walked to the kitchen counter. She clenched her jaws and opened the knife drawer. She drew out the long slicing knife from its slot.


Sierra walked across the lawn to the neighbors’ house. The knife in her right hand, Sierra reached with her left hand and quietly turned the knob of Gary and Lynn’s front door. She crept inside and closed the door, taking care to avoid causing the latch-set to “click.” Once inside, she heard the low murmur of indistinct voices from the kitchen. With steely patience, and careful not to make a sound, she tiptoed to the dining area just around the corner from the kitchen. She stopped and strained to listen, when she heard Lynn giggle and say, “Don’t get fresh me with me. Kenny might see you and wonder what’s going on.”

Sierra’s deliberate quietude erupted into a banshee’s scream. “I’ll kill both of you!” She sprang around the corner, the knife raised high above her head.

Frightened screams filled her ears as the scene before her unfolded. Gary shrieked, his arms pulling Lynn close to him. His scream was loud, but Lynn’s howl almost matched its volume. Mike, half his body stuck beneath the sink, responded to the commotion by lifting his head, smashing it against the bottom of the cast iron vessel. Little Kenny, who had been sitting at the kitchen table on the far end of the room, sprang out of his seat as if he had been launched from a slingshot.

Sierra was stunned by what she saw in front of her. She looked at the knife in her hand, then at the frightened people in front of her, then back at her hand. She collapsed onto the floor, sobbing. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I…I…I…I… thought L..L..L..Lynn was having an affair with M..M..M..Mike. I was sure of it. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I’ll go now. I’m sorry. I’m so, so, sorry!” She turned and ran out of the house, sobbing hysterically.


Lynn turned and saw her son standing, eyes wide, at the end of the kitchen table. “Come here, Kenny. Everything’s going to be fine. Ms. Bunkerhouse just got confused. We’re all just fine. Don’t worry. Gary,” she said to her husband, “talk to Kenny. Make sure he’s okay.”

Gary put his arm around Kenny’s shoulder and led him toward the back door. “Let’s go outside and talk, son.”

Mike pulled himself out from beneath the sink and slowly rose to his feet. He rubbed the top of his head.

Lynn strained to see the growing knot on the top of his head. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just a bump. But I don’t know about Sierra. She was ready to kill us.”

Lynn nodded. “Uh huh. This little episode is another reason we have to do something about both of them, baby, or this could get ugly.” She put her arms around Mike’s waist, leaned into him, and kissed him on the mouth.



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Hiding Behind Rainbows with a Machete in Hand

I dabble in reality the way other people I know dabble in fiction. Those other people write an occasional piece of fiction but they spend the majority of their writing time solidly entrenched in the real world. I, on the other hand, spend most of my time—not just writing time, mind you—in a world that exists only in my head. I find that world, even with its cast of demented characters who sometimes do unspeakable things, more serene than the one I view through my eyes. I have imaginary friends, imaginary enemies, imaginary lovers (don’t tell my wife), and imaginary solutions to problems that exist only in my imagination. It’s quite nice, actually, because when things begin to get too intense, I can slide back in to the real world. There’s a risk, of course, that I might slide back in at precisely the wrong time and step in front of a moving automobile but that’s a risk I am willing to take. On the other hand, some of the characters in my head tend to be so dark that I have to leave them alone and lock them away for a time while I visit with unicorns, leprechauns, and English-speaking bulldogs. By the way, this paragraph is my way of dabbling in reality.

Just this morning, I was tromping through a fictional place with a fictional character. I’ll take you there for a few moments.

I wake early almost every day. I used to think it was a curse from my time in Afghanistan, but now I consider it normal. On those rare occasions when I sleep past 5:00 a.m., I worry that I might be coming down with something. Ach. That’s not really true. I don’t really worry. I hope. I hope my late awakening is a sign. A symptom of a fatal disease that will end my life. I once made the mistake, after waking late one morning shortly before my annual physical, of telling my doctor about the experience and how I felt. He said he thought I was depressed and prescribed an antidepressant. He was right. I was depressed. I’ve always been depressed.

When I slip out from under the covers and sit up on the side of the bed, my wife moves slightly, but doesn’t awaken. She won’t be up for several hours. I pull on a pair of sweat pants and slide my favorite threadbare sweatshirt over my head. I listen to her soft breathing, synchronized with the rhythmic crackling patter of the white noise machine next to the bed.

I step out into the living area and close the bedroom door behind me, taking care not to let the latch set click. My eyes are adjusted for the darkness, so I maneuver the room with ease without turning on the overhead light. The dim blue light from the thermostat and the pale green light from the clock above the oven door and the red glow from the power strip next to the television are like beacons for me. The house is cool, the thermostat set at sixty-two degrees overnight. Even at 4:00 a.m., the quiet hour, the house plays a nocturne. The gentle buzz of the refrigerator. The noise machine, like rain, behind the bedroom door. Creaks from the wood floor. Wind jostling the screen on the back door.  I make my way to the kitchen counter, flip on and under-cabinet light, and drop a pod of French roast into the coffee maker. I wait until the machine spits and sputters the last drops of liquid into my cup.

The under-cabinet light is sufficient to illuminate my way from the kitchen to my office on the other side of the house. I sit at my desk and stare at the black screen. Staring back at me is my reflection. My hair is screaming for a comb and my face and neck are too plump and pasty, testament to my recent habit of eating cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Mottled black and white whiskers hide my skin, despite the fact that I shaved eighteen hours earlier. I stir the computer awake with a movement of my mouse, and open a document. A heading on the first page reads, “Here’s Why.” I’ve been working on this document for almost six months. When the time comes, I want my wife to understand why I committed suicide. I want her to know she was not to blame. I want to explain my reasons in sufficient detail that she will come to the conclusion that my suicide was the best, most logical course of action for me to take. Over the course of the past six months, it has occurred to me that my suicide note, now at two hundred and thirty pages and growing, is perhaps too long. But I to say too much for it to be any shorter.


Carolyn Stafford learned of her husband’s suicide while shopping for groceries. She had arrived at the store only fifteen minutes earlier after driving half an hour across town, when the intercom interrupted her shopping.

“Carolyn Stafford, please come to the customer service counter for an important message.”

Carolyn wheeled her shopping cart to the front of the store. Two police officers were standing at the customer service counter.

“Ms. Stafford?”

“Yes. What’s wrong?”

“Let’s talk over in the manager’s office,” one of the officers said, as he gently took her left elbow in his right hand and guided her behind the counter and into an office.

The next several days were a blur to Carolyn. Thinking back to the week of his death, her memory was foggy except for the day she listened to the tape of her husband’s call to the police.

“My name is Gregory Stafford. Your officers will find my body in the woods about fifty yards behind the parking lot of Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 750 Eastglynn Road. Please have officers go inform my wife, Carolyn Stafford. She is grocery shopping at the Publix on Crescent Parkway. Tell her I’ve written a very long explanation and she’ll find the file open on my computer. And tell her I love her and that this was for the best.”

The dispatcher tried to talk to him, but he didn’t respond. He simply said, “Did you get all that down?” When she replied that she had, he hung up his cell phone. Officers found his body a few minutes later, exactly where he said. Next to his body was his cell phone, the gun he used to shoot himself, and a sheet of paper, the text of his phone message printed neatly on it in sixteen point type.

The officers who found his body asked the dispatcher to send someone to inform Carolyn.

Like most of my writing, I have no idea whether this will lead anywhere. I own literally hundreds of vignettes that never turned into full-blown stories. Some days, that bothers me. Other days, like today, it doesn’t matter a whit. I like to write, so I start to write. I just don’t seem to like to finish.

Yesterday, I was unhappy with myself for jumping around between poetry and fiction and travelogue and stream-of-consciousness story-telling and political rants and just being an emotional fire hose. Today, I am perfectly comfortable in the role I described. Which means, I guess, I’m psychotic. So shoot me. Not really. I think I’ll entitle this post “Hiding Behind Rainbows with a Machete in Hand.”

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Spinning Broken Webs

Some days…or weeks or months…I’m ashamed to claim that I am a blogger. I miss posting for days or weeks. And then, when I do, my posts are so random that I cannot in good conscience suggest to a living soul that anything I’ve said is worth reading. I post recipes and short stories and poems and political rants. I post emotional screeds that, while I’m writing them, reveal my emotional depth but later, on reading them, suggest they were written by a teenager who has not yet escaped the scourge of pubescent hormones gone haywire. I post such absurd bullshit that no thinking person would ever accuse me of having thoughts worth serious consideration.

My blog can be—often is—more emotional vomit than carefully crafted thoughts worth thinking, much less reading. Yet I continue to write. I continue to pour my heart and soul onto the ‘page’ in what I can only characterize as a plea for someone, anyone, to read it and tell me what it is I’m trying to do. But I’m losing the energy to do it. I’m losing the will to expose my innumerable flaws to the universe, despite the fact that the universe at large is unaware of what I’ve posted. The fact is, the universe could stumble across it and could discover a lunatic is loose on the interwebs. I might be tracked down and arrested for my incoherent thoughts. My ramblings and rants and screams could land me in a psychiatric ward or, worse, a prison cell.

Yet I keep doing it. I keep writing. I continue to reveal my overabundance of stupidity and emotional baggage to anyone with the misfortune of stumbling upon my words. Either I’m inconsolably stupid or irrevocably dumb. Or both. Or a combination, a stew of inferior intellect and pitiful emotion.

So, with all the reasons not to write, why do I continue to do it? I do it because, goddamn it, one day a gem might spill from my fingers. Or an idea worth sharing might drift from my inadequate mind onto the screen. Or I might actually be growing in worth with each stroke of my fingers on the keyboard so that, one day, what I write might have value to someone who finds a ribbon of hope in what I say.

I know, as do most writers, the likelihood that my words will ever mean anything to anyone is small. I know my words likely will disappear from the internet, from pages, from thoughts, from files, and from memories. But, still, don’t we all have to try to make a difference? Mustn’t we all attempt to use whatever the tools or weapons available to us to encourage this broken world to fix itself and move forward?

I am a skeptic. I don’t hold out much hope for humanity. I think we’re sliding at a much faster pace than anyone might have imagined a year ago toward utter and complete chaos and, ultimately, annihilation. But my skepticism notwithstanding, don’t we have an obligation to try to change course? Should we not do everything in our power to prove this moronic skeptic wrong?

I cry too easily, laugh too often, and express my opinions too freely. None of my failures matter. I am just one man, one man who’s done little to change the world. Even my words fail to spur anyone on to action. I continue to be ashamed that I’ve done nothing. I watch Rome burn and simply wring my hands. I’m ashamed, but what CAN I do? What should we all do?

Phil, I offer my apologies for inserting my drivel into your blogfest. But you ASKED. (I will withdraw upon request. Maybe even absent request.)

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Last Man Down

“On the cusp of my departure, my words are hollow and weak, as I struggle to describe the man I wished I’d been, a speck of the decent man I failed to be. I tried but I failed. I could not overcome whatever it was that took hold of my decency and held it deep under a thick slurry of ugliness until it drowned. On this day of my demise, I attempt to express regret too deep and too profound for words, far too late to be believed by people who I wished could hear and believe my contrition. The depth of the anguish I feel towers above me alongside the guides of the guillotine’s blade, the blade I so richly deserve.”

Thus were the last words written by Theodore Crawford, who was put to death by guillotine in Struggles, Arkansas. His words of penitence truly were hollow. He wrote them in an effort to change the future into a time when, if he was remembered at all, he would  be remembered as a man with a heart. He was not. Crawford was as bad a man as ever lived. He did, indeed, deserve to die, but not necessarily in such a quick and humane manner as afforded by the guillotine. But that’s for another time.

Crawford’s ‘trial’ was by kangaroo court. Six self-appointed members of a jury allowed Crawford no defense. Truth be told, though, even a legitimate jury trial would certainly have found the man guilty of capital murder. He had walked into a bank in the town in broad daylight and, without provocation, shot and killed two tellers. He left the bank without even asking for money. His motive was revenge. The bank president had rejected his request for a loan a week earlier.

By the time Theodore Crawford committed his last hideous act, Struggles, Arkansas no longer had a police force, a prosecutor, or a justice system. Even the bank in which he murdered two tellers no longer dealt in real U.S. dollars. Instead, traded in Strugglers, a pseudo currency created by the bank when its customers had no more legitimate U.S. currency in their accounts.

The guillotine used for Crawford’s beheading was built by Jason Boxwelter, a welder,  blacksmith, and occasional executioner. Boxwelter, though, did not drop the blade that killed Crawford. The man who did that was Moses Perkins, the foreman of the jury that convicted Crawford.

As you might have guessed by now, this story is going nowhere. I’m simply typing for finger exercise. I think my fingers are strong enough for this morning, so I’ll stop here for now.

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Exploring the World of Wine

Last night’s World Tour of Wines stopped off in Auckland, New Zealand, with a couple of side trips to Christchurch and Wellington. We sampled wines from only a few of New Zealand’s seven hundred wineries; I suppose the only way we’ll get a full grasp of the country’s diverse assortment of wines is to organize a wine tour of the country, which my wife suggested last night we do. She was joking. I am not. The only thing stopping me from doing it is the lack of an abundance of money crying out for discretionary spending. Well, a few of the people at our table last night said they would not go because the time involved in travel would be too great. Crybabies. I would happily stow away in a cardboard box in the underbelly of a slow airborne freighter to make the journey.

The star of the show from last night, without question, was The Crossings Pinot Noir. The description provided to us reads as follows: “This expressive Pinot Noir has lifted aromas of black plums and violets. Ripe berry fruit flavours combine with savoury notes on the palate to produce a wine that is both elegant and approachable. Enjoy with dishes such as lamb rack, roast pork, or duck breast.” The pretentious, turgid descriptive language notwithstanding, the wine was very, very good. However, at the temporarily discounted price of $20 per bottle (tax included), I doubt I’ll be buying much. Or any. I had a conversation with one of the guys at our table about wine prices. I discovered that he and I are on the same page with respect to “daily drinker” wine prices; $10 to $15 is pretty much our range. However, keeping a stellar bottle,  like this one, that costs more around for special occasions is reasonable. So, I haven’t decided. The price does include tax, after all.

We started the evening with a Kim Crawford Pinot Noir, at $19 (including tax). It was decent, but it paled in comparison to The Crossings.  However, the Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay ($21 per bottle, inclusive) was a huge hit at our table. Even my wife, who’s not at all fond of chardonnay, liked it. But, again, at $21 per bottle, it’s outside of my price parameters; but if she wanted a bottle, I’d break my own rules.  After the chardonnay, we sampled a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc. The price was more in line ($15.75 per bottle), but I was not impressed, personally. I much prefer other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, such as Babich, Oyster Bay, and New Harbor; and those are less expensive, if only by a touch. The last wine of the evening was Matua Pinot Noir Rosé ($14.75, inclusive). Decent, in my view, but not outstanding.

Now, to the menu. The first course was ostensibly kiwi and strawberries with assorted cheeses. And it was. Except there were no strawberries. But it did come with crackers, which were not listed on the menu. And the goat cheese was especially good. The other cheese was, we were told, a New Zealand cheddar; it was good, too. Next up was “New Zealand Salad,” which combined a nice red lettuce with goat cheese and half a canned pear (which was very good, notwithstanding being canned) and drizzled with balsamic dressing.

The main course was New Zealand venison (the caterer put the boxes in which the venison was shipped on the table as evidence of the meat’s pedigree) with juniper berry glaze. The venison was farm-raised, so it had no game taste; it tasted like beef to me. While it was very good, I really prefer wild venison, but I know it’s impractical (perhaps illegal?) for a caterer to serve wild venison. The menu described it as being accompanied by parsley butter potatoes and fresh spinach. And it was. Except there was no spinach. The dessert was a pavolova, topped with a lemon curd, whipped cream and berries. Maybe it had berries. I don’t remember.  I don’t think we’ve been to a single World of Wine event at which the printed menu corresponded to what was actually served. But that’s all right; we go for the conversation as much as for the food and wine.

The evening wasn’t entirely about enjoying food and wine and laughter. Our group actually made plans for the future. Well, the plans involved food and wine and laughter. My wife suggested we all meet again at our house in February for an evening of heavy hors d’oeuvres and Malbec wine. Everyone is to bring a bottle of Malbec and a plate of hors d’oeuvres of their choice. We’ll sample the wine and select our favorites and will indulge ourselves in assorted goodies from the kitchens of all involved.

We learned that the next World of Wines event will be on March 15, with the spotlight on South Africa. Naturally, our group will plan to participate in that event, as well. And then, in May, we’ll turn our attention to the USA, with a May 17 event focused on California wines of the north coast. Then, on August 30, we’ll have a special event with a representative of a Sierra foothills winery, from which all of the evening’s wines will be served, will be present. On September 27, we’ll train our palates on the wines of Washington and, then, on October 25, we’ll move on the wines of New York. I like the direction this thing is heading. However, I have to say I think it might be just as much fun, if not more so, to do it in our homes. I suppose the February event will give us a glimpse of what that might be like.

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Bitterly Wonderful

Where would the world be in the absence of glass and screen? How would we let light enter our homes in the absence of glass? Would we live closed off from the world, choosing darkness over exposure to weather and insects or would we tolerate what, today, seems intolerable? I am afraid I am among the many who don’t take enough time to think about the little things. The things that make my life far easier to endure than it would be in their absence. I don’t need to look to a supernatural being to thank for the invention of glass or screen. I don’t need to explore the history of glass and screen—to find a name to which to assign credit for their invention—to appreciate and be thankful for their existence. It’s enough to know that, at some time in the distant past, people had good ideas that impact my life today. That’s true not only of glass and screen, but rubber and sheetrock, ceramics and saws, food preservation and light bulbs; the list is endless. This morning, I am especially grateful that someone, at some time, decided that roasted and ground coffee beans, combined with water, would make a bitterly wonderful beverage. I am glad to be alive, though I wouldn’t know it if I weren’t.

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You look around you and you see people who could have been friends but are not. They don’t reject you, they simply don’t embrace you. They are not bad, they do not wish you ill, it’s only that you do not fit the profile of “friend” they unknowingly use to measure the people they encounter. You, too, opt not to label them friends. You label no one friend. You try to understand the meaning of friendship, but it seems to you that friendship is deeper and more entwined with intellect and emotion than they do. They don’t see that friendship merges acquaintance with family in a stew of love, a broth in which one is willing to offer one’s existence in return for a friend’s happiness. That is love, I suppose. Love dismisses self and, instead, attaches supreme value to “other” in a way that’s inexplicable to those who have not experienced it. Love requires the giver of the emotion to overlook and dismiss his or her own emotion; suicide, which might relieve one’s pain, becomes an impossible option in the face of love, because it would cause pain in one in whom one places more value than his or her own life. Yet there is that perpetual circle of strangling logic; is my presence or my absence the least painful?

These things on my mind suggest I have some issues of my own, I suppose. And I suppose they’d be right. But my pain, if that’s what it is, is far less than the real pain of people who are dealing with gut-wrenching psychological issues. So my little bleat is an inconsiderate whine that deserves nothing but scorn and utter disdain. If people cried more, the world would be a little less parched and dry.

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Affixing Blame on Tuesday

I resent Facebook. Facebook extracted depth from communication, replacing meaning with volume. Depth now splashes in shallow Facebook pools, trying in vain to find its way to the life-sustaining oxygen of conversation. Conversation that died at Facebook’s hand.  Conversation withered in the absence of air, replaced by meaningless chirps—the sorts of noises made by wind-up birds whose wings keep the attention of infants for a few moments while their parents try to breathe. But the parents don’t breathe; they perish while listening to the shrill noise of artificial love-bots.

You can’t have a conversation about suicide on Facebook. You can’t discuss the relative merits or shame of polygamy or marital infidelity. You can’t explore the wrenching heartbreak of realizing fifty years of one’s life were spent in a wasteful fog. You can’t even probe the psychological roller coaster of child-rearing in a way that mines real information in place of socially induced emotional obligation. Facebook and its brethren are, for lack of a better analogy, parasitic viruses that suck the life out of intellect. They calcify the flexibility of thought, replacing ideas with rigid shards of imbecilic dogma. They petrify creative ideas, substituting group-think for consensus and contempt for compromise.

The reason I remain on Facebook is that I am simply a member of the mindless flock. I go where like-minded idiots go to seek evidence they are appreciated by similar like-minded idiots who populate the flock. I go to lap up the news of the flock that would be absent but for the flood gates of Facebook, releasing a torrent of personalized entertainment pretending to be information. What an embarrassment! What a pathetic scramble, what an absurd scurry toward meaningless affirmation! The crap I post on Facebook is almost entirely superficial, as is the vast majority of crap most everyone else posts. The stuff that emerges from real thoughts goes onto private screens that no one sees or, on occasion in my case, finds its way here to this blog that a precious few ever see. They are the ones whose opinions matter, not the Facebook addicts who scroll through inane posts and “like” them only to attest they, too, have witnessed my (and others’) embarrassing pleas for acknowledgement. Yet Facebook, the heroin of the ego, won’t allow us simply to cut back. We must either go cold turkey or substitute Twitter or Instagram or some other such methadone wannabe of social media.

Isn’t it ironic that I pounce on the evils and addictive nature of social media while writing in a blog—a highly personal social media device? Is it simply a matter of resentment that other social media get more air play? Am I envious of the traffic numbers of other social media, just whining because my piece of the social media sphere goes unnoticed, while linguistic diarrhea in the form of Facebook posts is smeared up and down freeways and side streets and back alleys worldwide?

Here I am, again, mindlessly barking at the wind, bellowing at shadows cast by leaves blowing in the breeze. What the hell. It occupies my mind and my time. Better to argue with the voices in my head than get into a shouting match with heavily armed dullards driving against traffic in the Walmart parking lot.

I’m wound up of late. I don’t know quite why. I’m just angry and anxious to move someplace new, to be around people who haven’t yet disappointed me and whom I have yet to disappoint.

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Edging Toward Utopia

When we moved to Hot Springs Village, I assumed we’d identified our last house and our last community. Speaking only for myself, and not for my wife, I am having second thoughts. I don’t know this is the place for me for the long term. I think I would be more comfortable in an environment in which more of the populace shared my morals and my values and my beliefs. I think I’d find another place—where intellect is valued and nourished and where diversity is encouraged and celebrated—more comfortable. I suppose part of my shifting frame of mind is due to laziness. I don’t want to have to try to change minds by educating people who need compassion. I don’t want to have to struggle through the ugliness that circles around irrationally conservative drains. I need, or at least want, peace. I want love and acceptance and appreciation…not just for me, but for everyone. I want the kind of world the Unitarian Universalist church claims to want. Tolerance, decency, forgiveness, appreciation…you know, the ideal in which all people get along together in accepting reverence. But I know, though I wish it were not so, that no such ideal place exists. It could be. If only people would collectively seek it out. But people are not the kind of neighbors I’d want to hang around. Our neighbors are, by and large, deviants from another galaxy. At least I hope they are. I’d hate to think they are “of us.” Because that would paint an ugly picture of us. This is a long, strange way of saying I think I’m going to suggest to my wife that we look at our options. That is, moving away to another place where utopia might be just a little closer.

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African Eatery

We’re going to lunch today at a new African restaurant in Alexander, AR (AKA suburban Little Rock). The place is called Kontiki African Restaurant and today is its grand opening. My spouse is rightfully cautious about going to restaurants during the first several weeks of their opening, given the need to work out the “kinks,” but we’re going anyway, inasmuch as some friends alerted us to the existence of the place and are willing to go along on this first day of full-on operation. I gather the place had a soft opening about a week ago and, from what I read, it went well. My first thought when I heard “African restaurant” was that my dream had been fulfilled; finally, a place to get Ethiopian food in Arkansas. But, no, that is not the case. Kontiki will serve west African food, but that’s all right, too. I am familiar with some of the menu items (e.g., jollof rice and fufu), but don’t know much else about west African cuisine, so this will be a treat.

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Someone New

If the day fails to set your soul on fire,
return to the mattress and sleep.
If the week fails to give you hope,
take refuge in a memory and rest there.
If the month fails to give you solace,
seek out old photos that recall happiness.
If the year fails to sweep away sadness,
look for a way to begin again, as someone new.

The life you’ve lived thus far is no
prescription for the future.
The life you’ve lived thus far does not
shackle you to the past.
The life you’ve lived thus far holds
no power over you that you don’t give it.
The life you’ve lived thus far is only
a prelude to the life you’ll live as someone new.

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The Bootstrap Boys – Poverty Line

This video was played during the collection for a charity at the Unitarian Universalist Village Church in Hot Springs Village, AR last Sunday (and a Sunday before). I love the music!

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