Trading Experiences

Just this morning, I began thinking what I might like to do if I were all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws. It occurred to me that such expansive capabilities would open up an endless array of possibilities, options so utterly infinite that it would seem impossible to select just one. And then it hit me. If I were all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws, I wouldn’t have to select just one thing. I could do it all. For some reason, that realization didn’t ease the tension. It seemed to exacerbate it, making my selection of the first thing I would do seem ever so important. With that as a prelude to the quandary of making my selection, here it goes: I would temporarily assume the personage of Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus, that is Hadrian, of Hadrian’s Wall fame. I would experience his life, up until he became chronically ill, with the aim of learning for myself what it is like to be an emperor. Included among the core objective is an interest in knowing whether writings about his life and times are accurate. I’ve often wondered whether “historical” accounts of periods of time centuries before the invention of the printing press should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I don’t know, or certainly don’t remember, much about Hadrian or, for that matter, his wall. I do know of him and it, of course, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Before I become the man, I’d like to read considerably more about his experiences. I’d like to go into the process of being him with more than a cursory understanding of what I’m getting myself into. I vaguely recall that he was said to have arranged the murders (or was it state-sanctioned death sentences?) of at least two (or possibly more) senators who opposed him. I’d like to know more about that before I merge with the man’s physical and mental states. And I might like to read the English translation (the original was written in French) of Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar. Although the book is a novel, I would be curious to compare the reality of what I find during my experience as Hadrian with the book. I learned this morning that the book takes the form of letters from Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius. The book was written in the early 1950s, so I might find it hard to get my hands on a copy. But wait! I’ve forgotten that I’m all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws! Surely I can lay my hands on a copy of the book. If not, I should be able to simply cause it to leap out of my printer, page by page.

Among the most obvious differences between life today and life during Hadrian’s time would be the lack of many of the amenities to which we have grown accustomed. Things like electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, motorized transportation, telecommunication, etc., etc., etc. I suppose I could avail myself of those amenities during my utter takeover of the man’s experience, but availing myself of such privileges would rob me of the genuine experience, wouldn’t it? Again, with my limitless range of power and freedom from natural laws, I should be able to have my cake and eat it, too, shouldn’t I? Hmm. This dilemma is a little like Schrödenger’s cat, doesn’t it? You know, the issue involving an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the cat can be simultaneously alive and dead? Yeah, I know, this is not that, but to experience and not experience something at the same time is in theoretical kinship with the unfortunate feline. At least I think so.

Some of this wild drivel spilling from my fingers has story-telling potential. I know none of it is in finished form, but it has some potential. Maybe. Of course, if I were all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws I could simply will it so. But that might remove the challenge from the situation, mightn’t it? Therein resides the simultaneous attraction of supernatural power and its ruinous nature. I suspect the ability to will anything to happen or to be would soon result in one’s decision to will oneself back to an existence as a simple, struggling human. But I have not way of testing that theory, as much as I’d like to have the capability of doing so.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to be in a position to communicate in advance with Hadrian so that, between the two of us, we could arrange for a switch? That is, he’d take over my experience for a time and I’d take over his. At the end of the period, we’d revert back to our original existences and, then, compare notes. I wonder how Hadrian would characterize his time as John Swinburn? And I’m curious to know how I would characterize my experience as Hadrian? Both of us would have to instantly understand a language with which we are utterly unfamiliar. I can say with certainty that Hadrian would have to become immediately fluent in modern-day English. But am I absolutely certain that Hadrian spoke Latin? Isn’t it possible the he spoke some other language, even though the official language of the empire was Latin? We have no way of knowing, at least not with certainty. I’d have to go into the transfer with faith that I’d be able to get by with my Latin.

I’d also have to know, or learn, some really fundamental stuff about Roman hygiene. What about my dependence on toilet paper? How would I cope without it? And the food…what, exactly, constituted a Roman emperor’s diet in Hadrian’s time? Lots and lots of questions. Before I make the switch, I’ll have to do quite a lot of reading.

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Easter Wanderings

The time is just shy of 6:00 a.m. I’ve been up since just after 4:00 a.m. During that almost two-hour stretch, I’ve had half a cup of coffee—reheated twice in the microwave—and read an enormous amount of unrelated stuff online. And I listened to a remarkable rendition of Dust in the Wind (originally recorded by progressive rock group Kansas), played on a harp guitar by a guy named Jamie Dupuis. I was unfamiliar with the harp guitar until this morning. See, you can learn something new every day if you start early enough.

Though I tried to avoid it, I couldn’t remain entirely free of the intrusion of world news during the two hours I’ve been awake. So, I know about the six explosions—three in churches and three in luxury hotels—in Sri Lanka.  At last count, 138 people are dead and hundreds more have been injured. I’ve been fed a diet of details about the blasts, including some speculations that the bombings might be related to the ethnic violence that led to the country’s civil war. But even if that’s true, I don’t know “why?” And I can’t understand “why?” And I don’t think I will ever understand how anyone can reach the point of deciding it’s all right to kill hundreds of people with whom the bombers probably do not know.

Fortunately, I’ve not permitted myself access to any other news. It’s not that I think Easter Sunday is somehow too “holy” to suffer the insanity of violence. It’s that I don’t need or want any more news about the insanity for the moment.

Despite the fact that Easter Sunday doesn’t have any special meaning for me, the day draws out memories (both individual and collective, as in societal) of tradition. And, so, we will celebrate those memories and that tradition with a special meal. My wife bought a ham last week and she plans to prepare a fancy dinner. Her sister will join us for the meal late in the day. We plan to go to church today, where I expect there might be reference made to the fact that it’s Easter Sunday, but the day doesn’t mean the same thing in our church that it means in traditional Christian churches. I’ll offer a quote, attributed to a Unitarian Universalist, from a story I read online this morning:

I believe the real meaning of Easter is the appreciation of life’s renewing cycles and, that for all things there is a season. I believe the real meaning of Easter is the acknowledgment, with its accompanying sadness, of a very human Jesus who was forced to die on the Cross because of his liberal religious views and beliefs. But most important of all, I believe the real meaning of Easter is the Celebration of Thanksgiving for the presence of the sacred in each and every living person and thing; for the presence of the sacred in the birds that sing; for the presence of the sacred in the flowers which sway and the grasses which rustle in the gentle breezes of spring.

In my view, nothing is innately sacred. Humans ascribe to certain things or ideas the concept that those things or ideas should be revered for one reason or another. So, in that sense, reverence is artificial; it is simply “made up.” But that doesn’t quite explain why I view a magnificently beautiful sunrise with inexplicable awe, does it? I wonder whether dogs or cattle or elephants experience that same sense of astonished reverence at that sunrise? I think not, though I have no evidence to support my presumption that other animals aren’t as stupefied as I when they see just another day in the universe. All right, enough about Easter and awe and the tension between being a non believer and being unable to explain the awe I sometimes feel about the world around me.

After church this morning, my primary task for the day is to move all the furniture, plants, grills, etc. from the deck so work can begin tomorrow on cleaning it, patching and/or replacing decking, and painting it. I began the work several months ago but finally admitted I couldn’t do it all, especially after my toils were interrupted by my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments. The search for someone to do the work was an undertaking in itself; I hope the guy I picked is as good as he and his references claim. Initially, I had planned to have the railing painted, as well, but I’ve decided to explore replacing the vertical wood balusters with horizontal wire. I have to check into the local requirements/restrictions as well as building codes before moving ahead with that. My plan is to do that checking immediately so the entire deck, including the railing, will be finished with  a matter of days or weeks, not months.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon at Lowes, where I met with my contractor to buy paint, sandpaper, a special router bit, decking lumber, and assorted other stuff. I had no idea that a 5-gallon bucket of paint could weigh so damn much! I bought two such buckets; I may have to buy more, depending on how well it covers. According to the information on the cans, one gallon is sufficient to do two coats of paint for 75 square feet (the paint is heavy-duty stuff, meant to cover defects in old, beat-up decks). I’m not sure of the precise square footage of our deck, but I believe it’s between 800 and 1000 square feet (it’s a big deck). Maybe the guy can stretch the paint a bit. Tomorrow’s weather forecast is good for outdoor work; no rain. Tomorrow, the deck is to be power-washed, cleaned with a special wood cleaner meant for old decks, and badly cracked boards replaced.  But the forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, the days initially planned for painting, calls for rain. But the forecast for next Friday through the following Tuesday looks promising. With luck, we’ll have the deck painted with a week or so, then.

Again, I’ve drifted in and out of focus here. My fingers haven’t been awfully active for much of the last hour. It’s now a quarter to seven and I just noticed through the blinds that it’s light outside! Time to go put the hummingbird feeders out. And more coffee.

 

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Some Enchanted Evening

As expected, our church “dinner for eight” last night was enjoyable. Good food, interesting conversation, and plenty of laughter. All the above took place in an environment that encouraged everyone to shed at the front door whatever stresses they might have brought with them. And then the music started. It was good music. The musician was a talented guitarist with a pleasant voice. And the music wasn’t unreasonably loud. But it was loud enough to make conversation virtually impossible for us. Our table was too close to the stage to permit conversation without ramping up the vocal volume to uncomfortable levels. One of the couples invited us to their home for after-dinner drinks and conversation. All of us readily agreed.

We followed them to their home and spent more than an hour engaging in conversation. Nothing particularly consequential. But enjoyable. One of the group talked about a surly, Confederate-flag-displaying neighbor in Ruidoso, New Mexico. She suspected he had turned her in for allowing her antique turquoise and white teardrop camping trailer to sit in her yard for too long. Another couple spoke of their plans to take a river cruise along the Danube in Germany. All of us engaged in conversation about favorite “dives;” restaurants that look and feel slightly dangerous but that satisfy our taste for adventure and good food. I don’t recall all the topics we discussed. As I said, nothing particularly consequential. But relaxed, casual, enjoyable. That’s how I like my evenings.

Back to the restaurant. The moment we walked in, I saw several other church members busily consuming their dinners. Only a few hours earlier, I met one of them at a favorite coffee shop (actually the only coffee shop) just outside the Village. She and I meet more or less regularly to talk about writing, publishing, church, politics, etc.  She often shares her astonishment that she has reached the age of eighty and still makes plans or commitments that assume she will be around for years. Things like a three-year magazine subscription. I like the attitude that informs such commitments.

At any rate, my coffee mate told me earlier in the day that she and a few others meet every Friday afternoon at The Beehive. I gather they start with lunch, then clear the table to play bridge. The group had been there all afternoon. Beginning at noon. Our group arrived at six. The husband of one of the bridge players had joined them after choir practice, he said. When I approached their table to say hello, I asked whether they have been drinking all afternoon. “All afternoon? No, since early this morning.” That response was untrue, of course. But its frivolity helped set the tone for the evening.

Last night’s dinner was the last one for the “season.” The other couples apparently travel during the summer or their families visit them with some frequency, so a structured program like the church’s “dinners for eight” or “dinners for six” would be impossible to plan. That’s a key difference between us (that is, my wife and me on the one hand and other couples, on the other). Janine and I don’t plan summer travel. And we don’t have children or grandchildren. So, instead of taking a break from structured social activities for other plans, our break leads us into a time-void. It’s not that we can’t travel or otherwise engage in activities that would replace these social engagements, it’s that we just don’t.

The “social engagements” that have drawn us in on occasion since we moved to Hot Springs Village constitute a new experience for us. We have been, and continue to be, a mostly unsociable couple. We have very few friends and, consequently, we have very few occasions to happily immerse ourselves in the company of people we enjoy. But these structured activities, like small group dinners and social affairs orchestrated by the church, provide occasions to “pretend” that we’re sociable. It’s not that these activities are artificial, nor that our interactions with the people in these groups isn’t enjoyable; it’s that these “forced” engagements allow us to feel like we’re part of a group when, really, we’re not. It’s odd, in many ways, that we have become far more social and sociable since we moved here. Yet I think both of us, in ways unique to each, value our individual isolation. Both of us remain fiercely introverted. We display that introversion in radically different ways, though. One day, I’ll explore those ways in more depth. I might find that they are not so radically different, after all.

***

A small group of the shrinking group of writers who constitute the Village Writers’ Club have decided to publish an anthology of our selected works. None of us (with one notable exception), I think, took the project particularly seriously. The project came together during meeting I missed over the past several months; the meetings conflicted with my scheduled cancer treatments. Despite my absence, I was asked/encouraged to participate. So I agreed. I selected two short stories, one piece I label “a fantasmagoric fiction vignette written in the first and second person,” and one decidedly dark poem. I wrote none of these pieces for the anthology; I simply picked, essentially with the toss of a dart, pieces I’d written earlier. Two of them were inspired by a neighbor’s art in connection with a VWC activity. One of them is the product of this blog and a strange mood. And another was a short story written to satisfy the requirement that each member of a critique group bring something to be critiqued. None of them represent my best work; not even close. So, now that the book is in the hands of a printing company, I wish I’d given it more thought, rather than haphazardly picking pieces almost at random. I’m too lazy to be a writer. Writers have to devote both time and energy to their work. And they have to avoid offering their least attractive work for publication. Hmmm.

***

My body is decaying. It has been doing so for years, but the evidence of late is more visible and more upsetting than in years past. My emergency surgery, almost thirty years ago now, involving the removal of a long piece of small intestines, started the process. But that scar remains hidden under my shirt. Then, fifteen years ago, my open-heart double bypass surgery continued the degradation. But that scar, too, remains hidden under my shirt. And, only a few months ago, the removal of a lobe from one of my lungs kept the process going. But, aside from the occasional expressions on my face that reveal pain associated with that surgery, the scar remains hidden. What’s not hidden is the very visible change in the appearance of my skin. The skin on my arms, especially, looks like the skin of a very old man. Tiny, almost microscopic, wrinkles make my arms look soft and elderly. Yes, arms can look elderly. Mine are proof.  And my legs look old and used up, too. But, unlike my arms, they’re not awash in microscopic wrinkles. Instead, the skin on my legs is dry and, on close inspection, awash in scales. That is, it looks like dead skin that remains affixed to my body. But when I’ve scrubbed it, in an attempt to reveal the fresh, new, youthful skin below that layer of decay, I find only raw, red, painful marks that morph into dry decay in short order. And I have strange new marks on my face. Moles, I guess, that mark me as an old man whose skin has turned on him after years of neglect and abuse. My distaste for the spots or moles or whatever they are is not based entirely on vanity. Though, I’ll admit, vanity has something to do with it. My concern is that these innocuous bits of evidence of my decay will one day (and it may not be long) transform into not-so-innocuous beasts that will consume the remnants of my sagging skin, leaving me with a grotesque outer layer of shriveled muscles and tendons. Actually, I don’t harbor that concern. If I did, I would be certifiable out of my mind. But my body does show plenty of evidence of decay. And if the body is showing signs of decay, chances are better than fifty-fifty that the cells that form the brain and sustain the mind are morphing into matter better suited for feeding plants than for fueling thoughts.

***

I seem to have an uncanny ability to transform happy, almost joyous, thoughts into gloom. I traveled the road from last night’s enjoyable dinner to social isolation to bodily decay in only 1400 words, more or less. There should be a prize for high-speed, word-based psychological deterioration. There may be such a prize. But I’m not going to go searching it out. I have better things to do. Like rebuilding the happiness with which I began to construct this post.

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Sharing Ideas and Experiences and Droning On

One of the many benefits of writing stream-of-consciousness blogs (or diaries or daily journals or any other form in which one’s thoughts are recorded for access in the future) is the ease of retrieving what was on one’s mind at any given time. I remember writing about an idea for a science fiction piece in which one’s thoughts could be retrieved after death. Essentially, it involved “mining” the brain with electrochemical probes that captured data points that could be interpreted or translated, resurrecting specific thoughts from a dead person’s brain. I dismissed the idea (though not entirely) because my understanding is that the brain works in a manner similar to RAM, versus the way a flash drive works.

Thanks to last night’s trigger (dreams, of course), the thought came back. I dug up several things I’d written and thought about them as I mulled over last night’s dream(s). What if, I pondered, my earlier idea would work…not on the brains of dead people, but on the brains of the living? Might we be able to “play back” dreams? Or, even more intrusive and potentially embarrassing (and possibly dangerous), what if we could play back a person’s entire thinking experience?  Think of the money to be made with that technology! The potential revenue from promising to maintain the confidentiality of personal fantasies, alone, could be staggering! That’s how this post began. Let me steer it back toward real recollections, though.

My dreams haven’t been particularly vivid, or stayed with me if I had them, in recent weeks. Until a couple of nights ago. Two nights ago, I had a very vivid dream; I woke during the dream and thought about getting up and writing about it, but I didn’t. Now, I don’t remember what it was about. I remember only a couple of the key people, people I know well. But I don’t remember any details; only that it was odd.

Last night, I had another odd one…or it might have been two. It wasn’t as vivid, but I remember some of the details. I hired a guy to move a bunch of material from a garage (maybe the garage attached to my present home) to off-site storage. He backed a box truck into the garage and, in the process, ran into a set of drop-down stairs leading into the attic. When I expressed how upset I was with him (because he ignored my screams to “STOP!” when it became apparent he was about the smash into the stairs), he feigned being deeply hurt. I think I then got in a car and drove west, across west Texas or New Mexico. I stopped at a couple of gas stations/convenience stores, where I had trouble finding the doors leading to the convenience stores inside. None of the doors were plate glass; they were large, wooden doors, unmarked with signage of any kind. Finally inside one of them, I stumbled around and found a place to order a soft drink over ice. I tripped over something and had a very hard time getting up. I remember saying to people around me, none of whom offered to help, “I wasn’t always this old. I never had trouble getting up before I reached this age.” The final scene of the dream, before I woke with an urgent need to pee, found me at the door to the men’s room. I was holding my large, ice-filled soft drink as I tried to enter. Before I did, the door opened and I saw a line of people waiting to use the urinals.

A fellow blogger recently wrote that no one has any interest in the dreams of other people. He suggested that listening to or reading about others’ dreams are equivalent to watching paint dry. And he’s probably right. Most people probably have no interest in the fantasy lives of people they know, much less people they don’t know (if dreams represent fantasy lives, which I’m not convinced they do). But I have always been intrigued by dreams. More so my own dreams, of course (which I think is natural), but I’m similarly entranced by others’ dreams. I view others’ dreams as windows into their lives. The window panes may be made of tinted and translucent or opaque glass, but they offer peeks into their minds. I suppose the same can be said about my dreams. But I’ve long since stopped trying to understand the meaning, if any, of my dreams; yet I still find them fascinating.

Returning to the theme of dream or memory playback, I am confident humans will achieve that capability in the not-too-distant future. Provided, of course, we do not annihilate the species before we attain that technological breakthrough. If and when that happens, the ethical issues surrounding those capabilities will be stunning. At what point do we say “we cannot share any dream or memory without the informed consent of the owner of that information?” Will there be a point at which we may force the release of the information; for instance, after reading a recollection of a murder from the killer? And what of the memories of infidelities? Does the privacy of one’s secret thoughts trump the cuckolded husband’s right to know of his wife’s indiscretions? These thoughts do not seem new to me. Have I written of this recently? Hmm. I don’t know and I’m not sufficiently curious to take the time and energy to find out.

***

Last night, we went out to dinner with seven other people, two of whom celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. We ate at 501 Prime, one of the high-end restaurants in Hot Springs. My wife had scallops with polenta; I had very rare ahi tuna over a bed of rice and mushrooms (with wasabi, soy sauce, seaweed, and assorted other goodies). Most of the other people a the table had steaks. HUGE steaks. One woman ordered an 18-ounce rib-eye; her husband had one almost a big. Almost everyone, except for the celebrating couple, ordered their steaks cooked medium-well to well-done. To each his own. But, what a horrible thing to do to Prime beef! Most people took to-go boxes home with them; we did not, inasmuch as our meals were sized for humans, as opposed to prepared as family-sized helpings for packs of wolves.

***

I saw my oncologist yesterday. No real news there. Except she still doesn’t seem to bother looking at my chart before entering the examination room. My CT scan, she said, was unremarkable. She didn’t mention the abdominal x-ray. But this morning, I received an automated email, informing me that the results of the x-ray had been posted to my patient portal. The report on the results included one bit of information I found a little concerning: “Coarse calcification in the right upper quadrant may reflect
cholelithiasis.” One interpretation of that statement involves the presence of gall-stones. Another, even more disturbing, says this: “It may indicate disease in the gallbladder, adrenal glands, kidneys, pancreas, lungs or chest wall. Disease processes associated with calcification in these organs include echinococcal cysts, calcified renal cysts, chest wall masses and degenerative cystic lesions of the pancreas and adrenal glands. However, if calcification is associated with porcelain gallbladder, the incidence of carcinoma is high. Treatment consists of cholecystectomy with a careful search for malignancy.” After reviewing the report, my first action was to send a message to my primary care doctor, asking whether the radiologist’s impression suggests any particular course of action.

My recent experience with lung cancer and subsequent aches and pains and other medical unpleasantness seems to be turning me into a hypochondriac. I’ve said it before. I don’t really mean it, but…you know, I should probably not ask Mother Google medical questions, because she delights in taunting me and causing me anxiety. That’s just what Mother Google enjoys.

***

In spite of last night’s culinary indulgence, we’re going to do it again tonight. Tonight’s dinner out will, again, involve our church’s “dining out” endeavor, for which my wife is providing planning and orchestration. We were “adopted” by a group that took pity on us for having decided not to join a group because, by joining, we would have caused a group to be larger than it was intended to be. They decided the addition of the two of us would not ruin the experience for everyone else. So, tonight, we visit The Beehive, the nearby bar and small-plate restaurant that could easily serve as my afternoon hangout every day. The beer and wine, alone, could keep me happy every day of the week.

***

And that about does it. It’s now 7:43 and some seconds, far later than I’d normally be writing. But I had a lot of drivel to drone on about.

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Heifer Ranch

I visited Heifer Ranch a couple of days ago. The visit, one of many periodic events orchestrated by the social committee of UUVC, was meant to accomplish two aims, I think. The first was to encourage more social interaction, outside of church, by church members and friends. The second was to emphasize two of the seven core principles of Unitarian Universalism: 1) The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; 2) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Eleven of us signed up for the event. We met in the parking lot at the east end of Hot Springs Village, where we gathered in groups to carpool to Heifer Ranch. I offered to drive and two women rode with me. I chatted with the woman in the front seat on the drive to the ranch. I chatted with the other passenger, who switched seat on the way back, on the drive back to the Village. I learned that people sitting in the back seat have a hard time hearing conversations taking place between the driver and the person in the front passenger seat. It’s a lesson worth remembering.

In a nutshell, Heifer International works to care for the Earth and to end world hunger and poverty. The organization does that first by educating families about animal husbandry and agriculture and then giving the families an animal (usually a pregnant animal). The recipient families commit to sharing the agricultural knowledge they gained with their communities and to give another needy family the next generation of the animal they received. The idea is to broaden the circle of shared knowledge and animal/agricultural resources.

The Heifer Ranch, which also serves as headquarters for Heifer USA, is a 1200-acre ranch dedicated to serving people in this country. The ranch raises cattle, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks, chickens, hogs, and probably a few other animals. It used to raise Alpacas and Llama, but no more. There was a time when the Heifer Ranch sent animals from the USA to other countries in furtherance of its mission, but it became clear with time and experience that buying the animals in the countries where they would be given to families was more practical and more economical. So, when the decision was made to stop sending animals to other countries, the Llamas and Alpacas at Heifer Ranch remained until they died of old age or circumstances of which I know nothing.

Today, Heifer Ranch offers volunteer opportunities that allow people to learn a bit about agriculture and animal husbandry while spending time living on Heifer Ranch. Some people spend a few days; some spend a week or two; some spend several months to a year. The long-term volunteers have heated and cooled housing, as do some of the other groups, depending on needs and expectations. Others have the option of staying in a bunk house (formerly a barn) with no heat or cooling; the place is called the Heifer Hilton. I would not be comfortable sleeping in an open-air dorm filled with bunk beds awash in (mostly) snoring children. There may have been a time when I would have been comfortable with that, but I do not recall that time.

Upon our arrival around 1:00 p.m., we sniffed around the gift shop for a few minutes and were then directed to the dining hall, where we went through a serving line for our food. The meal was decent; strips of beef in a brown sauce, served over rice, along with broccoli, potatoes (for some…I was not served potatoes), a roll, and a salad bar. I believe all the food served to us was grown on the ranch. The meal, not included in the fee, cost $10, as did the entry fee. So, $20 for the afternoon.

After lunch, we watched a fourteen minute film about Heifer International and its history. We were then escorted back to the building where the gift shop is located. There, we were invited to climb aboard a flat-bed wagon that had a built-in bench around the perimeter and metal folding chairs in rows of four along the center. The metal chairs were attached to one another with plastic bands. It occurred to me that the people in the chairs could be thrown from the wagon if the wagon hit a bump an a speed any greater than ten miles per hour. I did not find out, inasmuch as the John Deere tractor that pulled the wagon never exceeded that speed limit.

During the wagon tour of a portion of the ranch, we saw fallow fields as well as newly-planted fields and gardens that were, we were told, used for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations. As we made our way slowly around the ranch, our guide (a volunteer who, we learned, retired as a school teacher fourteen years earlier and has volunteered one day a week at Heifer Ranch ever since) explained what we were seeing. We saw various types of housing (both for volunteers and for visiting groups) and all sorts of out-buildings used in farming operations. One interesting area, called the Global Village, consisted of several plots where the buildings consisted of country-specific housing, built to mimic the types of housing one might find on poor farms in those countries. For example, Thai and Vietnamese huts, African mud houses, etc., etc. It is my understanding that visitors can stay in those buildings.

One of our final stops was at the show barn, a building with stalls and coops for chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, ducks, and (perhaps) cows. We did not see cows in the show barn, but we did see them in the fields. Some of the cattle were quite curious when our tractor-led wagon stopped near they; I suspect they incorrectly anticipated we were strangers bearing food.

I took a few pictures, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I could not upload them to this blog post. Maybe I’ll do it later, when the computer gods are more accommodating.

And so there you are. I promised I’d do it before month’s end, didn’t I?

 

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Real or Imagined? Fact or Fantasy?

Drake used to admire writers, especially those whose command of language could bring people exposed to their words to tears or prompt readers to join uprisings. But now he understands that writers are simply manipulators, men and women who strive to sculpt the emotions of people who read. Writers diminish humankind by usurping the roles naturally played by parents and mentors; writers replace natural responses to the world around us with artificial reactions spawned by exposure to warped imaginations. Writers are demonic!

A woman once told Drake he could always tell by her visible clothing whether she was wearing underwear. Jeans always signaled nudity “under the canvas.” Only once did he have occasion to verify her words. He has since longed for more opportunities.

Now, tell me, is Drake’s memory real or did it erupt from a writer’s concupiscent imagination? And,  months or years later, when he picked up the telephone in the hope of persuading her to relive the experience, was he mistaken when he heard her ask, “Do you remember how quickly you left?” She was, of course, referring to a recollection of their single full-on engagement. It was that event that took place at hypersonic speed because Drake was young and more than a little drunk and frightened and incredibly libidinous. It was earlier, long before the phone call, that she said “I hope the next time will be a slower, more leisurely undertaking.” Yet Drake’s recollections might not be his own. They may have been planted in his brain by a writer. Drake might simply be a character whose experiences were concocted to guide a reader’s imagination down a hazy path.

But that could be Drake’s true memories talking, too, couldn’t it? Did Drake remember those events or were they merely mental inventions? Is Drake real, or are these “memories” of his simply creations of my own making, formed to manipulate your thoughts, dear reader? “Am I real,” Drake asked, “or do I exist only in a writer’s mind?” The interesting thing about that question is that existence “only in a writer’s mind” changes the moment another reader sees what the writer has written. And Drake knows that. He knows his existence, whether real or imagined, is confirmed the instant a reader willingly conspires with the writer to make it so.

See? Writers’ imaginations are demonic and debauched and, from time to time, nostalgic or forward-thinking. Writers sometimes wish they could relive the past. Or reenact it in revised form. Or craft a future suited to their desires. Yet aren’t writers people, too? Aren’t they composed of atoms and molecules and hopes and dreams like the rest of humankind? In other words, aren’t they irrevocably flawed beings whose most ghastly visions portray not necessarily who they want to become but, instead, who they hope to avoid at all costs?

Yes, I realize the paragraphs I’ve written thus far skip, maddeningly from third person to first person to second person. Yes, I appreciate that writing in such a fashion tends to confuse and annoy the reader. And, yes, I understand casual readers (and, in fact, not-so-casual readers) may not consciously grasp the difference. Therein rests the opportunity to manipulate. Confusion can be either a writer’s enemy or her friend; either a rival or an ally. But you knew that, didn’t you? Of course you did. One need not be a writer to know that. Readers know better than writers the chaos of confusion and its effects on understanding.

But what about Drake? Perhaps unlike you, Drake had always wanted to be a writer. Yet he had been lazy; unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary to excel at the craft. His years in college were simply temporal expressions of privileged procrastination. And he knew it. He knew he was stalling, though he did not fully comprehend why. He often wondered, aloud, “will I, at some magical moment, know what I want to do with the rest of my life?” People in his presence at those moments either laughed or stepped away from him, seeming to sense they were in the presence of someone slightly unhinged. For Drake was, if nothing else, slightly unhinged. You probably knew that, too, didn’t you? That is, of course, if you believe in Drake’s existence…beyond the writer’s mind, I mean.

Yes, I’ve gone off course, haven’t I? We were talking about Drake’s desire, inhibited by his indolence, to become a writer. When  he concluded his future would rely always and exclusively on the availability of easy opportunities, regardless of discipline or field of endeavor, his ambition died. He no longer made half-hearted attempts to become a writer. Six months after receiving his bachelor of arts degree, with a major in humanities, he tore up ten applications graduate schools. He had hoped to pursue a professional career in veterinary medicine or chemistry or engineering. “Hope” might be too strong  a word for it. It was more a sense that, if a suitable opportunity presented itself, he might take it. But no such opportunity presented itself.

Drake taught himself to type while he was in high school. That writer’s skill, though it didn’t lead him where he wanted to go, served him well after college, when he sought clerical jobs. The fact that he was a male who could type instantly elevated him to the role of manager in clerical pools comprised almost exclusively of women. Though he recognized the inherent unfairness of that male privilege, he accepted it as an easy opportunity.

By now, you know Drake, don’t you? Though he hasn’t spoken directly to you, you know him as a lazy guy whose lethargy consistently overshadows his ambition. The reason you know him in that way is that I have told you as much. The questions I suggest you ask yourself are these: “Is this writer telling me the truth, or is he manipulating me in some way? And, if he is manipulating me, what are his motives for doing so?” Those are the questions I recommend you ask and answer.

Now, if I were to begin speaking directly to Drake, making you (the reader) privy to the conversation, the confusion about third person and first person and second person would grow exponentially. So I’ll not do that. Just know that, if I wanted to do that, I could. You see, I’m writing this blog post. You may have decided long ago to stop reading it because it’s either uninteresting or confusing or both. In that case, I’m talking to myself. Writers can manipulate their own minds, too, you know. We can fabricate intricate tales so convoluted and so improbable that we confuse ourselves. And in our confusion, we find ourselves struggling to understand what we have written and why. Just imagine the plight of our characters! How can Drake ever find his footing if I write about him in a way that confuses not only Drake but the real and imaginary people around him? Drake has no hope of becoming a fully-formed human being, not when the writer telling his story behaves as if he were, in fact, Drake. You know, unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary to excel at the craft.

You might be wondering why, in the second paragraph, I mentioned Drake’s experiences with the jeans-wearing woman. Did that event leave a scar or in some other way shape the direction of Drake’s life from that point forward? Or, was that entire scenario simply fabricated? Did it have some point? If Drake is real, you might ask him. If he is not, you might ask the writer. If the writer answers your question, though, you might well challenge the veracity of his answer. Because writers are simply manipulators, men and women who strive to sculpt the emotions of people who read.

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Meandering Mind with Punctuational Affliction

Notre-Dame de Paris burned yesterday. As I viewed television images of Parisians and others singing while the iconic building burned, I thought of the immeasurable number of people who must have worked to build the structure over a two hundred year period. Who were those people and what did they think of the edifice as it rose from the ground? How was it that, between the years 1220 and 1250, laborers and craftsmen were able to construct two towers that exceeded 225 feet in height? They had no electricity and no power tools. I wonder whether anyone died while working to build the cathedral during the two hundred years of construction? I suspect so. And, if so, I wonder how (or whether) those people were honored?

Listening to the news last night, I caught just a bit of a report that at least one firefighter was injured battling the catastrophic blaze. But the news was, mostly, about the building itself and the staggering loss to the city of Paris. I saw an image this morning of the front page of Le Parisien, featuring a photo taken as the cathedral’s tower fell; the paper’s headline read Notre-Dame Des Larmes, “Our Lady of Tears.”

***

Until I learned of yesterday’s fire, I was looking forward to an outing today, organized by UUVC, to visit Heifer International Ranch. I will go, but my sullen mood isn’t well-suited to enjoyment. Maybe that will change. The ranch is a 1200-acre learning center that focuses on ways sustainable agriculture and food systems can combat hunger and poverty and can help in community development. I was looking forward to going. But now, thinking about how nine hours of fire can essentially destroy the results of two hundred years of blood, sweat, and tears (followed by eight hundred years, or more, of maturation), I’m not as enthusiastic. I suspect my mind will change when I get there. There will be about twelve of us. We’ll carpool from the east gate to the ranch, about an hour away. I’m surprised that I am not the only person who is going without a spouse; at least three others won’t be accompanied by their spouses. My spouse opted not to participate; she has something else on her agenda, though even if she didn’t I doubt she would have signed on to the visit. I’ve heard good things about Heifer International. I hope to be uplifted and impressed by what I see.

***

Next week, I will lead two “congregational conversations” about the recently-completed long range plan for our church. I participated, as a member of the committee responsible for developing the plan, in the process. We began last October and, after eight weeks of meeting on Saturday mornings for a couple of hours, now the plan is complete. We began the process with a full-day conversation, guided by a UU consultant, about the direction the congregation wants to head. The following eight meetings used the output from that initial gathering to craft the plan. After the two congregational congregations, we will present the plan to the membership for adoption.

The current committee chair asked me to lead the conversations for two reasons, I think. First, she has a condition the impacts her voice that makes it difficult for people to understand her. Second, I think she wants me to get a higher profile, inasmuch as I will become the chair in July. I haven’t been involved in high-profile presentations in quite some time, so this will be interesting. Maybe. Or maybe people will either fall asleep or will engage in open revolt. Time will tell.

***

I’m able to enjoy spicy food again, though that enjoyment comes with more pain than it once did. But the pain, now, is tolerable. Yesterday, I helped my wife finish off the remaining jar of Trader Joe’s Harissa Salsa that my niece brought us during a recent visit. We hope to replenish our supply soon so I can continue, gradually, to train my esophagus to gratefully accept highly-spiced foods again. I’m almost ready to open a bottle of Mrs. Renfro’s habanero salsa and give it a try; but I’m not quite there yet. Another few days, maybe. The pain remains, but I’m getting used to it. Maybe that’s my new normal; acceptable degrees of pain, over and above the “hurts so good” level I used to experience when I enjoyed heat-laden sauces and salsas.

Speaking of food (as I am wont to do), we bought a large skin-on salmon filet a few days ago. I’ve been thinking of preparing Gravlax con Cilantro y Tequila, a dish I made a year or two (or three) ago. The recipe came, I think, from Pati Jinich and her Mexican Table cookbook. I know I liked it. It only uses two tablespoons of silver tequila (early in the process), so it’s truly not a “boozy” dish. It takes about 3 days for the fish to absorb the flavors and, I guess, “cook” in a salt and spice rub. It tastes wonderful. At least I think so.

Yesterday, for breakfast, I prepared a poached egg for myself (my wife wasn’t in the mood for food). Not a fake poached egg, mind you; a real one. The kind cooked in a gently swirling pan of hot water. I haven’t poached eggs that way in a long, long time. It’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but I think it would become less so with regular practice. And I like real poached eggs much better than the kind we normally eat. We have an egg poacher that steams eggs as this sit in little metal cups suspended an inch or two about the boiling water. It’s not bad, but it’s an entirely different, and better, experience from the old-fashioned process.

***

I suppose it’s time for me to make breakfast this morning. Maybe I’ll make a breakfast BOT sandwich, AKA a bacon, onion, and tomato sandwich. If I had any avocados, I’d go for a BOAT, but I am avocado-less this morning, a truly sad state. I suppose I could make a BOLT, since we do have a lettuce-like mix in the fridge; you know, three different kinds of non-iceberg lettuce, along with arugula and such. I personally happen to like iceberg lettuce (it’s the crunchiness I find appealing), but my wife has never found it appealing. Because I can’t imagine eating an entire head of iceberg lettuce myself (and it would wilt badly if I kept it around for the better part of a week), I simply don’t buy the stuff. Except, of course, when I make the rare “wedge” salad. (I don’t know why I’ve gotten in the habit of using quotation marks when they’re really not needed; I think it’s a punctuational affliction.)

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Undercooked Acrimony

This morning, I decided to forego my usual breakfast diet of two or three domestic and a sprinkling of international media. Instead of CNN and NPR and Aljazeera and BBC, et al, I opted to explore an online resource I rarely visit: Le Monde diplomatique (LMD). I should have remembered from past visits that I might not be happy with it, but my memory isn’t what it used to be (or never was).

LMD, an English language French newspaper that is published monthly, hooked me this morning. At the same time, its marketing team made me extremely angry. Let me explain.

I first began reading an article about a powerful family that, according to the article, essentially controls the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The piece, entitled “The Irvings, Canada’s robber barons,” says the family has, “…established vertical and horizontal monopolies that allow them to do without suppliers and business partners.” The family owns timber lands, sawmills, paper mills, a home building company, steel and concrete production operations, a naval dockyard, packaging factories, car dealerships, pharmacies, intercity bus lines, and on and on. In addition, the Irvings own all English language newspapers in New Brunswick, as well as radio and television stations.

As I was reading all of this fascinating stuff, I came to an abrupt dead end. If I wanted to finish reading the article, I had to subscribe.  As much as I wanted to know more, I was unwilling to spend a chunk of money to read just one article, especially in a publication I’d be unlikely to visit regularly. So I went back to the home page and picked another article to read.

The next article I found intriguing, entitled “When the US swung a Russian election” claimed “The US intervened on the side of Boris Yeltsin in the Russian presidential election of 1996, offering advice and influence to help him secure the finance he needed.” Interesting! So I continued to read. The article made note of CIA manipulation of elections in Italy and Germany in the 1940s and 1950s and asserted that the U.S. helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s. Just as I found myself absorbed in this well-written piece, I came to another abrupt dead end. The same situation as before: if I wanted to finish reading the article, I would have to subscribe. Damn!

“Screw this,” I said to myself, “I’ll have a look at the newspaper’s old stuff. Surely the marketing folk won’t deprive me of seeing a full article published long ago.” But just as I became enthralled by an article about Bagamoyo, a small Tanzanian fishing port that is on its way to becoming Africa’s largest container port, BAM! “You wanna keep reading? Pay up!”

Okay, I thought, I’ll see whether I can buy one-off access to especially interesting articles at a reasonable cost. Nope. It’s full-on subscription or deal with the frustration of being unable to read any complete articles. Okay. How much? Well, for an indeterminate period, I can subscribe at a 40% discount for a one-year period…at roughly $38. Not gonna happen. As interesting as those articles are, I’m not going to spend $38 simply to satisfy my curiosity.

Those dead-ends, though, really irritated me. If the marketing team thinks pissing off readers is a good marketing ploy, they are wrong. What they succeeded in doing was to convince one prospective reader to ignore the paper from here on. They could have sold either full access for a one or two-day period or access to a limited number of articles. They could have made a few bucks off of this reader. Instead, they didn’t make a nickel off of me. And they deprived some good writers/researchers of a slightly larger base of readers.

The worst part is that this paper, based on my limited access to it, seems to be an extraordinarily good publication. Had I been able to get limited access to some complete articles, I might have decided it was worth $38 per year (which is a 40% discount off regular rates, by the way). But, instead, the marketing department just annoyed me.

I sent an email to the subscription department, asking whether limited access is available; I doubt that it is, or I would have found the information. But perhaps my query will spur some creative thinking on the part of the subscription department or the marketing geniuses. We’ll see. I got an auto-response, suggesting a real response should come within 48 hours.

Now that I’ve let my anger, annoyance, and moderate rage simmer a while, I realize there are more important things in the world today than my frustration with limited access to LMD articles. But, still, I just don’t think it’s right to tease me with increasingly intriguing paragraphs, only to slap me in the face and tell me I can’t continue to read them unless I fork over what, to me, is a significant amount of discretionary money. I guess my simmering hasn’t completely cooked my acrimony.

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The Willing Suspension of a Train of Thought

Mood swings. Everyone has them. The question some of us have is whether the ones with which we deal are “normal” or, instead, symptomatic of something ominous. But it’s not just mood, is it? It’s something deeper. Something that defines who we are. Not just mood. But what would you call it? Personality? Nature? Temperament? Psychological makeup? Mentality? What?!

Psychology is imprecise. Psychology is medicine without the foundation of chemistry. Psychology is modern-day voodoo, stripped of magic yet adorned with illusion in the form of abstract art. This isn’t meant as mockery; it is simply an honest interpretation of a discipline in which I have both confidence and doubt. I am reluctant to accept “beliefs,” instead favoring theories that, having been subjected to rigorous tests, survive disbelief.

Yet there are times in which beliefs are simply expressions of untested convictions that, for one reason or another, merit acceptance or, at least, the willing suspension of disbelief. So it is with some theories of psychology. And, I might add, sociology.

Sociology was my college major. I think studying human social relationships and institutions shaped, in large part, my world view as it exists today (though my world view changes with each passing hour). The shifting sands of my view of the world owe their existence to the intersection of time and experience, coupled with the fact that I see human experience through a lens clouded by bias (but with a willingness to occasionally wipe the lens clean).

***

I interpret many of the changes taking place in the world’s societies today as large-scale expressions of individual psychoses, amplified by aberrant forms of groupthink and magnified by waves of unstoppable social phenomena. In a nutshell, Earth’s population has lost its mind and is behaving badly. We haven’t yet managed to create a pharmaceutical remedy for the malady, either, so we’re just stuck with the madness. Fortunately, I am among the select few who have not been infected by the disease (and so are you). Unfortunately, I have little to no power to change the direction of the world’s societies. So, we’re just going to have to watch the decline of civilization from the sidelines. If we were truly smart, we’d begin collecting like-minded people into little tribes. Small tribes of people who respect one another and recognize that we must take care of our physical and mental (or spiritual or whatever you’d like to call it) environments have the best chance of surviving the demise of humankind’s delusion of control over the universe.

***

Speaking of the willing suspension of disbelief (I was, remember?), this morning I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in its entirety.  I’m not sure what drove me to do that. Who knows what causes such urges at five in the morning?

I feel sure I must have read it in its entirety before, but as I read it, the words were only vaguely familiar. And yet I recalled bits and pieces with almost absolute precision. “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” And I remembered that the Mariner, with his cross-bow, shot the albatross. I recalled the Wedding Guest, but I’m still not quite sure of his purpose in the poem, other than to provide an opportunity for the Mariner to tell his tale.  I was struck by the length of the poem; damn, it’s really long! But it has to be to tell such a story.

As I read the poem, some of the words Coleridge used caught my attention; for example, he used the term “bark” to refer to a sailing ship. Shakespeare used the term, too. My favorite Shakespeare sonnet, Sonnet 116, includes the word: “It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” I was either in high school or college when I learned the word referred to a sailing ship. I took a course in Shakespeare while in college, probably during my first or second year. I remember very little of what I read, though I recall being both amazed and confused by Shakespeare’s language.

***

So, the results of my endoscopy on Friday were exceptional. That is, the doctor saw no signs of disease or damage. But that fact leaves me confused about why I still feel pain after I swallow some food and liquid. As in spicy food and bread and either very cold or very hot liquid. And a few other things. Actually, quite a few other things. He prescribed a drug for acid reflux, thinking that might be the issue. Have I already mentioned all this? If so, I am confused about what I’ve written and where I’ve written it. Sorry. Anyway, I’m both happy to know my esophagus and stomach look healthy. But confused as to why my symptoms remain (though they are far, far less painful than they were at their peak). Time may explain.

***

I’ve written all I’m going to write for the moment. I don’t know how long that moment might last, though, so there may be more coming in the near future.

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Musings on Marriage

Today is our thirty-ninth anniversary. Despite my remarkably flawed personality, she has opted to tough it out all these years. Based on the experience so far, I guess our marriage is going to last. And I’m very glad and grateful that’s the case.

The concept of marriage, though, seems odd to me. How is it that two people can be drawn to one another to such an extent that they decide to commit to an entire lifetime of living with each other? I know, many marriages don’t make it that long. But a lot of them do. And that’s the part I don’t quite understand. It seem to me the odds of encountering someone with whom I feel adequately compatible to commit to living with them for the rest of our lives must be astronomical. But such unlikely encounters happen all the time. Yet, but for circumstance, the encounter and subsequent commitment almost certainly would have resulted in a completely different pairing.

I think people who have been married more than once offer evidence of what I suggest. The second or third or fourth (or whatever number you pick) marriage suggests that coupling occurs not because the “ideal” mate is out there, but because two people decide they have enough in common to outweigh the differences or faults or incompatibilities.  Arranged marriages (at least those that last), suggest compatibility is not necessarily required. The parents mutually agree that the lives of their respective children will be better within the settled pairing; they decide the couple’s individual and mutual needs will best be met by the support they can provide to each other. Marriages that occur without the immutable influence of parents mirror arranged marriages; except for the absence of external influencers.

But what about people who decide not to get married or who simply never find that “sufficiently compatible” partner? On the one hand, I think they miss out on the enormous emotional benefits of living with a person for whom the partner’s happiness matters more than one’s own. On the other hand, unmarried people do not have the sometimes maddening and restrictive and horribly confining constraints on their freedoms. And, I think, unmarried people can engage with others in ways that married people cannot (according to socially acceptable custom, anyway). No, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about support that may not be as deep as the support one gives in marriage but is deeper than casual friendship. It’s hard to explain; words sometimes fail to adequately describe emotional connections.

In fundamental ways, chance encounters that either lead to marriage or not alter the course of our lives.  Marriages impact one’s decisions in many ways: seeking or accepting employment; moving to new locations (or not); having children (or not); lifestyle choices that include, or don’t include, physical activities and adventures; and on and on. The courses our lives take rely heavily not only on whether we marry or not. They rely on who we marry and when. Marrying early is apt to lead in one direction; marrying late is apt to lead in another. And, of course, not marrying at all leads in an altogether different one. It all seems so random; the course of one’s life depends on chance encounters and their strength or lack thereof.

Reading back on what I’ve written, I realize some people might misinterpret my musings about marriage as misgivings about marriage. That is not the case. I’m only going down the nearest rabbit-hole, as I always do. I think about things not because they’re attractive (or unattractive, as the case may be), but because I like to think and explore ideas. Even sacrosanct institutions merit intellectual meddling, in my view.

Back to reality, abandoning philosophizing about “what if” concepts. The chance encounter with my now-wife led me on a course for which I’m profoundly grateful. There have been plenty of challenges along the way, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Our lives thus fare have been, despite the tests, largely happy and fulfilling. I hope she feels, deep within, the same way.  We’ve supported one another during our respective battles with cancer and other health challenges. We’ve allowed one another to pursue job/career opportunities with the commitment that we would follow one another where they took us (though she has given up more than I ever did). We’ve wandered around the country, moving from place to place together, dealing with the torments that accompany relocation. And here we are, thirty-nine blissful years on (forty-one if you count the period during which we “lived in sin”), still there for each other, through thick and thin. It’s a happy anniversary, indeed.

 

Posted in Friendship, Love, Marriage | 2 Comments

Patients and Patience

In spite of the routine nature of an endoscopy (though I’ve never had one before, so I speak not from experience, only from hearsay and what I’ve read), its preparatory paperwork is a bit frightening. For example, I was asked to bring my living will with me. And I had to sign documents acknowledging, or at least suggesting, that the procedure could leave me incapacitated, mortally wounded, or dead. Not likely, of course, but possible. I guess they have to cover their bases.

I am to check in at 10:40 this morning. The procedure is to begin at 11:40. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to leave the recovery room, but I’d guess I will be in the car no later than 2:00 p.m., maybe much earlier. Whenever the doctor and his team finish, I expect to be quite hungry, inasmuch as my instructions were to cease eating and drinking by midnight last night.

By the time the doctors have reviewed their findings, I expect to have some answers about the cause(s) of the gut pain associated with eating. And I hope the answers suggest a simple, efficient, rapid, and complete cure to whatever ails me.

But while I’m talking to the gastroenterologist, I’ll inquire about what’s involved in correcting what I think is a hiatal hernia. That problem has been present longer than the one for which I’m undergoing today’s procedure. I assume the other gut problem that feels like my innards are being strangled when I move in certain ways is a hiatal hernia. I could be wrong. I think surgery is the preferred (and perhaps the only) corrective action. I’m not particularly fond of surgery, but I’ve had enough of it in my lifetime thus far to understand that it tends to have positive outcomes.

I’ve grown more patient with medical procedures during my time as a patient. There it is. The intersection of language and medicine. I think the practice of medicine involves Latin words and phrases because the oddities of English can test the patience of patients. Or doctors. I wonder whether Latin is awash in homophones? Well, yes it does. Latin, too, is awash in homophones (homographs and homonyms). You’ll have to trust me on that; I’m not spending my time pre-procedure listing Latin homophones.

Speaking of Latin, people can speak Latin. But conversational Latin today would have a limited vocabulary compared to, say, English or Spanish. At least that’s my understanding. I could be wrong. Latin is the official language of the Holy See, by the way. So the language is not really dead. I’ve never fully understood “Holy See,” but it’s not because I haven’t tried. It’s fairly simple and straightforward, until I read a sentence like this one:  “The Holy See is the apostolic episcopal see of the bishop of Rome, known as the Pope, ex cathedra the universal ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the worldwide Catholic Church.”

Maybe Latin’s use in medical terminology suggests some sort of connection with Catholicism? That has the makings of a strange story, it does. But not for this morning. For another time. For this morning, I’m going to focus my attention on what I’ll do for a post-procedure lunch. It’s all about food, isn’t it?

 

 

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The Truth as I Know It

Recently,  I wrote  about  Death’s Door  Gin.  I wasn’t  making it up. It’s a real thing. A large but surprisingly light (for its size) package arrived sometime yesterday afternoon/evening, while we were away. When I opened it, I found another package, surrounded by air-filled plastic bags; “bumpers,” I’d call them, to absorb the shock had the package been dropped. Inside the inner package, swaddled in more bumpers and bubble wrap and such protective gear, was the bottle of Death’s Door.  I subsequently learned the etymology of the spirit’s (and its maker’s) name: the Death’s Door passageway between Washington Island and the Door County peninsula inspired the company’s name. I should have known. Or looked it up before receiving the gin I tried so hard to obtain.

We haven’t opened it yet. And I’m relatively sure we won’t open it this morning. Probably won’t open it for a few days yet. Maybe even longer. The important thing is this: we actually have it in our possession.

After having reason to explore Death Door Spirits’ business a bit more thoroughly, I learned that it also produces vodka, white whisky, and Wondermint. Here’s what the website says about Wondermint: “Schoolcraft’s Original Wisconsin Wondermint Schnapps Liqueur is the first and only artisan craft peppermint schnapps in the world. Wondermint is a delightful blend of pure grain spirits with three times distilled peppermint extract, bitter almond, rosewater and a spike of absinthe.” I’ve never been much of a fan of schnapps, but I think I might have to engage in a little sleuthing so I can try this stuff. And I’m intrigued by the white whisky, described on the company’s website as follows: “Death’s Door White Whisky was a pioneer in the whisky category and has an 80:20 mash bill of hard red winter wheat to malted barley. The unique character of this spirit starts back in the process of fermenting the grainsutilizing a champagne yeast rather than a traditional whisky yeast.  The spirit is then double-distilled up to 160 proof (80% ABV), rested in stainless steel, proofed down to 80 (40% ABV) and finished in uncharred Minnesota oak barrels to help bring the “white whisky” together and to meld this unique spirits’ flavors.” Yep, I’ll need to get my hands on some of this stuff, too.

Both the Wondermint and the White Whisky will have to wait a while. I doubt I’ll put as much effort into getting either of them as I did the gin. Because the gin was for my wife. The other stuff would be for me. Mostly. Yet the idea of driving to Wisconsin has some appeal. And Door County has always lured me its way, though I’ve never actually been there. When we lived in Chicago, we talked about going, but never did.

But back to Death’s Door.  The distillery, formed in 2005, experienced some hard times over the years. It declared bankruptcy last November and was recently purchased by Midwest Custom Bottling. I finally, this morning, found some intriguing information about the company’s history and its financial experience. Here’ a link to an article in the Cap Times about the company’s declaration of bankruptcy; the article contains other interesting (to me) information about the company’s history.

I’m in love with the idea of struggling small businesses. There’s something romantic about entrepreneurs putting their hearts and souls into risky endeavors that could ultimately leave the risk-takers impoverished and beaten. I prefer the ones that continue to struggle, over the ones that succeed beyond their wildest imaginations. Of course I feel good for the wildly successful ones, too, but my empathy and sympathy and compassion remains fixed on the underdogs. I think that aspect of my emotional character was embedded in me during my childhood and early adulthood. One day I’ll write more about that; about my thoughts on why I am the way I am. That could take a ten-thousand-page book that, in all probability, would put the reader to sleep after page four. Maybe I should steer clear of that memoir.

My entrepreneurial bent remains with me. I’m no longer in a position to take significant risks, but then I never was. I never took the kinds of risks required of someone starting up a distillery or a brewery or any type of manufacturing operation. Manufacturers, especially small ones, impress me. Companies that actually produce products that people need or want impress me. Provided, of course, the companies don’t take advantage of their customers. I hold pharmaceutical companies in low esteem, even though they make needed products; I suppose some of them may be decent, but by and large I think they are contemptible in their greed. I do not want to start a pharmaceutical company. In fact, I can say with absolute certainty that I will never start a pharmaceutical company. Dammit.

I’ll write, one day, about the gin. I hope it meets my expectations. I hope its flavor carries me to the edge of euphoria and back. Too often, I allow my expectations to exceed the universe’s ability to meet them. And, perhaps, the universe feels the same about me.

 

 

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Temporal Freedom Season

I hereby decree that today is the beginning of Temporal Freedom Season (TFS).

One of the tenets of TFS is that there shall be no constraints on one’s time, no requirements to invest time in a specific endeavor or event. Instead, one may disregard clocks. In fact, one may disregard time in its entirety, relying instead on daylight and darkness as measures of the appropriateness of wakefulness and sleep and activities related to them. Neither state of being, incidentally, correlates directly with daylight or darkness; it is possible to sleep during daylight and wake during darkness. There is no time-dependent penalty of any kind during TFS.

Time, which heretofore has been inexorably tied to aging, stands still during TFS. The length of TFS is impossible to measure because, well, time is unavailable to measure it. So, the duration of TFS is a concept with no basis in fact; the concept of duration is meaningless in the absence of time.  Aging, then, also is a meaningless concept during TFS; “during,” too, means nothing and has no place in the language while TFS is in place. Frankly, “while” suggests a relationship with time so it, too, is an arcane concept in the context of TFS. That’s better. “In the context of” eliminates the outmoded concept of time. But, wait! Doesn’t the concept of “outmoded” suggest an element of “before” and “after,” both of which are time-dependent? I am concerned that the omission of aging in connection with TFS could be derailed if time-related concepts continue creeping in to the reality of TFS. For example, if aging ceases but concepts like “while” and “during” and “before” and “after” continue, how can our permanently youthful (in relative terms) bodies exist? Ach! This dilemma causes my brain to hurt.

How in the name of anything holy can I climb out of this hellish nightmare in which everything is, in one form or another, time-dependent? Must I live under this cloud that relies on the passage of time to provide a context for literally everything I experience? The answer, I am afraid, is an unqualified “Yes.”

Time is an artificial concept, but one without which our understanding of the universe (as limited as it is) could not exist. I cannot conceive of “now” without understanding “before” and “after” and “previously” and “subsequently.” All of them, of course, are artificial. That leads me to conclude, of course, that the artificiality of the concepts that help us understand the universe must mean that we, too, are artificial. And so is the universe. Perhaps we are, indeed, simply players in an imaginary game being played by creatures so immense and complex we cannot begin to understand them. I’ve heard that rumor before. And today, which marks the beginning of Temporal Freedom Season, the rumor is beginning to sound more and more rational. I am simply a fiction, a story crafted to amuse a consciousness beyond my ability to comprehend. Heretofore, when I have read articles about Artificial Intelligence, I didn’t think I was simply an element of AI. But not it’s clear that I am. I’m just a game piece, manipulated by the Mother of All Consciousness to achieve objectives that are as artificial and as meaningless as I am.

The idea of TFS was simply to clear obligations from my calendar. But it has grown into something much more consequential. TFS has caused me to question the existence of the universe and everything in it. I have moved beyond wanting to have control over my days. Now, I want control over my being. I want questions about my own meaninglessness to disappear in a vapor, taking me back to a time when I thought everything and everyone mattered. I want to return to a moment in which I understood the interdependency between all creatures and all aspects of the world on which they depend. I’m willing to live with calendars. Provided they contain a significant amount of blank spaces. Yes, that will take me back to that magical moment, which I hope will last forever.

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Damn Calendars

It’s happening again. My calendar is attempting to control my life. It’s attempting to take charge of every day, forcing me into a regimen of rigid discipline. The calendar clamps my freedom in its powerful jaws, refusing me the flexibility to do with a day what I will. Instead, it insists on an exacting schedule that grips me so tight I can’t breathe.

I have allowed this to happen. I’ve permitted the universe to impose an agenda on me, rather than impose my own agenda on the universe. That’s the problem with calendars. They connive and cajole and collude and conspire to usurp one’s free will, replacing volition with harsh demands.

Calendars engage in their demonic undertakings the way vicious clowns lure children into houses of horror, with sweets and candies. They use seduction to schedule attractive engagements, then drag us into hour upon hour of unpleasant obligations in what I like to call the “between times.” That is, the times between choice, the mandates that straddle opportunities.

I’m considering the pros and cons of setting fire to my calendars or drowning them in thick tar so they can’t escape and take control, again, of every waking hour.

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Darkness

Darkness. I go to sleep in darkness and I awaken in darkness. But it’s not total darkness. It’s near-darkness, punctuated by pinpoints of light. The thermostat, the kitchen stove, the bedside alarm clock, the modem, and other devices that alert me to the presence of electricity and tell me enough to allow me to get my bearings. And there’s the vaporous mist of light from the reflection of the nearby street light; that light transforms blackness in deep, dark greyness. I use those tiny beams and washes of dim light to guide me, to help me avoid crashing into walls or doors. They don’t really illuminate my path; they just offer imprecise orientation for movement.

On those rare occasions, when the power is out long before or after the sun has disappeared from the sky, and those miniature guideposts disappear, I have nothing to serve as my pilot. Then, I understand blindness. I realize what it’s like to navigate in a known space whose parameters I’ve not bothered to memorize. I remember that there’s a wall somewhere in front of me, but I don’t know just how far. I recall that a table may be in my path, assuming I have correctly oriented myself to the space I occupy.

How long, I wonder, does it take to acquaint oneself to one’s environment in the absence of light, in the absence of sight? I suppose it doesn’t take long to get used to living space. Hyper-local distances are measured in easily recalled inches and feet. But what about neighborhoods and towns? How does one get used to dealing with longer distances in the absence of illumination? I remember, not long ago, seeing a television program that featured an architect who lost his sight but continued to practice. His work changed, though. He now practices architecture with the blind in mind. He understands that architecture is about touch and sound and texture and shapes and dozens of other expressions of place. I thought I’d written about that program on my blog, but I can’t find it. After I finish here, I’ll see if I can find it online. It’s worth seeing; it helped me come to grips with how people who are blind interact with their environments.

I once observed, on this blog, that time turns mountains into valleys and granite into sand. As I consider what the experience of blindness might be like, I have another observation. Darkness turns sound into distance and touch into sight. With enough time and practice, a sightless person can use differences in sounds to calculate or estimate distances. The clicking of heels on a tile floor sounds different when the walker is nearby than when she is far away. And the changes in those sounds indicate whether the walker is approaching or departing. A sightless person can use a cane to determine important characteristics of a walking surface. Is it soft or hard? Is it flat or on an incline? Is it smooth or rough? Without sight, other senses become more pronounced. One comes to depend more on touch and smell and sound. I’ve known this, intellectually, for a long time. It’s not new information. But for some reason, it resonates with me this morning. It is no longer simply data in my head; somehow, emotion is now attached to it and I think I understand it better.

It’s healthy, I think, to explore new things. It’s equally healthy to explore old understandings in a new light. Or, in this case, in a new darkness. That’s my opening salvo in the battle to make today one in which I learn more about the world and/or myself.

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Opening Death’s Door

Several days ago, I received a promotional/informational email from Liquor.com. The message contained a list of gins that, according to the sender, represent the best of the beverage. My wife, a gin aficionado who rarely drinks any alcohol, found the list interesting. So, during a trip to a Little Rock liquor store subsequent to viewing the list, we picked up a bottle of one of the gins, Aviation Gin. The bottle, still unopened, awaits sufficient company from other gins on the list.

One of the others for which Aviation awaits is a Wisconsin-distilled gin called Death’s Door. Thanks to a bit of sleuthing, I learned that the gin’s distillery was in the midst of deciding to declare bankruptcy last October, but was seeking a buyer to save it from that ignominious end. I then sent an email to the company, expecting I would not receive a reply. But I did! The subsequent search and dead-ends was long, but the outcome (I hope) will be positive. Because I received some erroneous information, I have been promised I will receive a bottle of the gin, free of charge.

Now, why is Death’s Door of such interest? It’s because it’s made in Wisconsin. And our friends and neighbors are from Wisconsin. And we learned that my recent interest in the Wisconsin celebratory food, Cannibal sandwiches, was indeed a “thing” for them. On New Year’s eve (or was it the actual day?), they enjoyed raw ground beef smeared on pumpernickel or rye bread, topped with chopped onion and salt and pepper. What better way to celebrate my discovery of Wisconsin Cannibal sandwiches than with a shot of Wisconsin gin? Alas, since learning of our neighbors’ appreciation of Cannibal sandwiches, we learned they are not fond of gin. Damn! Oh, well, that does not prevent us from pursuing the celebration without them! Cannibal sandwiches and a Gin and Tonic. Or, instead of a Gin and Tonic, perhaps a Last Word cocktail? What, you ask, is a Last Word cocktail? I’ve never had one, but its ingredients are:

  • 3/4 oz. Gin
  • 3/4 oz. Green Chartreuse
  • 3/4 oz. Maraschino Liqueur
  • 3/4 oz. Fresh Lime Juice

The ingredients are shaken with ice and strained into a coupe glass. Our inadequately equipped bar refrigerator would need only the Green Chartreuse, Maraschino Liqueur, and fresh limes in order for me to make the drink. According to a witty comment accompanying the recipe, “This complex, herbal cocktail will win any argument.” Back to the liquor store! Maybe.

I sincerely hope the promised bottle of Death’s Door actually reaches us. If not, I may have to drive to Fort Smith to find a bottle (the guy who promised to send me a bottle said an unnamed liquor store in that city stocks the product). Driving to Fort Smith might actually be a happy respite from the mundane scenery (or mundenery, to use my latest portmanteau) in these parts. We would be able to visit our good friends who live there and could safely store enormous quantities of gin in their house, knowing the female component of the couple has an aversion to the spirit. 😉

Speaking of portmanteau, as you will admit we were, the word was (according to Google) first used by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass; the word was a combination of  porter (to carry) and manteau (a cloak). Fascinating, these things one finds during unexpected trips through the rabbit warren known as the internet! I learned, while wandering through the group of burrows that form rabbits’ playgrounds, that the name of the country, Tanzania, is a portmanteau of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.  Now you know. But, then, you may have known before, in which case I have wasted your time and, for that, I sincerely apologize. Let’s move along, shall we?

Food, liquor, and language. That trio seems to form the base of my interests. The first two can, if not properly restrained, can lead to unhappy and unhealthy outcomes. They can, as it were, take one to “death’s door” and beyond. But so can language. Loudly proclaim that Donald Trump a fascist idiot, during a Republican cult gathering, and wait to be shown to that door. But I’ve veered off course again, haven’t I? Well of course I have. But I’ll return to the right route.

Last night, we dined with six other members/friends of the Unitarian Universalist Village Church. We know four of them, but had met the other couple only in passing. Last night gave us an opportunity to learn a bit more about the couple. And it gave me an opportunity to try an intriguing menu item (Penne Arrabiata) from a relatively new (to me) restaurant (Dolce Vita). My meal was good. Worth another trip. Which is good, because we’re returning to the place next Wednesday with our Cannibal sandwich-eating neighbors.

In other news, I am scheduled for a CT scan on Monday morning, followed by an endoscopy next Friday. Perhaps, sometime during the week, my vacationing oncologist will have returned and will share with me my latest lab (blood) tests and the results of the x-ray of my gut. I was rather peeved that she insisted on an immediate x-ray, then left town without telling me what, if anything, it revealed. Another example of her failure to communicate. I should insist that she consume vast quantities of hard-boiled eggs as punishment for her oversight. (If you’ve not seen Cool Hand Luke, you won’t have a clue what a lack of communication and hard boiled eggs have to do with one another.) I hope all these tests and follow-up appointments keep me far, far away from death’s door. I have no interest in opening it at the moment.

 

 

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Returning to the Empty Well

This morning, as I am sometimes wont to do, I wandered aimlessly through some of my old blog posts, looking for evidence of creativity and talent. “Looking” is the wrong word. “Hoping” better describes my motive. What I found did not convince me that a repository of ingenious originality hides among the multi-syllabic muck, but it gave me reason to think there’s reason to mine the blog as if there’s ore down there, somewhere.

One vignette, an unfinished piece of fiction, struck my fancy. It dealt with an old writer’s years-old fiction manuscripts that foretold in detail current events involving the international community’s response to North Korean nuclear saber-rattling.  A Russian scholar of Asia comes upon the manuscripts and, after reading them, concludes they tell  about not only current events but forecast an ugly, cataclysmic future. The unfinished vignette only suggests what happens next.

I wrote the piece long before the current dance with North Korea began under the narcissist’s regime. As I read it this morning, I decided it could easily be modified to mirror recent realities and, then, it could lead to “predictions” about where a battle between maniacal personalities might lead. “Easily modified” is another erroneous assertion. A writer would require both motivation and mental energy, neither of which are in oversupply in my head. But, maybe one day…

Another piece, an essay of sorts, caught my attention.  Most of the post, which addressed the failures of the left and right to behave in civil fashion, leaves something to be desired but one sentence grabbed me, for some reason: “We are the reverse side of the ugly mask, the underbelly of the darkest reptile, the snake poised in the grass, ready to strike at the slightest disturbance of the leaves.”  The post, entitled “Self-Congratulation,” attacks the leveling of blame against others for being uncivil while the accusers fail miserably to behave with civility.  In case the reader of today’s post don’t pick up on it, that old post was directed as much to myself as to anyone. The sentence that attracted my attention could be edited to serve as my obituary: “He was the reverse side of an ugly mask, the underbelly of the darkest reptile, the snake poised in the grass, ready to strike at the slightest disturbance of the leaves, which he took as a provocation directly aimed at him.” But let’s wait to publish that obit, shall we? Even old men can turn over a new leaf.

I haven’t completely abandoned my dream of going through all of my writing, aiming to create a cohesive collection. But the dream is now hazy and matted with dust. Yet when I spend a while rummaging through what I’ve written, I tend to brush the soot from the dream. On occasion, I seen tiny reflective glimmers beneath the grime. Those fleeting glints of light energize me. But the energy has not, thus far, been sufficient to spur me to action.

Though I haven’t quite unearthed it, I think there’s a common theme hidden in most of my writing. If I can determine just what that theme is, the motivation I need to wade through hundreds and hundreds (maybe even thousands) of pages may bubble to the surface. I suppose my fear is that there really isn’t a theme; that all of my writing is just mental spillage with nothing in common except that it poured out of the same demented brain. And it’s not just the ideas that need to be good to merit forming a collection. The quality of the writing has to stand up to scrutiny. Especially lately, the last two or three years or so, I haven’t paid any attention to the quality of what I’ve written. Instead, I’ve just allowed my fingers to unleash the chaos that flows from my brain without regard to the quality of the communication.

I realize, of course, that this post is simply a rearrangement of words that presents the same ideas I’ve uttered a thousand times. The ideas just won’t leave me alone. I keep returning, hoping to drink from a well I sense will remain empty. I keep hoping to write something new, but I can’t even finish writing or polishing or otherwise completing the old stuff. Oh, well. If nothing else, my constant harangues may eventually force me to either do something or sever my fingers to stop the repetition.

Posted in Frustration, Procrastination, Ruminations, Self-discipline, Writing | Leave a comment

A Shot of Youth

The surprising experiences of one’s youth, suddenly reinserting themselves sixty-five years in, take one’s breath away. Just last night, one of those remarkable experiences both startled and stunned me, yet left me delighted.

I awoke in the darkest part of the night to percussive sounds of distant thunder. This was not the guttural growl like bass-note echoes in a deep canyon. It was the staccato sound of machine gun fire, a frenetic beat of a solo jazz drummer. Flashes, keeping time with the drum beat, bathed the walls of the room with intense blue light. The blue bursts entered the room, in rapid succession, from alternate windows, as if the lightning was spinning around the house, trying to find a way in through every pane of glass.  Though my description may make the experience sound terrifying, it was not. Instead, the cacophony of light and sound mesmerized me, each explosive blue eruption dancing in perfect cadence with the rhythmic noise. Seeing and hearing this remarkable atmospheric display took me back to my childhood, when I first witnessed that simultaneous miracle of Mother Nature’s rage and ecstasy. The experience transfixed me, as a little boy. And it happened again a few hours ago, when I got out of bed, went into the darkened living room, and stood staring through the plate-glass at the world outside my window. Each flash of lightning, seeming to emanate from a layer of low clouds above me, washed over a cloak of fog below, illuminating the valley and hills beyond in a dark blue blanket tinged with light blue, almost white, along the edges. As silly as it might seem now, I felt like I was witnessing a microcosm of the chaos and terrifying beauty of creation. The sense of magic I first felt as a child, when I saw and heard similar sights and sounds, returned last night. It engulfed me with awe, as if I had seen a miracle.

This morning, in the dull grey daylight, the appearance of the world outside my window is less impressive. The sky is solid grey, almost white, absorbing most of the sun’s light or reflecting it back toward the ball of fire from whence it came. But it’s the same sky that, last night, transformed a tired old man into a child again. I suppose the sense of awe at Nature’s displays never disappears. It hides behind layer upon layer of monotonous experience, but when unleashed it reveals in us youthful exuberance and childish astonishment. That’s a joyous combination in anyone, but especially in people who have reached the point that life seems just a jejune exercise in boredom. I recommend awakening and watching the sky during lightning storms.

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Flaws and Faults and Hummingbird Care

If my computer is telling me the truth, and I have no reason to believe it is lying to me, the outdoor temperature is 41 degrees. That’s brisk. I know that’s brisk because I went outdoors a few minutes ago. The purpose of my outdoor adventure was to retrieve three hummingbird feeders from the “sky room” off the master bedroom and hang the feeders outside. I take the feeders in each evening because raccoons will find them if I don’t. If the raccoons find the feeders, the beasts will spill sugar-water all over the deck in their efforts to drink the sugary juice contained in the feeders. Fortunately, there’s an entrance to the “sky room” from the deck as well as from the master bedroom. So I don’t have to carry hummingbird feeders through the bedroom. That’s a long way of explaining how I know it’s chilly outside, isn’t it? Yes, it is. That’s one my flaws; maximizing word counts to explain things that could have been explained with far fewer syllables and the words those syllables comprise.

My faults are on my mind because I watched a short video on Facebook a while ago. In the video, a guy recited a sing-song poem about how advertisers and the world at large try to convince us that we, as individuals, are not enough. We need products to make us attractive and/or lovable. We need to change the way we look or the way we project ourselves to the world if we expect to be accepted and embraced. The video’s intent was to convince the viewer that we, as individuals, are enough. We ought to love ourselves the way we are, absent products or perceptions designed to enhance us in the eyes of others. I’ve heard that message before. Many times. It resonates with me. But it’s a message that, for one reason or another, doesn’t work to change my self-perception.

I look in the mirror and see a thousand faults that I must correct if I can ever expect to be lovable. Let me be clear here. I’m referring both to a literal look into the mirror and a figurative look in the mirror. That is, flaws litter both the surface and what’s underneath. So many, in fact, that I wonder whether anything would be left if all the flaws were removed. Perhaps only a shadow would remain. Perhaps I would be visible only if a veil were draped over the remnants of a hollow form. An empty vessel.

That’s an interesting, if depressing, concept. The idea, I mean, that we are nothing more than a collection of our flaws. Without them, we are hollow; ready to be filled with and shaped by strengths to replace the faults. But strengths tend to grow into gnarled flaws. The attributes of strength morph into disfigurements, like muscles exercised too much.

All right. I’ve let this post simmer for the better part of three hours. Actually, I walked away from the computer and forgot that I hadn’t hit “post.” Only just now did I realize my blog was awaiting my care. In the interest of ensuring my little piece of internet real estate feels noticed, I’ll post this now. Yes, I will.

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Fools and Poetry

My April Fool’s post on Facebook yesterday was too obvious. It fooled no one, at least not for long. Here is a gently edited version:

If I hadn’t seen the court papers myself, I never would have believed it. But she had the dates right and she knew things only someone who had actually viewed sealed court documents could have known. I’ve always told people I had no children, and I thought I was telling the truth.

Only after seeing the documents and after searching my memory long and hard did the mother’s name, Cherry Lansing, begin to sound familiar. And then—when her sworn testimony referred to a “young man, almost a boy, really, who came in to the bar with a guy named Gary…the boy drove a car with a vanity license plate—BADLAD”—it sank in.

She was the girl I met one night in a Houston strip joint, a bar not far from the office. Gary Bowling insisted I go have a drink with him after work. He picked the place. I knew it wasn’t the sort of place I should have gone, but I did, anyway. And that mistake has now come home to haunt me. Cherry Lansing’s testimony, along with surreptitiously-obtained DNA evidence from a drinking straw, confirmed that I am the father to her now 43-year-old daughter, Phaedra. And Cherry expects me to reimburse her for my daughter’s college tuition. The two of them also want me to pay for college for Phaedra’s 20-year-old son…my grandson, whom she inexplicably named Matador Zeus!

I can’t believe this is happening! I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford college tuition for two people! And I’m afraid Janine is going to throw me out of the house. If I have to sleep in my car, then at the very least I’ll have to buy a Toyota Avalon. The Avalon has plenty of room for me to stretch out in the back seat. I might be able to get the loan in Phaedra’s name, in which case I could sell the car, use the proceeds to help with the tuition repayment, and she would be stuck with the monthly payments. I never liked Phaedra, even before I knew of her existence.

In addition to the foolish April joke, I began Poetry Month by posting a poem, if you can call it that, I dashed off without benefit of analytical thought or corrective polishing:

Words were never meant as weapons.
They were intended as delicate caresses,
kisses that replace the rough edges of
hard days with soft, loving embraces.
They are touches that echo the smooth
channels of gentle river banks after long,
soothing rains transform streams into swift
torrents of impossible serenity, hidden beneath
movements so placid the earth doesn’t notice.
Words were meant to teach us to surrender, to
help us understand the beauty of acceptance.
They bequeath to us the ability to bask in the
renunciation of spurious victory, clinging instead
to the joy of compassionate failure, the failure that
accompanies decency and celebrates tenderness.

Perhaps I’ll write an actual April 2 post for the blog this morning. Or, perhaps, not.

Posted in Absurdist Fantasy, Attempted Humor, Humor, Poetry | Leave a comment

Wide Open Spaces

Yesterday—during our drive to Morrilton and then to Russellville and to Dardenelle and, finally, back to Hot Springs Village—I realized again how much I miss wide open spaces. I love looking at pastures and flat, open land that stretches to the horizon. Though there was not a lot of the latter along our route yesterday, there were enough broad expanses of land to rekindle my passion for open spaces.

As we drove south from Dardenelle, we saw evidence of the kind of work that creates open pastures in the forests of Arkansas. Enormous swaths of land that had been heavily wooded forests had been stripped bare by bulldozers and tractors and other heavy equipment. Logging trucks and monstrous saws outfitted to serve the interests of the timber industry had razed thick stands of pine and hardwood. On their heels had come machinery that smoothed the rough landscape left behind, creating smooth, rolling hills. I was at once thrilled to see open spaces and horrified to see evidence of clear-cutting. Human intervention had transformed some of the scenery along our route  from dark, forbidding forests to bucolic pastures. I hated to see the loss of forest land, on the one hand, but I was delighted to see the sky and gently rolling hills, on the other.

After trying, for quite a while, to process my mixed emotions at the metamorphosis of the landscape, I came to the conclusion that my disdain of human intervention relies not on its existence, but its scale. There was just too much deforestation. I don’t know whether the people responsible for it plan to plant more trees to replace the ones they took or destroyed. Perhaps they cut the forests to create farmland. Who knows? I shouldn’t condemn the transfiguration of the land without knowing why it was done. Perhaps pine beetle infestations were so bad that felling entire sections of the woodlands was the only solution to saving the bordering forests. I shouldn’t judge without knowing answers to many questions, some of which I might not even had considered yet.

But I’ve veered off course, as usual. Before I noticed big swaths of forests being cleared, I was struck by the pasture lands we saw as we skirted the Arkansas River. Those lands probably were never forests, at least not the thick mixed-wood forests. The silt deposited by the river during periodic floods, mixed with organic matter from plant and animal decomposition, made for nutrient-rich soils well-suited to farming in the flood plains. That is why the land is so open along the river now. It’s suited to crops. I’m sure some of the land was cleared along the river, but probably not as much as I saw in the forests. But, again, I’ve gone off course!

I miss the wide open spaces of parts of Texas. I miss the endless vistas in New Mexico and Arizona. My friends, Jim and Vicki, are spending a month in New Mexico at the moment. Photos from their journey probably sparked my recollections of how much I appreciate open land, but the drive yesterday reinforced my memories. And I felt a longing for those open spaces; a strong, almost overwhelming longing. I love the forests, but sometimes they seem confining, restrictive, overpowering in their darkness. I need the occasional shot of exhilaration provided by endless skies and 360-degree views of the horizon.

More writers than I care to try to recall have written either that travel opens one’s eyes or, conversely, that travel simply offers an unsatisfactory refuge from failing to make the most of one’s surroundings or home. In my view, neither view is entirely correct. Travel does open one’s eyes to the wonders of the world around us, but it doesn’t take the place of putting down roots (at least temporarily) to provide a physical and emotional anchor to a place. I suppose travel can be an escape, a refuge from reality, but if that’s all one allows it to be, it becomes of a prison of sorts; it throws the anchor overboard and allows it to drag us to the depths without experiencing what’s around us.

I have a history of growing restless of places after a period of time. I’ve never measured that time-frame precisely, but I think it averages about four to seven years. We’ve lived in Hot Springs Village for about five years. I’ve felt restless for a year or so. We lived in Dallas for many more than five years—17 years, I think. I was restless much of that time. We lived in Arlington for five or six years. We lived in Chicago for four years (Janine was there five). I don’t know how much of my restlessness was responsible for our moves, but I suspect it contributed to them.

Where is this going? I don’t know. I’ve often wished we weren’t tied down to a house, at least not by ownership. But I’ve always been unwilling to rent, thinking the idea of giving other people money to borrow their houses for a while was like throwing money away. Janine is more logical and rational. But she’s not as restless. I guess there’s a correlation there. When we were contemplating buying an RV and traveling around, I was as excited as I remember ever being. But the practicalities of RV life persuaded me it wasn’t for me. Yet I’ve never quite gotten over the idea of being a vagabond. Our friends Lana and Mel are about to embark on a seven-week adventure, traveling west and northwest. Hearing them describe their plans triggered my wanderlust again, I think. And Jim’s and Vicki’s cross-country house-sitting did the same.

I guess I need to get over this wanderlust. Janine doesn’t share it, at least not to the extent that it consumes me from time to time. Road trips, even short day-trip versions, tend to exacerbate my desire to hit the road for longer adventures. Sickness and the attendant doctor visits and tests and the like bring me back to reality, making me feel an intense loathing for the real world.

Perhaps I should simply find documentaries about road trips throughout the U.S. and try to live vicariously through the central characters. I’m sure that would do nothing, though, but make my lust even more intense. Ach!

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Back to Wednesday Night Poetry

I’ve been invited to return as a feature poet to Wednesday Night Poetry, the event in downtown Hot Springs that began on February 1, 1989 and will mark on Wednesday this week 1575 consecutive Wednesdays with never a miss. My feature will be toward the end of October, giving me time to return to writing and reading poetry before my set.

It’s odd, or maybe not, that I tend not to share my poetry as fully or as frequently as I share my fiction and my nonfiction prose and my personal rants. Perhaps it’s because I think people tend to judge poetry and the people who write poetry (who may not call themselves poets), assuming the writers ascribe lofty qualities to themselves. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a sense I feel very keenly. One can call oneself a writer with impunity; calling oneself a poet invites implicit contempt and disdain, as if the poet uses the term to distance himself from the riff-raff beneath him. My perception may be utterly erroneous; but I feel it, not only when I am the “poet” but when I witness others’ judgment of those who write poetry.

Poetry once required conscious efforts to understand meter and rhyme and rhythm. Those requirements, coupled with the sometimes complex (convoluted, perhaps?) messages conveyed in poetry, made the form inaccessible to many. Maybe it was that inaccessibility, and the complexity that tested the intellect, that caused some people to consider poets and poetry haughty and imperious. Poetry today, though, tends not to be confined by incomprehensible rules; it more purely captures emotions and perceptions through unconstrained language. At least that’s the way I see it.  At the moment, anyway.

Reading one’s poetry to an audience is embarrassing in the sense that the act exposes emotions that one tends to hide behind a hard-surface façade. It doesn’t take bravery; it takes a willingness to be subject to unspoken ridicule. But the audience for Wednesday Night Poetry is gracious and welcoming, commending even bad poetry and encouraging the timid with raucous applause. That generosity of spirit contributes to the comfort and relative safety of the weekly event.

Since my last (my second) appearance as a feature poet, I’ve written quite a bit of poetry. But I’ve written very little during the past several months. Much to my surprise, though, I’ve posted six or seven short and obtuse poems on my blog during the past six months. I guess I’ve been more prolific than I thought. As I searched through poems I’ve written within the last two or three years, I was surprised at the volume of material. I was surprised, too, that many of the poems I wrote still tug sharply at my emotions. My poetry, it seems, captures more of my emotional life than my prose. Maybe that’s why I tend not to share it as freely as prose. But maybe the exposed nerves in poetry are what make it powerful.

I have to be in the “right” mood to write poetry in which I find any value, personally. I can write poetry any time, but it tends to be hollow and seems artificial if I’m not in a mood suited for it. During the past several months, in spite of having written more poems than I remembered writing, I think I tended to steer clear of poetry because my poems would have exposed fears and sadness that simply mirrored my reactions to having cancer. No one wants to read self-absorbed litanies of pity; not even me.

I’m looking forward to the end of October, despite trepidation and worries that I might be the exception to the rule of audience generosity and grace. I better get back in the “right” mood and produce more poetry.

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Badger Food and the Like

It’s possible that I am genetically predisposed to be a Badger. A Cheesehead. That is, a Wisconsinite. That thought found its way back into my brain by way of an article on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s web site. In months and years past, I’ve sensed that I had a connection to Wisconsin at the cellular level, thanks to my affection for pickled herring and liverwurst. Today’s resurrection of that impression was sparked by an article about a Milwaukee tradition, Cannibal sandwiches. Cannibal sandwiches, to my way of thinking, must be related to steak tartare, which comprises ground meat, onions, capers, pepper, and various other seasonings. Some recipes call for raw egg yolks to be thrown into the mix. Generally, I think, it is served with rye bread. Cannibal sandwiches are not as elaborate. They consist of very lean ground beef smeared on rye bread and topped with raw onion. I am confident my taste for Cannibal sandwiches will mirror my appreciation for steak tartare. I absolutely love steak tartare.

Now that I’ve read about Cannibal sandwiches, I feel compelled to give them a try. According to the WPR article, the safest way to enjoy Cannibal sandwiches is to purchase a fresh, very lean cut of beef from a good butcher and ask for it to be freshly ground with a clean grinder. It would help, the article suggests, to let the butcher know you plan to eat the beef raw. Then, make your Cannibal sandwiches the same day you buy the freshly-ground beef. I think the appropriate way to explore this taste sensation would be to get plenty of beef to make several Cannibal sandwiches and enough to make a nice helping of steak tartare.

I once began an endeavor (back in November 2013) which would involve making and tasting a number of regional cuisines from all over the U.S. and Canada. Though I didn’t complete the undertaking, I did investigate several regional dishes and actually made some of them (noted by an asterisk below):

  1. Minorcan Clam Chowder (Northeast Florida)
  2. American Chop Suey (Connecticut/New England) [AKA “Goulash” in the U.S. Midwest]
  3. Sseafood Gumbo (Creole/Coastal Louisiana)
  4. Rappie Pie (Acadian/Nova Scotian)
  5. Sausage/Chicken Gumbo (Cajun/Louisiana)
  6. *Philly Cheesesteak (Philadelphia)
  7. Chicken Booyah (Northeastern Wisconsin)
  8. Smoked Salmon Tartare (Pacific Northwest)
  9. *Arroz con Camarones (South Texas Coast, AKA John’s kitchen)
  10. Succotash (New England)
  11. Jiggs Dinner (Newfoundland/Labrador)
  12. Pan-Seared Grouper (Southeast/”Floribbean”)
  13. *Tourtiere du Shack (Quebec)
  14. Cincinnati Chile (Cincinnati)
  15. Spiedie Sandwiches (Binghamton, New York)
  16. Muffuletta Sandwiches (New Orleans)
  17. *Cornish Pasties (Michigan)
  18. Chicken with Tamarind Ginger Sauce (Southeast/”Floribbean”)
  19. *King Ranch Chicken (Southwest)
  20. Fish Tacos (West Coast)
  21. Oyster Pie (Northeast-NY)
  22. Grilled Pacific Halibut w/ Rhubarb Compote & Balsamic Strawberries (Pacific Northwest)
  23. Cannibal Sandwiches (a Milwaukee/Wisconsin add-on as of March 30, 2019)

I’ve actually made a few others, as well, but not as part of the abandoned endeavor. I abandoned it, by the way, because I was unable to spark enough enthusiasm among others (namely, my wife) to warrant going to the trouble. Sure, I could have made the dishes and we could have eaten them, but without the drumbeat of excitement…it just wasn’t worth the effort. But, now, thanks to my introduction to the concept of Cannibal sandwiches, I may revisit the idea. Perhaps I can find some adventurous Wisconsinites in the Village who might also be willing to explore Jiggs Dinner and others. Here’s a link to a Jiggs Dinner recipe, by the way.

The list above was only to have been a start. I created it to serve as a kick in the rear; a means of sparking my enthusiasm. As I suggested above, it worked for me, but not sufficiently well for my entire wife.

Until my esophageal brokenness is repaired, though, many of these dishes are apt to be too troublesome for my gut to tolerate. So, I will wait. I will plan. And I will rejoice when, finally, I can embark again on a culinary adventure (perhaps with a small cheering section alongside, anxious to enjoy the meals with me).

Somewhere along the way, in years past, I became enamored of Hidden Kitchens, a radio program created and produced by Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. I’d like to find recordings of those programs and select some of the dishes they discussed, adding to my list of regional dishes. It would be great fun, I think, to prepare dishes unique to every state/province/region. And perhaps write about them. Ah, we shall see. If my body would only cooperate. And, of course, the larder would have to cooperate, too. Getting the ingredients for many of the dishes on my list is apt to be difficult. But I can adapt and adjust, using available ingredients. Can’t I?

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RandomRandomRandom

It’s impossible to say with certainty whether my treatment for lung cancer is responsible, but I’m inclined to lay the blame squarely thereon. Had I not been subjected to 60 sessions during which radiation was directed at the remnants of my right lung, the X-ray beams would not have burned my esophagus. And if my esophagus hadn’t been scorched, it wouldn’t have caused pain while swallowing. Whether the subsequent pain, which seems to have evolved into a searching ember just below the base of my sternum, evolved from the searing esophageal pain is unclear. But I lay blame entirely on the events preceding the sense of a molten ember inside my torso. I suppose I could have an ulcer. I hope to learn the source of the pain on April 12, when I undergo an endoscopy. More importantly, I hope to learn that a fast-acting treatment to completely resolve the problem is readily available.

Fortunately, the pain I feel now whenever I eat is not excruciating. At least not all the time. But I’ve discovered that I can no longer indulge my passion for spicy foods. I can’t even eat jalapeños, for God’s sake! Much less habanero peppers or the joyous juices extracted therefrom. Chile powder hurts. Damn near everything hurts. Even the sesame seeds that encrusted the ahi tuna I had for lunch bothered my gut. I am not happy about this. I suppose it’s better than a piece of shrapnel ripping through my chest, but I can’t confirm that, either; I’ve never had a piece of shrapnel in my chest, if you don’t count the multiple incidents in which surgeons sliced and diced me with sharp scalpels. Fortunately, I was asleep during their explorations of the inner me.

I’m in a strange mood. Obviously, I’m drenched in dark humor, but not the kind of dark humor I enjoy. Instead, it’s the kind I’d rather avoid. But I’ve been unable to avoid it thus far. In addition to that, I’m feeling a bit depressed that I’m apparently not really close to having the entire cancer treatment regiment behind me. Well, maybe the treatment is done, but the aftermath to treatment seems to have just begun. At least I’m able to get out and about more frequently of late, in spite of the fatigue and lack of stamina. Just last night, we went to the latest World of Wine events, this time focused on Spanish wine and food. The wines were decent. The food was decent. The people at our table were enjoyable. But I wasn’t quite in the mood, I suppose.

This morning, we sent into Hot Springs to check into buying new frames for my eyeglasses (as well as new lenses). I was disappointed to find that very few options are available to me in the style I desire: metal frames designed to accommodate magnetic sunglass attachments. I’ve had such frames for years. Apparently they are going out of style, replaced I guess either by prescription sunglasses or the miserable clip-on style that I find ugly and offensive and hard to use. I’ve been exploring online options, but I’m a little concerned about ordering online, though I know I can return them, but at a substantial cost (due to my prescription). I don’t know. It’s too hard to decide. Maybe I’ll wait until my 85th birthday. That way I’ll never have to buy any.

 

 

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The Stranger

According to Merriam-Webster, the primary definition of “outsider” is: “a person who does not belong to or is not accepted as part of a particular group or organization.” Another definition suggests an outsider is “a stranger—someone who doesn’t fit in.”  Neither definition addresses perspective. That is, by whose assessment is a person not accepted by a particular group? Who says someone doesn’t fit in? The matter of perspective may seem irrelevant but the perspective of one making the judgment of whether a person is an outsider is, perhaps, the most relevant of all. It doesn’t matter whether the people in Stanley’s sphere do not consciously consider him an outsider. What matters is whether Stanley perceives that he is not accepted or doesn’t fit in. And his perception relies, in part, on whether he perceives others’ “acceptance” to be a genuine invitation to be part of a group or, instead, as little more than mere tolerance. The difference, in his eyes, is akin to the way a child might either be actively sought as a member of a team in a children’s game or, when the “pickings are slim,” chosen as the least offensive available option.

The question of whether a person is, indeed, an outsider, can be answered only by examining both the individual’s perspective and the motives behind the behaviors of the group of which he either is, or is not, an accepted part. In most cases, though, neither matter is readily examined, so the answer is hard to find. Ultimately, the answer must come from the individual; if he feels like an outsider, he is one. That is true even if his perceptions of the group’s motives for behavior he misinterprets as exclusionary are misguided or categorically wrong.

 

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