Friends and Franklin

When, after a full meal, a taste of dessert whets an insatiable appetite for a month of meals, one regrets dessert. Well, not always. We spent half the day and the evening yesterday with friends in Franklin, Tennessee. The “full meal” was the leisurely drive through Arkansas and Mississippi, the enjoyable evening in Tupelo, and the trip on the Natchez Trace Parkway from Tupelo to just south and west of Franklin.  The dessert is Franklin. The town is incredibly active and vibrant, its historic downtown bustling with activity on a Wednesday afternoon. The scenery in and around Franklin is gorgeous. Its appeal is, I think, its history, coupled with its progressive presence (not, sadly, progressive in the political sense). The town’s governors have, in the recent past, ensured the preservation of its historic downtown, while allowing (perhaps encouraging) modern ideas of entertainment and commerce to thrive. Outside that historic core, the town looks much like other growing communities injected with tax dollars and investor monies. Lots of restaurants, upscale businesses, corporate headquarter So, and the like. The challenge will be to rein in growth so that the historic core does not become just another antique attraction.

Back to dessert and its antecedent. I could make a full meal of Franklin! There’s so much to see and do, a quick visit makes it impossible to consume a full meal. We must come back and spent a few days here, soaking in the community. Nashville is only twenty minutes away and the area boasts some of our favorite stores: Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, and Costco, as well as two Flying Saucer locations, places where I can feed my love of good draft beer from around the planet.

Alas (to use another blogger’s favorite expression 😀), we must head toward home today, as we have commitments to keep back in the Village on Friday.

Pall of the aforementioned location-based happiness would be nothing without the generosity and hospitality of friends. Thanks, Maddie and Robin, for your kindness and hospitality. We hereby invite you to come back to the Village and stay with us for a few days, allowing us to repay your hospitality! (I am purposely scheduling this post to go live after we head home. 😀).

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Buy a Ticket?

The time fast approaches for our tamalada, the tamale party we offered to our church auction. The offering garnered three winning bids, so we’ll have three couples joining us on Cinco de Mayo (cheesy cultural appropriation, I know, but it’s respectful appropriation) to make pork and jalapeño tamales, eat chile con queso and guacamole, and drink margaritas and Mexican beer.  These sorts of events appeal to me. Utterly informal gatherings at which laughter and appreciation for the company of others (in the presence of satisfying food) is all that matters.

It occurs to me that I’d be happy arranging such events monthly! Now, the question is whether I can sell tickets.

Seriously, might a food-fueled social engagement meet my need for entrepreneurial activity and, simultaneously, meet a need for relaxed social engagement in the Village? I think, on reflection, I have answered my own question. People don’t need someone in the form of entrepreneurial gadabout to generate social engagement in the Village. It just happens.

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Tripping on Bastante Burgers and Brew

We spent much of the day wandering toward Tupelo, Mississippi, mostly on back roads in Arkansas and Mississippi. Except for the occasional spawn of satan (let me go on record that I do not believe in satan, but I do believe certain of his progeny have managed to get access to vehicles and their keys) who wants nothing more than to commit murder by motor vehicle upon encountering geezers traveling only ten to fifteen miles per hour over the posted speed limit, our drive was pleasant. Those few occasions when said spawn tailgated me at 70 miles per hour in a 55 MPH zone offered strong arguments against allowing me to possess firearms. On at least one occasion, an argument could have been made that I should not be allowed to control the steering wheel and accelerator pedal of a car capable of reaching speeds of 90 miles per hour and more. But those short-lived spikes of volcanic rage notwithstanding, today was a pleasant one. I enjoyed driving the back roads of Arkansas and Mississippi. I especially enjoyed driving through swamp land in which huge cypress trees, surrounded by their own cypress “knees” rose from bayou waters. Gorgeous stuff!

We stopped for lunch at one of the only non-chain restaurants we encountered. Our luck was good; decent food, pleasant staff, and reasonable prices. For dinner, after we stopped rather early for the night in Tupelo, we chose the Blue Canoe, a one-of-a-kind funk house restaurant that serves all sorts of draft and bottled beer. Our burgers were massive and tasty. Mine, cooked medium rare just as I ordered it, caused the flowing juices to effectively ruin the bun. That mattered not to me. The thing tasted so damn good! I had two high ABV beers, so I’m about ready to call it a night at only a few minutes after 8:00 p.m. I’ve had both beers before (a wonderful double IPA and a superb ale), but the opportunity to taste them again was welcomed. It’s been so long I felt like I was trying them again for the first time.

Though I enjoyed the beer and the food, I feel like I’ve had far too many calories for this year, so I may have to cut back until 2019. That’s going to be hard, given my commitments for the rest of the year. Perhaps a cut-back until 2020 is in order.

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Stage Terror

Last night, we went to see a theater production of Arsenic and Old Lace, the second of three performances. Tomorrow’s matinée will bring the run to an end. We know several of the people who had roles in the play, including one of the main characters (a Brewster sister) who belongs to UUVC and is a member of the Village Writers’ Club. Some others with lesser, but still demanding, parts belong to the church and/or other organizations to which I belong. I can only imagine the amount of time, energy, and dedication required to not only memorize lines but deliver them so they convey the emotions and attitudes of the characters being played. I felt bad for one poor guy who played a relatively small part but who lost his lines on several occasions. He was an older fellow (as most cast members are) who just slipped and couldn’t seem to find his way back to the script. We were sitting in the third row and could read the frustration in his face. We could see the pain in the faces of other actors, too; they felt for him. Twice, at least, we saw other actors come to the guy’s rescue by feeding lines that covered for him.

I have acted in one play, speaking only one line, in my entire life: Little Women. I played a very minor character, a child, whose only line was a response to a question. I said, “Mutter.” Given my aversion to putting myself  in a position to be judged by large numbers of people for my lack of talent, I am sure I must have practiced for weeks just to be willing to go on stage. I was in elementary school at the time. The play was staged by a junior high class at a school where my mother taught English. I am pretty sure she volunteered me for the part. Last night, seeing the guy get lost in front of several hundred people, my stomach tightened and I had a great deal of empathy for him. I remember a poetry reading at which I decided to memorize my poem (see, I can’t even remember the words to my own poetry) instead of read it. Fortunately, I had a copy in front of me. But I got lost and had to stop and stumble. I could tell the crowd felt pain by proxy, the same way I felt for the fellow last night.

Public speaking once sent waves of panic pulsing through my body. It’s no longer particularly difficult for me and, in fact, I rather enjoy it. But I can’t speak from a script. When I’ve tried, I’ve stumbled badly. I prefer having bullet point notes to which I can refer; they give me sufficient prompts to speak extemporaneously, more or less. Memorizing lines, though…I shudder!

I know people who absolutely thrive on acting in live theater, though. Perhaps the rush they feel in the response from the audience in sufficient to make memorization tolerable. Or even enjoyable. I don’t believe there’s a rush of adequate magnitude to do that for me. I admire people who can do it, especially those who can do it well. But even the folks who stumble, like the guy last night, deserve my admiration for being willing to try and for living through the embarrassment of a bad breakdown. He had the courage to stay on stage. I might have crept offstage and crawled to the parking lot.

Back to the play. Though I’ll give credit to the actors, directors, stage hands, and everyone else involved, it wasn’t my cup of tea. The entire cast could have comprised seasoned professional actors and I wouldn’t have been deeply impressed. I was thrilled to see my friends and acquaintances act and to see their names “in lights” for their parts, but the play itself didn’t float my boat. I’m probably hard to please, though.

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TLC for a Broken House

I spent the majority of the day yesterday undertaking what I expected to be a one or two hour job to repair to the wood floor in the master bath. The job is not complete, nor will it be complete until I do what I should have done from the outset; hire a competent contractor to deal with the issue.

The problem began several months ago when, one day, we moved the bath mat next to the walk-in shower and noticed a discoloration in a plank of the engineered wood floor next to the shower. (I will not get into the inadvisability of putting engineered wood floors in a bathroom or kitchen. We knew what we were getting when we bought the house.) I could not figure out what the problem was, so I vowed to “keep an eye on it.” And I did. Periodically. On rare occasion. Twice, maybe three times.

A few days ago, as I was showering, I noticed in a corner of the shower that tiny brown bits seemed to be flowing into the shower from a corner. After the shower, I examined the area more closely.  Caulking was missing from a tiny spot in the corner and that’s where the brown bits were dribbling out, along with water. And, moving the bath mat, I noticed the top layer of the engineered plank in the discolored area had separated from the layer beneath it. And the plank behind it felt wet and spongy. “Okay. No more using the master bath shower until I fix it,” I said to my wife.  I think I saw sadness in her eyes when I spoke the words “I fix it.”

Looking at the problem, I thought, “all I need to do is to clean out and caulk the spot where the leak was, remove the quarter-round next to the shower, remove a couple of planks of flooring, and replace them with the extras in the garage.” (The woman from whom we bought the house had the flooring installed and had kept a box of planks). Two hours, tops. It took me an hour to get the quarter round out. I vowed not to break it (and I didn’t), but getting it out in one piece was a painstaking effort. I spent most of the remainder of the day removing two little pieces of flooring. I had assumed the tongue and groove planks were simply laid on top of the subfloor. I thought I had a floating floor. I thought wrong. The installers affixed the planks to the subfloor with white adhesive that could have successfully attached pieces of the space shuttle to one another and survived re-entry. I have never encountered an adhesive so determined to keep two objects bound together. I used pry bars, putty knives, chisels, and screw drivers to tear those pieces of flooring out. Though I was beat after ripping out the planks, I decided to tackle the inside of the shower, caulking every possible point at which water could escape into the walls or floorboards. But first, I had to buy a new tube of caulk. The unopened tube I had bought who knows how many years ago had dried.  Off to the hardware store for a  new tube that worked just fine.

It was during the caulking that I discovered that the grab bar inside the shower had to be removed temporarily so I could caulk around the soap dish. Removing the grab bar was a little like removing the flooring. One of the six tiny set screws holding the grab bar to its two base connection was almost impossible to turn, but I finally got it done. As I was doing it, though, I noticed black and red drips of water running down the shower wall from the lower grab bar connection. Though the grab bar looked fine on the outside, the corrosion inside stunned me. Water had gotten into the cavity between the exterior shower wall and the grab bar connection, causing it to rust. Cleaning up the grab bar took me an hour. And then I finished caulking.

Finally, I was ready to cut the replacement planks. I do not have the tools best suited for the task, so I decided to use a hand saw. After much effort, I finally got a piece cut and tried to fit it into the appropriate spot (I only wanted to dry fit it; I intend to let the base floor dry completely and use the shower for a few days before finishing the job). It was then I realized that, because the piece I’m trying to replace is shorter than a full plank, there will be no tongue on one end to fit into the groove on the adjacent plank. The piece will have to have a tongue created on the end. Only someone with better tools and more knowledge than I can do that. So, I admit defeat. At least the work shouldn’t cost as much as it otherwise would have cost, thanks to my removal of the ruined pieces. Of course, a competent flooring pro probably could have accomplished in half an hour what it took me all day to do.

I’m questioning myself now as to whether I really want to undertake replacing the cartridges in the several dripping faucets. And do I really think I can replace the shut-off valve for every faucet and toilet without causing even more leaks? Speaking of toilets, should I attempt replacing it on my own? And the deck. Is it realistic for me to repair the broken and cracked boards?

My broken house needs some TLC. I’m sure I’m not the one to give it the love it needs. It’s not you, House, it’s me.

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Less Traveled

My wife and I have had extremely good fortune with regard to travel. We’ve been lots of places, both together and separately, that would cause a lot of people to express envy at our good fortune.  But the degree of our travel does not necessarily equate to the breadth of experience we absorbed as we wandered the globe. Let me explain.

My first international travel was from Houston, Texas to England. I made the trip over the Atlantic to London several times while I lived in Houston, employed by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers. I visited London, Harrogate, Brighton, Ambleside, Leeds, and other places long since lost to poor memory. My wife joined me on some trips and we took time off to travel by train to the Lake District and to wander north, just a bit. We spent a little time to visit with friends in the midlands. We were young and lucky. We didn’t, with one exception, extend our travel by much to take advantage of our good fortune. We stayed as long as we were required to do my business, then came home or, in a couple of cases, spent an extra weekend to see the sights.  We should have taken weeks off. But I was too bloody obsessed and engaged with my job; I had to do a GOOD job and I had to emphasize my dedication to work. I could not let opportunity get in the way of duty.

The same job took me to Saudi Arabia at the conclusion of one of the trips to London. I hated it. I could explain, but I’ve written about the miserable experience before, so I’ll forego reliving it, thank you.

And that same job took me, several times, to Germany. Those trips were worth taking. I learned a lot and felt myself getting acquainted with the sense that international travel was an eye-opening experience, though I made sure I didn’t stay too long; I didn’t want people to think my trip was for my enjoyment.

And then I changed jobs/lives. Fast forward a few years and I found myself regularly  making trips to various parts of the world: England, Germany, Portugal, Spain,  Australia, New Zealand. I was traveling to wonderful places and getting paid for it! My wife accompanied me on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, where we sampled the cuisine in ways we never expected. Kangaroo actually tastes good, we discovered. We felt remorse for days afterward, though, when we were reminded that we had eaten Skippy, a favorite Australian children’s television show character. But we took some personal time (a real rarity) to see a bit of the country and never regretted it. On one trip, to Austria, I was on the ground for only twelve hours before I ended up in the hospital for five days before being taken to the airport for the flight home. I had to speak to the pilot and convince him I was well enough to fly before he would allow me to take my seat on the plane. Ah, memories of travel!

After I started my business, one of my client associations was global in scope and, therefore, my service to the client went global. I traveled to Cancun, Moscow, Stockholm, Montreal, Beijing, Helsinki, and Dubrovnik, as well as all over the U.S. But, again, I allowed my guilt and my need to be seen as ultra-dedicated get in the way of enjoying the opportunities those travels offered. With uncommon exception, I traveled to the site of meetings, participated in meetings, went out to nice dinners in the evening, in some cases saw the “must see” site, then returned home. Little time for real exploration. Little time to get acquainted with a place.

Though I’ve tried to get in the habit of taking photographs of interesting places and pictures of my wife in interesting places, I’ve failed badly. Consequently, I have few pictures to remind me of the places I’ve been or we have been together.  Cameras require more attention than I’m willing to give. The advent of smart phones with built-in cameras increased the number of photos I take, but I still tend to view the process of taking pictures as intrusive to the experience of being in a place. Of course, given that I rarely allowed myself the time to experience much of the places I visited, any images I might have taken would have only offered evidence of an experience I didn’t really have. Maybe it’s best I didn’t take many photos while traveling. They would have been visual lies.

Though the limits on my personal time were largely self-imposed, they were based on taking the temperature of my employers and/or my clients. Neither would be pleased with me if I were to take too much personal time after they paid for my round-trip tickets to exotic places. So, rather than try to judge what was just enough, versus too much, I erred on the side of too little. It’s too late for regret now—well, it’s never too late for regret, but regret accomplishes nothing. I tell myself that. I try to use that mantra to clear my mind. It works sometimes.

Now that I have ample time to travel (if my wife and I chose to arrange our schedule to do embark on travel adventures), I have no income. Every dollar we spend shrinks our retirement savings. The calculation then becomes, “how much can we spend on travel and maintain the likelihood that we will not die in abject poverty?”

That possibility, abject poverty, calls to mind my fictional town: Struggles, Arkansas. I should be writing about the struggles taking place in Struggles. I should be writing about the owner of the Fourth Estate Tavern, Calypso Kneeblood, and his efforts to keep his place afloat while being overly generous, though gruff and cranky, to his down-on-their-luck clientele. Yes, that’s what I should be doing. Instead of reminiscing about the many trips I barely remember to places I hardly saw, I should be writing about a place that is so clear in my head I can smell the state beer as I enter the front door and walk across the worn, creaky wooden floor.

All right. I convinced myself to do something other than write in my blog. I should write my fiction. And I will. But perhaps I’ll shower first, as I have commitments this afternoon at which an unclean man would be unwelcome.

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A Start for L’Audible Art

The realization washed over me like a monstrous, rogue wave flushes the air and hope for the future from a quiet cove on a peaceful island. (Too much? Yeah, probably.)  A deadline looms and I am utterly unprepared for it.

I’m in quasi-panic mode. It’s not that the deadline is new to me. I’ve known it for months. It’s just that I have again delayed action on a task I should have long since taken. I tend not to be a professional procrastinator, but I’ve honed my skills in this situation. In less than a week, five and a half days to be precise, I must write (or select and revise recently written materials) two or three pieces of fiction or poetry to read at an upcoming even. The event is L’Audible Art, an annual event at which members of our local writers’ group read selections of their work to an adoring audience. We hope the audience is adoring. Each reader is given five minutes to read. This year, for a variety of reasons, readers may choose to read two or three five-minute pieces (not consecutively). The event will be held May 14. But the pieces must be delivered to the club leader by midday next Monday, following which we will each read our pieces in practice for the real thing. My panic arises from the fact that I want to read something new or, at least, something freshly and radically revised. Not only must I finish the pieces I will read, I must practice reading them aloud so I do not stumble over my words and so I can time myself. Five minutes it the absolute limit. My piece can be shorter, but no longer. I don’t write shorter. At least not well.

I have a few ideas. One is an über-abbreviated short story involving a young Norwegian girl. The story begins with a snapshot of her grandfather, a crusty old fisherman, taking on the dual role of father and grandfather after the girl’s father, also a fisherman, is lost at sea. It ends when, years later, the now grey-haired granddaughter, reflects on what the old man taught her and what he failed to teach her, that is, how to deal with his loss. The reason for the Norwegian setting (this is outside the story, by the way) has to do with a German word I’ve heard before; only yesterday, though, I was reminded of it while listening to a piece on All Things Considered. The word is fernweh, which has no English equivalent, though the closest thing to it would be “farsickness,” according to the program’s host. It means an aching longing for a place one has never been. For me, one such place is the rugged coast of Norway. I have plenty more. I write about them fairly often. I have fernweh for a lot of places in the Maritimes. I’ve been to Halifax, but haven’t explored anywhere else in Nova Scotia. And I’ve never set foot in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, though I long to go there and blend in with the locals as if I were one of them. It’s an odd sort of longing. I guess it must be related to the idea that, if I were able to shed my “self” in a new environment, I might find who lives beneath the façade. Old story. Speaking of stories, I recognize what I’ve just done. I’ve successfully put off doing instead of doing. I’m writing about what I should be writing. And, for a short while, I’ll continue.

Another idea is to take the skeleton of another story, one I’ve written in full, and flesh it out in a new way. The story in question is set in a tavern in the fictional town of Struggles, Arkansas, a once-thriving town that has fallen on hard times. The tavern provides a certain sense of community to the characters in the story. But the community is like that one might find in a leaking life raft hopelessly adrift at sea. The entry of someone from “outside” who sees in the derelict town possibilities for renewal provides a spark that might turn things around, at least for the denizens of the tavern. The trick (one might call it magic or one might call it miracle) is to tell the story in about 700 to 725 words and read it aloud in less than five minutes. Again, I’m thinking about doing what I should be doing.

Another idea, and one I’m seriously considering, is to revise (read: shorten and improve) my story entitled The Awful Secret, which was inspired by a neighbor’s painting (I posted it here some time ago).  It’s 1135 words, more than 400 too long. I think I might be able to shorten it that much…maybe. I think, perhaps, my procrastination is paying off. I’m getting some ideas here upon which I might build a plan.  I’m not there yet, though. I could dust off a poem or two, which certainly would take fewer than five minutes.  One of these two might do:


Armature

You and I have lived this life for an eternity,
detritus of our dashed dreams serving as bricks
and the two of us as mortar, cobbling together
this fragile, monumental tower in which we reside.

We have scuffed our emotions against sharp,
sentimental objects so many times they have
shredded into strings like worn cotton,
as soft and ephemeral as clouds.

The scowls and snarls of daily battles
between us have become so comfortable
I know I could not live without them and
the easy fit between us they concede.

I would not last an instant without them or you,
sitting in your study behind a closed door, book in hand,
exploring fantasies and frustrations, by proxy, of writers
who know you without ever having met you.

I would crumple into a useless hulk of a man
were you not there to inflate my emptiness into a
figure in which you somehow find substance,
a man, in your wisdom and courage, you somehow can love.


Penury

Poverty slams doors
and binds them shut
with shackles purchased
with the fruits of avarice,
thick ribbons of greed
sewn from raw hubris and cold
conceit.

Devoid of the fibers of
kindness, these braids
weave a crusted cloth, woven into
clothing worn in unearned
shame by victims of circumstance
thrust upon them by someone else’s
excess.

Destitution strangles budding
aspirations with colorless scarves
stitched from hunger and ignorance
left in the wake of frenzied gluttony,
as gold leaf becomes fare to feed the ego,
leaving the soul begging for more noble
sustenance.

Carving through this brutal
tangle of malevolent threads and
sinister fabrics demands passion as
stark as cold-blooded murder, skills as
sharp as a surgeon’s healing blade, and
love as tender as a new mother’s
kiss.

The means to rip those damnable doors from
their twisted hinges are the same needed to
shred those shackles and scarves into soft
bandages: a lethal commitment to ending
indifference, a steadfast resolve to rewarding
decency and generosity, and the boldest tool,
compassion.


All right, I’m done here. I need more coffee and I need to get some actual writing done, rather than so assiduously avoiding it.

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Masking My Food Fetish Beneath a Wave of Words

Our Meatless Tuesday is here again, earlier this month because it changed from the fourth to the third Tuesday. This was our first time hosting the group and this Tuesday also represents the last day of my wife’s volunteer tax preparation services for AARP. She was back home well in time for the meal, because no one showed up for assistance. Go figure.  Regardless of that experience, I was responsible for our portion of the main meal.  I opted to prepare Coconut Chickpea Curry, served with Basmati rice, thus allowing me to make a dish that’s moderately spicy but not uncomfortable for those with delicate palates.  My wife made a batch of cantaloupe cayenne sorbet to serve as dessert . Though it has a shade of a bite to it, I think only the rare person for whom bell pepper is too hot would find it impossibly hot.

The meal went well, despite the fact that it ended up being only four of us. One  person cancelled by phone mid-meal. Two people didn’t bother to cancel, just didn’t show up. They’re the sorts of folks I’d urge to consider becoming my friends. Oooh. I shouldn’t have said that. But it felt right. And, unless something horrific happened, I would think the people merit some unpleasant thoughts.

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My fascination with food invades my blog from time to time, sometimes in lengthy streaks lasting weeks or even months. A few short years ago, my fetish was not entirely food but, rather, the masks I made while taking courses in sculpture and pottery. The focus of most of my daily thought was directed toward my mask-making. Before and after that addiction, it was writing, specifically fiction and, for a while, poetry.  I think I must have decided, subconsciously, that switching between interests would lead me, eventually, to one for which I was especially well-suited and in which I might easily excel. You know—without the years of practice, hard work, and failure after failure after failure after failure. Most adults come to the conclusion, eventually, that the years of hard work and practice and repeated failures are just part of the process of getting good at something. I came to that conclusion late in life and then promptly forgot it in retirement. I’m reclaiming that knowledge day by day now. Even my current (well, I’d have to say life-long) passion for cooking offers reminders of that life lesson on occasion.  Though I don’t know why it is, I can say with absolute certainty that there is no guarantee that a recipe that works fine for four servings will not necessarily work for sixteen servings when quadrupled. The same is true for a recipe for a crowd. That service for sixteen may work great, but try quartering the ingredients to serve four people and you might end up serving your guests a hideous swill unsuited even for poisoning kings.

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At this very moment, I’m feeling a bit more lonely than usual. It’ll pass. It always does.

 

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Ever Wondered?

Have you ever wondered, after learning of reactions to something you said or wrote, whether you came across as unlikable? Or that, maybe, what you said or wrote didn’t come across as you intended? Or that your attempts to be jocular were received as jabs, or worse? Yeah. Me, too. And have you ever wondered whether maybe, just maybe, those misinterpretations were right? That maybe the people you thought were misreading you were, in fact, reading you more clearly than you read yourself? Have you ever wondered whether you could just start over, from the beginning, and replay all those mistaken communications. Whether you might fix those erroneous assumptions, those misplaced expressions that led to judgments about you that were, if you believe your thoughts about yourself, incorrect?  I have. It’s a pitiful belief. Reality doesn’t treat you the way you wish it would. Reality can be caustic, brutal, unfriendly, and unwilling to bend history to sooth your scorched ego.

I am not a fan of reality. That’s why I write. That’s why I create worlds, even ugly ones, that shine brighter and sooth more completely than this one.

Sorry. I just posted something else. I guess this is why people unsubscribe to my posts.

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Appreciation and Humility in Sports

I’ve never been a big sports fan. I can’t explain why. My folks watched football and baseball on television (after we finally got television), and some of my siblings were big fans of team sports. But I’ve never been a big fan. A few years ago, on a whim, I watched the Super Bowl for the first time in who know how many years—maybe twenty or thirty—and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Oddly enough, I have no recollection of which teams were playing, who won, or anything else. Only that I remember telling my wife (who thought I might have lost my mind after I told her “I think I’m going to watch the Super Bowl”) that I rather enjoyed it. But I didn’t watch the next year, nor any year since. I was somewhat engaged when Boston won the World Series, but only because my wife’s sister was a fan and because we were in regular touch with her at the time. And I’ve since found baseball more interesting; I like live games, but television and even radio doesn’t do much for me. All of this leads up to my admission: though I didn’t watch it, my heart was in Boston today for the marathon. I guess I’ve been especially attached to the Boston Marathon ever since the bombing five years ago. That event touched me, like it no doubt touched many others around the world, as an unspeakably monstrous attack on civilization. But it wasn’t just that. It was the fact that so many individuals were competing against themselves more than they were competing against other people. The participants were competing against parts of themselves that said they couldn’t do it. They competed in the marathon to test themselves and to prove those parts of themselves who said otherwise wrong.

The first time I knew anyone competing in a marathon was around 1986 or 1987, when we lived in Chicago. A young woman who worked with me ran the Chicago marathon. She made it all the way through the 26.2 mile course. Though we weren’t close friends, I was wildly enthusiastic and proud that she ran, and finished. I remember thinking, at the time, that I’d like to do that one day. I never have. I almost certainly never will.

Today’s win by Desiree Linden, the first American woman to win in thirty years, was a big deal for me. And when I read that she had stopped along the course forty-five minutes in to stay with a team-mate, Shalane Flanagan, while she took a toilet break, I was so impressed with Linden. I’m glad she won. I’m glad for everyone who ran the race. I’m impressed with them. I’m a fan.

Maybe I am just now, in my sixty-forth year (hurling toward my sixty-fifty), just beginning to understand competitive sports. I remember being laughed at for my incompetence, but now that I look back on it, it’s probably the laughter that kept me from being killed or killing someone else. Not all people are cut out to be athletes. But I’m growing increasingly impressed with those who are and who behave not as kings, but as servants, when they excel. I can’t say I’m proud of impressive athletes, inasmuch as I have nothing to do with their performance, but I can and do say with conviction I am impressed and appreciative of humility when I see it.

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Stuck in My Brain

My recent post about a guy picking up the tab for my wife’s lunch and some comments that followed prompted me to think quite a lot. My thoughts, both purely philosophical and emotionally introspective, led to no firm “position” on the matter of what I call “unchained generosity.” I defined unchained generosity as an expression of gratitude for living happily in the moment by doing something for (or giving something of value to) another person without the expectation of anything in return. It can be done in full view of the recipients and/or others or it can be entirely anonymous. I understand the perspective that suggests “paying it forward” is simply an inexpensive way to buy a greater sense of one’s self-worth. And I understand the perspective that suggests, whatever its motive, the recipient should be selected on the basis of need, not merely identified at random. Finally, I understand the perspective that suggests the recipient of random  unchained generosity might, one person at a time, improve the world by making the “feel good” element of both the giver and the receiver of unchanged generosity more visible and, consequently, more likely to be undertaken. This is way too long. I still haven’t reached a position. But all this thought led me back to a post I originally posted on another blog in July 2006 and posted again on this blog a few years ago. I’m posting it again below because it really made me think about what wealth and poverty and generosity and kindness mean to people up and down the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Warning: the post is long. But, I hope it might strike a chord with some who stumble across it.


An Eye-Opening Experience

We are the proud owners of two hopelessly damaged and tired old windows, one that miraculously still has all its panes of glass, the other which is missing not only all its glass, but some of its structure. They’re precisely what I had in mind. Old wooden windows that, with a bit of paint & whimsy, can be made into points of interest for what I hope will evolve into a funky & inviting backyard.

I could have spent days and enormous sums of money at the Orr-Reed Wrecking Company salvage yard, if I had time and money to spend.

Orr-Reed Wrecking Company is in the dark-side of Dallas, a part of the city that the people in city hall and the folks who foster tourism avoid talking about. It is an area gripped by horrendous poverty. People in that part of Dallas eke out a living by selling scrap metal and found items or working for people who do. In that dark-side of Dallas, homeless and almost-homeless people make do with what they can scrape from the streets. There’s no doubt a fair amount of drug dealing down there, as well, but I think that it’s populated primarily by people who are just deeply down on their luck or who never had a chance. They’re people who have learning disabilities, alcohol dependencies, or drug addictions. Or, they’re people who didn’t have the chance to get an education or who decided, after looking at their options, they would rather not mold themselves around the expectations of a society that discounts large segments of its population. This part of Dallas is home to people who I can’t understand because I’ve never experienced what they have experienced. I’d like to understand what their lives are like, but I’m not willing to voluntarily go through what they go through to experience it. Understanding is important to me, but I guess it’s not important enough for me to make the kind of sacrifice I would need to make to achieve it.

Most people I know would be uncomfortable wandering through Orr-Reed Wrecking Company. I have to admit that I was uncomfortable the first time I went there, and maybe still am to some extent. The people who work there define diversity.

Aside from the Black men in dirty white t-shirts who stream back and forth across the street in front of the building and the Mexican workers who scurry around like ants from building to building, the first person I see who is connected to the business is a middle-aged white guy, smoking a cigarette and smiling behind the front desk. He’s there as you enter the front door of the decrepit old building that looks for all the world like it is about to collapse around you.

The next person is a Black man, probably in his twenties or thirties, smiling widely to reveal only a few teeth, his arms bent and small, victims of a birth defect. The birth defect notwithstanding, he has an amazing prowess at thumbing through a pad of paper to find whatever it is the customer to whom he is talking wanted. He’s pleasant and seems completely oblivious to the fact that his appearance might be jolting to people like me, people who don’t often see the crustier side of our nice, comfortable worlds.

As we wander out back, in the open-air behind the building, we encounter several more Mexican men, Spanish speakers all, who are busily engaged in jobs like pulling nails from old boards and stacking the boards neatly into shelves that I can only describe as the sort I used to see in old lumber yards when I would travel around with my father. These are not the Home Depot metal mega-shelves; these are shelves that are made of the very lumber they are meant to hold and they are solid as a rock. Beneath the stacks of boards, on the face of the shelves, the nominal sizes of the boards are marked in dark permanent markers.

There are more Black men, each of whom seems to have a job to do, scurrying all around the salvage yard. Everyone seems to have responsibilities in specific sections…a vast area of doors of every type, size, and description has its group, the windows section, full of wooden, metal, plastic, and combination windows in every size and condition has its group, and so on.

I remember from visiting the place years ago that open-toed shoes are inappropriate here. There’s too much broken glass and sharp metal protuberances and too many nails and other sharp objects laying around to risk walking in open-toed shoes. Before going to the place, I advised my wife to put on something beside sandals.

We wandered through the place and found some windows I wanted, but I did not recall what to do with them; they were not priced. I did not recall how to get them priced or who to ask. I set them aside and we wandered through the rest of the place, taking it all in. Then, I went back inside where the nice white guy was smoking and he asked if I had seen Alberto; not knowing who Alberto was, I said I did not know. He said Alberto was a Mexican guy in a white cowboy hat; the white guy led me outside, where he quickly found Alberto and told Alberto that I needed some windows priced. I led Alberto to the windows and he offered a price almost as a question, but I considered it fair and did not attempt to negotiate, I just said “that’s fair, I’ll buy them” and he picked them up and walked out the front gate and asked, in a very heavy accent, whether the truck he was standing in front of was mine. I explained that I only had my car, but I thought they would fit in the trunk. After some adjustments, they did, and I thanked Alberto, who walked back through the gate where I had first seen him. I then went back in the front door of the place and explained to nice white guy that Alberto gave me a price on the windows and that I was buying them, but first wanted to know the price of some bird houses we had seen while wandering the salvage yard.

Earlier, as we were wandering through the yard, after having selected our windows and setting them aside, we came across a bunch of birdhouses, all similar in shape and size but each of which had unique characteristics. They were all made of scraps of various sorts and were decorated with numbers, fasteners of various types, bits & pieces of hardware attached to them, etc. They were very interesting and attractive and my wife was very interested. I asked nice white guy the price and he said they were all sold. They are made for Wisteria magazine, he said, which buys all they can make. If there are any available, he said, they would be ones with black roofs and they would be $75 each, he said; the magazine doesn’t buy the ones with black roofs. He said Wisteria magazine sells them for $229. Nice white guy showed us an article from the Dallas Morning News (I think) about the old Black guy who makes these bird houses and has been doing so for years. He also showed us a copy, in a plastic protector, of Wisteria magazine, with photos of bird houses that showed the price at $229 each. We went back to where we had seen them and found a couple with black roofs. My wife selected one and said she wanted to buy it. Nice white guy was happy to accommodate us and offered us a certificate of authenticity, which reinforced what he had already told us: that Mr. N.L. Jones, the old Black guy who builds them for Orr-Reed, had been making them for years and that he has worked for Orr-Reed for more than 30 years. The certificate goes on to say that custom models of the bird houses sit in front of some Razoos Restaurants (a cajun-styled restaurant, I assume a chain, with several in the D/FW area), and that Mr. Jones and his birdhouses were featured on a segment of Texas Tales on Dallas Channel 8. Nice white guy handed me an article, from the Dallas Morning News about Mr. Jones, that I found interesting. The article says the writer asked him how old he was and he replied “about 60.” It goes on to say that, later, he “stopped counting at 75.” Another piece says he was 85 at the time the article was written. Nice white guy said we would normally have been able to meet Mr. Jones, but his wife just died and her funeral was being held today (yesterday, Saturday). “You should come by to meet him sometime,” nice white guy says, “he’d appreciate meeting someone who likes his birdhouses.”

As we were paying the birdhouse and old windows and chatting with nice white guy, a woman came in behind us and nice white guy asked if he could help her. “You’ve got to, yes. I have some things here that I need to get rid of.” I started to move aside so she could move up closer, but nice white guy said no, don’t, take as much time as you like, and he moved around the counter behind us and talked to her. I wasn’t paying close attention, but picked up enough to realize that this lady was in need of money and she had some odds & ends to sell. Nice white guy went behind the counter to the cash register and pulled out some bills; not sure of the denominations or number, and gave them to her. She thanked him profusely and left. As soon as she was out of earshot, he said, “Now what am I going to do with this? I don’t even know what it is.” He held up a piece of very pretty, very decorated cloth, to which was attached descriptive information. A closer inspection revealed that she had brought in upholstery fabric samples from a fine custom furniture showroom in Dallas. I commented that someone could make some pretty decorative accent pieces with the stuff and he said to my wife, “if you like any of them, take them, take as many as you like, no charge.” My wife thanked him and picked up two rich Burgundy samples.

It occurred to me while we were wandering around the place that, while I made a point of saying “hello” to everyone I encountered, most of them seemed to divert their eyes when they responded. The Black guys, in particular, would say “how ya doing?” to me, but didn’t look at me. Their demeanor was not subservient, by any means. Rather, they seemed almost like they wanted to make clear that they were not to be messed with, but were willing to acknowledge my presence. I’m not sure whether there’s anything there, but it was interesting.

After we left, I commented to my wife that I imagine much of the economy in that part of Dallas is a cash economy and no small part of it must involve transactions such as that we had just seen, where someone is paid a small amount of money for something that is, for all intents and purposes, worthless. I don’t know the guy’s motives, but I appreciated his actions. The lady needed money, the guy gave her some. She ‘sold’ him the samples and left with her dignity intact. He had, of course, just made $75 on selling a birdhouse that had been made entirely with scrap, so he may have been in a jolly mood, but I suspect that he was participating in an economy that requires such acts of kindness.

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Average

We had grand plans. Dinner at Bones Chophouse, a new place said to be an old-fashioned steak house that sears prime-and-better beef on steel heated to sixteen hundred degrees. I’ve seen photos of their rib-eye steaks that made my mouth water. Those images triggered my olfactory senses, too. I would have sworn I could actually smell the meat cooking. People who have eaten there almost swoon when talking about their meals. It’s possible, of course, that the cause of their near-faint reaction was the price they paid for their meal. Bones is not your average “let’s go out for dinner” sort of venue. Dining at Bones demands one of three circumstances: a spectacularly special occasion worthy of taking out a bank loan; personal wealth of such scale and scope that it possessor, by default, owns at least two homes in the Hamptons; or fiscal irresponsibility that virtually guarantees financial ruin in the near-term. In our case, only the first circumstance applied: we were celebrating our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary and would promise one another not to spend so much on a meal for at least a year.

Actually, our anniversary celebrations have become rather routine and not subject to the anxiety that might accompany the first or second or third or fifth anniversary. In those early years, if something got in the way of our planned celebration, I can imagine we might have been overwrought. (Though I don’t recall anything of the sort.) For number thirty-eight, it’s just another day, but with an excuse to splurge.

All during the day on our anniversary we heard weather forecasts calling for severe weather right about the time we had our “tentative” reservations (the place does not take reservations, but when I called and plaintively cried “it’s our anniversary,” they took my name and said, “we’ll see what we can do”).  As the time drew near for us to need to leave, the weather forecasters’ predictions seemed to be playing out to the west of us. If the storms heading our way maintained their strength, we decided, we could be caught right in the middle of a super cell or tornado about half-way home.  So, we decided to call and cancel. I spoke to the same woman who had said she’d do what she could. She did not seem particularly pleased. I said I would plan to try again soon.

There would be time, we decided, to zip over to El Jimador, our favorite little Mexican place in the Village.  We enjoyed our dinner (we always get the same thing) and I went to the counter to pay. I pulled out my wallet, opened it, and discovered something was missing—the credit card I intended to use to pay for dinner. I looked and looked. I emptied my wallet. It was not there. The restaurant manager said, “No money? You’ll have to do the dishes!” He laughed. I laughed, but not as loudly as he. My wife drew a credit card from her purse and paid for the meal. We went to the car. I sat there, stewing. “Where the hell did I leave it?”

My wife asked what I had done the day before. “I slept most of the day. Where did you go while I was sleeping?” I tried to remember. Yes, I had gone out. Yes, she slept most of the day to compensate for her inability to sleep the night before, due to her allergies and hours-long sneezing outbreak. Yeah, I had gone out. But where? It was the day before, for goodness sake! I couldn’t remember what had I done! Finally, it came to me. I went out only to a writers’ meeting in the morning and I attended an art show at which my neighbor won a prize in the afternoon. Nowhere else. I did not use my credit card.

My wife finally figured it out. I must have left it at another restaurant earlier in the week. I called. Sure enough, it was there. Sighs of relief echoed throughout the house. We could stop worrying that someone might be using my credit card to buy cruise missiles or a Caribbean island.

The storms arrived just a little behind schedule. Fierce winds, pounding rain, and regular screams from the NOAA emergency weather radio. When alerted to tornado warnings and advised to “take cover,” we hid in the hallway (our “safe spot”) until the television in the next room announced the cancellation of the tornado warnings.

We squarely placed blame for the derailed dinner plans and the discovery that my credit card was missing and the beastly weather on the fact that our anniversary fell on Friday the 13th.  Of course, our anniversary has fallen on Friday the 13th before. A little internet sleuthing (forget calculating it with a calendar) revealed that we’ve celebrated on that dreaded day in these previous years:

  • 1984, 1990, 2001, 2007, 2012, 2018

 

Just another average anniversary.

 

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Art and Weather and a Fixation on Discipline

I wasn’t finished. Apparently I hit “post” too early. So, I’m finishing my thoughts and posting for the second time this morning.

Yesterday afternoon, I attended an artists’ reception at which the winning entries for an art show were announced. It was a small show, no more than fifty paintings—probably fewer.  A professional artist, a water colorist who had taught a three-day course for the art club sponsoring the show, judged the contest. I probably wouldn’t have attended the show except for the fact that my neighbor, a very talented artist who paints primarily in oils, invited he. He and his wife often invite us to show where his work is on display. As usual, the talent on display impressed me. The hors d’ouevres the participating artists prepared for the show impressed me. The way the water colorist judge explained his process of selection impressed me the most. His words offered genuine praise to every single artist who participated, whether selected for a prize or not. I am sure I won’t quote him accurately, but here’s the essence of what I remember him saying:

“Every painting on display here represents talent and artistic vision. Every painting offers a glimpse into the mind and heart of the artist. Therefore, all of us viewing these artists’ work  are enjoying a real privilege. It takes courage for these artists to put themselves out there, to allow their paintings to be judged by someone they don’t know, and by the audience here, many of whom the artists know personally. My selections of the entries to be awarded honorable mentions and ribbons reflect my personal biases. My selections are subjective. Another judge would make different selections. I’ve forced myself to remove at least a little of my bias by refusing to select only watercolor paintings. But it’s impossible to remove subjectivity.”

He then announced his selections for honorable mention, third place, second place, and first place. For each one, he explained why he selected that particular painting. He was generous with his praise, but it seemed obvious to me that he based his praise on real knowledge, as well as subjective appreciation of the paintings.  My neighbor received a second place ribbon in the amateur division for one of his oils (paintings were entered in either the amateur division or the professional division, the latter for artists who [try] to make a living with their art). I enjoyed seeing my neighbor’s face when he heard his name announced. His face beamed with evidence of his joy and pride. Watching the faces of each of the winners was a real treat. You just feel good for people when they get recognition and acknowledgement for doing something that really matters to them, don’t you?

+++

The water colorist who judged yesterday’s show is to do a demonstration of his techniques this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Village Church. Though I’m not a water colorist (I’m an utterly untrained and unskilled acrylic painter wanna-be whose paintings are, by and large, crap), I think I may go see what this guy does. Yesterday, a very good professional artist asked me if I had anything in the show. I explained that, although I would love to create art, I am an utterly untrained and unskilled acrylic painter wanna-be. She insisted that I should learn certain techniques. Learning them would “unleash the artistic creativity inside you,” she said. She said, “next time we have a plein air workshop, come along and I’ll sit with you and show you some techniques to help you.” Such a generous woman! It’s a shame to waste that generosity on a talent-less schmuck, though. I know what I want to see on the canvas, but the result of my attempts to place it there always result in frustration. Maybe, though, I’ll give it another try.

+++

Today’s weather forecast warns of severe storms this afternoon with the possibility of rotation. That means a potential for tornadoes. I don’t want to experience tornadoes. Not in the least. Depending on the timing of the impending storm, we may need to reschedule our dinner at fancy steak house. Hmm. I cooked salmon last night (frozen pre-packaged stuff that had been marinated in something or other…it was actually quite tasty). So, if we have to cook “in” tonight, I’ll need to thaw something other than salmon. Although there could be worse things than having salmon two nights in a row. Perhaps meat balls, jazzed up with Mrs. Renfro’s Ghost Pepper Salsa. Or jerk chicken. I made jerk salmon not long ago; maybe it’s time to make jerk chicken. I’m writing as if I expect our fancy steak dinner to be cancelled. I don’t want that to happen. But, if it does, I want to be prepared with Plan B. When it comes to food, I like to be prepared. There may be evidence of a food fixation in this post. And in many other posts. I do enjoy food. Too much. It’s my go-to comfort substance, along with alcohol. I think an upcoming doing without month should eliminate alcohol. And perhaps it should eliminate dinners for a month, forcing me to rely on breakfast and lunch for sustenance. This paragraph has slithered through thoughts on our anniversary dinner, the possible cancellation of same, an exposition of my food fixation, and a need to cut back on food and eliminate alcohol from my diet. While I’m at it, perhaps I should close with recognition that I need to get much more exercise and I desperately need to start checking off my “to-do” list of maintenance items around the house.

 

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Random Gratitude and Gifts

Today is our thirty-eighth anniversary. We lived together before we got married, but neither of us remembers for just how long. So, we’re celebrating thirty-eight years, but it could be forty or more. I’m grateful that we’ve “clicked” for so long.

Day before yesterday, my wife drove to Little Rock to run errands. She stopped for lunch at a little place on the western edge of town. It’s the sort of place that, when they deliver your meal, they drop your check on the table and you pay the cashier when you exit. While she was finishing up her meal, a guy who was sitting a table in front of her but with his back turned to her got up and headed toward the cashier. As he passed her table, he reached down, snatched up her check, and strode toward the cashier. She was surprised and wasn’t quite sure just what happened. She looked to the table where he had been sitting and made eye contact with a fellow who had been sitting at the table with the man. Her face must have expressed her surprise and question about what had just happened. The guy said, barely loud enough for her to hear, “He’s just a really nice guy.”

Janine heard the cashier say to the man with the check, “That’s not your check.”

He responded, “Yeah, but I want to pay for it, too.”

The guy got change and walked back toward the table where he had been sitting. Janine said, “Thank you!” He nodded and may have said “you’re welcome.” He left a tip on the table where he’d been sitting and he and his lunch partner left.  Janine left a tip on her table and bought a brownie to go. She was touched by an act of kindness from a complete stranger. So was I.

I’ve daydreamed about picking up someone’s check in a restaurant. Or covering the cost of groceries. Or something like that. But I’ve never done it. I’ve always assumed Janine would not approve. She is very tight with our household dollars. But I think I’ll be able to do something like that now, on rare occasion, with no complaints.  The question in my mind now is whether to be completely random about it or to try to discern who, in a given context, such a gift might be of greatest value. That thought, though, makes me question whether I would be making a judgment about a person’s relative “need” based on external appearances. And I suspect that would be the case. But maybe that’s not so bad? Maybe being “helpful” allows us to allow our bigotry and bias to show? No, that doesn’t sound right. I feel like something is out of kilter when my thoughts about being randomly helpful are reined in by my concern that my helpfulness might be judgmental. Ach. I still want to do it. Maybe randomness is the way to go?

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Adiós Pantalones–Seeing Double

Mundane days appeal to me sometimes. Those days that just rock along at a comfortable pace without dragging or spinning into chaos—they are the ones responsible for helping smooth my numerous rough edges. Yesterday was one such day, though I didn’t know it until the day was almost over. I started the day with my usual coffee and reading online news, then rewriting an absurd fantasy piece that I’ll probably bury once and for all before long. I puttered around the house, waiting for a technician to perform seasonal maintenance on our HVAC system, while my wife drove to Little Rock for a day of errands and shopping. I swept the garage of leaves and blades of grass that hitchhike in on car tires. I vacuumed the dust and flour and salt and such that accumulated on kitchen floor since only the day before.  Lunch comprised a tuna sandwich and finished the remaining scraps of Manchego cheese. I mourned the Manchego’s disappearance, but began planning how and when I would replenish the supply.  I washed dishes, fiddled with window blinds that needed adjustment, and otherwise occupied myself with minutia that did not require much energy, attention, or skill.

When my wife returned home toward 4 p.m., I suggested we go to the new(ish) pub & grill a few miles away. She agreed (only out of pity, I think, hoping it might boost my somewhat sluggish sense of joy that I was alive. It turned out that a visit to the pub (the Beehive Gastropub) was just what both of us needed. I had a Core Brewing Arkansas Red Ale and Janine had a spicy margarita. My beer was tasty, but her margarita was out of this world good! And we shared a plate of pork piccata bites; tiny plate, but nicely presented and quite good—and inexpensive! The place serves appetizer-sized plates, something I truly appreciate.  After that diversion, we dropped by her sister’s house to pick up a package Janine had asked her sister to order (After Eight mints, one of Janine’s guilty pleasures), using Amazon Prime (we don’t have it). Carol invited us in for a drink, so we sat on her deck, lazily sunning ourselves and chatted for a bit. During the conversation, the talk turned to a new(ish) pizza place in downtown Hot Springs. We decided to give it a try. We headed to town and made our way to Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden. The place is in a multi-level, very old, building that has been outfitted with several multi-level decks (using reclaimed lumber, it seems). Neat looking place. It took quite a while to get someone to seat us (the sign told us to wait). Once seated, we waited and waited and waited and waited. Finally, I went to the cashier’s area and, after being ignored for a while, finally caught someone’s attention. I asked, “May we expect that a server might eventually make his or way over?” Yes, of course, many apologies. From that point on, things picked up dramatically. Good service, extremely good pizza, and a decent beer from, of all places, Nebraska. I’d had too much beer by that time, but that didn’t stop me from ordering another one, a beer from Rahr Brewing in Fort Worth, Texas. I’d liked the other Rahr brews I’d tried and the name of one on the menu appealed to me: Adiós Pantalones. As disappointing as it was (I left most of it), the evening capped off a rather nice day. A rather dull, lazy day turned into a relaxed, kick-back-and-enjoy afternoon and evening. My wife drove home, a good thing given that I’d had about four beers during the course of our impromptu multi-venue shindig. We ordered far too much pizza for the three of us to consume, so we left with two boxes of pizza. It should last two days, but I’m afraid I will cut that down to a matter of hours.

My sister-in-law took the photo, which captures my mood about as well as any photo could.


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More than a Touch of Deviance

There resides in me a monster, a deviant who revels in thoughts of the unthinkable and whose taste, in certain contexts, is desperately poor. That having been said, I should continue by making that subtle warning more overt. What I am about to write is apt to be offensive to anyone with the sensibilities of an honorable human being. The words your eyes will read, if you choose to continue, may scorch your corneas and fill your head with visions you’d rather not see. The syllables soon to spill from my fingers onto the keyboard and then burst upon the screen in front of you and me and who knows who else may forever change (or, perhaps, confirm) your impression of the writer. The amalgamation of letters and syllables and words and sentences may cause you to question the humanity of anyone choosing to read on, especially in light of the warnings freely given.

The scene beside the pond was a sight to behold. Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, Snow White, Tinker Bell, Jiminy Cricket, and a host of other fairy tale characters were all gathered in a circle. In the center, were the Seven Dfwarfs. These dwarfs’ names were Blick, Flick, Glick, Plick, Quee, Snick, and Whick.

Rather than the cheerful faces and smiles one might expect from such a group, every one of them looked sad. Beyond sad. Their downcast faces, painted with despondency, were the picture of dejection. For a long time, no one said a word. Finally, Quee spoke.

“Look, we’re running out of possibilities. Hollywood isn’t hiring, sales of fairy tales and their ilk are down to alarming levels, and there’s just a general disenchantment with fantasy and whimsy. From my vantage point, that leaves just one option for us to have any hope of generating sustainable income…crime.  The only question is what kind, isn’t it?” He scanned the eyes of the characters around him, searching for signs about their feelings on the matter.

Santa Clause was the first to respond. “You know I hate the idea of abandoning our principles, but goddamn it, the War on Christmas has damn near bankrupted me.  I’ve got to boost revenue or I’m going to be laying off another set of elves in a month or two. Quee, I’m all in. We just need to agree on the most lucrative crime with the least risk.”

Even before Plick spoke, his scowl betrayed his disgust with Santa’s comments.

“First, there is no War on Christmas. Santa’s just buying in to the bullshit he hears on Fox News. Second, he abandoned his principles when he refused to deliver toys to children in Havana.

“Santa’s failures notwithstanding,” he said as he studied the faces gathered around the table but conspicuously avoiding eye contact with Santa, “I’m in just because we all know we’re struggling and things can’t go on the way they are. We have to do something.”

“Well,” Goldilocks said, “I am not in such bad shape…”

His white fluffy eyebrows twitching wildly, Santa interrupted her. “Plick, you don’t know squat about why I didn’t deliver to Havana. I didn’t refuse.  The goddamn sleigh broke down and they don’t have parts in Cuba, thanks to the embargo. Get your goddamn facts straight before you start making accusations against me! And as for the War on Christmas—”

“—All right, all right, cut the crap,” Whick snarled. “We’re not here to fight, we’re here to talk strategy. Goldilocks, you were about to say something?”

Goldilocks smiled weakly at Whick. “Thanks. As I was saying, I’m not in such bad shape as the rest of you, thanks to my contract for the Sleep Number commercials.  So I don’t think I ought to be part of the decision process and I’ll certainly not be part of any scheme you all launch.”

“Well isn’t that just peachy,” Santa growled, “you stumble into a short-term gig and the problem doesn’t impact you,  huh? You just wash your hands of the problems confronting the rest of us. You’re what I call a bleached-blonde fair weather friend.”

Goldilocks responded to Santa’s rant by throwing a vodka tonic in his face. Santa wiped his beard on the sleeve of his white-trimmed jacket and grinned. “Goldy, with your temper, I’m surprised you haven’t been transformed into bear fecal matter by now!”

“Rudolph has more class in his big red nose than you have in the whole of your stunningly corpulent body,” Goldilocks shouted.

The Easter Bunny suddenly reared up on his hind legs and shouted, “Oh for the love of God, all of you just shut up!”

The silence in the wake of the rabbit’s outburst was deafening. Every eye turned toward the rabbit.

“You pathetic bastards! You’re up in arms about a drop in your income. You’re all upset because you’re not getting the gigs you once got.  Instead of working together toward a solution, you let your egos get in the way. None of you, not a one of you, knows how it feels to be really, truly desperate! I’ll show you what real desperation looks like.”

With that, the Easter Bunny slowly removed his clever disguise, a tailored faux-fur suit that would cause even the most cantankerous, moody, and troublesome child to giggle and reach for the soft, cuddly rabbit.

But when that suit came off, Santa sucked in his breath. Jiminy Cricket bowed his insectile head. Whee’s eyes popped open wide and his mouth opened wide. Snow White turned a whiter shade of pale. Whick and Snick exchanged horrified glances.

Beneath the rabbit’s costume were just a few scraps of flesh and the skeleton of a beast consumed by leporine wasting disease. “This is what desperation looks like, you vapid assholes. And I’ll tell you this. Even though my disease is unique to rabbits, it can jump species, morphing into a completely different, but deadly, incurable condition. Let that sink in for a while.”

Quee stood and fixed a glare on the Easter Bunny. “Are you saying you came to this meeting with the intent of infecting us with some sort of fatal disease? You son of a bitch, I ought to—”

“—Ought to what, Quee? Kill me? You think I’m afraid of a threat like that?” The rabbit’s two front teeth, like white sabres, were visible behind his sneer.

“What the hell, if he’s already infected us with something that’s going to kill us, let’s celebrate our impending demise by making a nice rabbit stew!” Before he finished his sentence, Santa grabbed the rabbit by its neck and slammed its head on the ground.

Plick jumped to his feet and shouted, “Now you’re talking, Santa, a little rabbit stew can do a lot to mend a friendship.”

The story ends. But we don’t know exactly how. Was the rabbit really as sick as he claimed? Was it truly possible that leporine wasting disease could, when exposed to other species, morph into other, equally hideous and deadly diseases? Would a group of greedy fairy tale characters, down on their luck, really speak openly about engaging in crime as a means to make ends meet? Those questions, and many more remain unanswered. For now.

+++

I’ve stolen a good chunk of this from another unfinished story I wrote a few years ago. Some days, the mood just strikes me to write swill saturated with anger and meanness, and awash in skepticism.  I warned you this could get ugly.

Posted in Absurdist Fantasy | 2 Comments

Admittedly Inconsistent

My wife is, by far, the more rational of the two of us. She’s compassionate, but rational about compassion. I’m rational, but compassion swallows my rationality and digests it in less than the time it takes my heart to complete a single beat. People who value compassion over even shreds of rationality that might impinge on compassion might label my wife a monster. People who value rationality over even shreds of compassion might label me an idiot; a socialist, communist, moron, dim-wit, imbecile, and then some.

The labels are invalid. They are produced by simians who value descriptions over decency. Their arms drag on the ground. They merit euthanasia, if for no other reason than to put me out of their misery. God, am I that much of a heathen? Am I that harsh and gritty and judgmental? Only partially so. Your job is to figure out which.

Okay, here’s what brought this on. I watched a documentary last night on PBS entitled 120 Days. It followed the story of a guy who, after living ten years in the U.S. as an upstanding “citizen,” was pulled over by the cops for nothing. That notwithstanding, the outcome of his brush with the law was that he was ordered out of the country, under ‘voluntary deportation’ within 120 days. Ultimately, he left, leaving his wife and two daughters behind. And then, a year later, after his family could not make ends meet in the U.S., they too self-deported. It’s a horrendous story that illustrates the lack of compassion that undergirds our immigration system.

On the one hand, I’m a believer in the philosophy that our only true “citizenship” is that we are citizens of planet Earth and should, therefore, be free to roam the planet. On the other, I understand the pressure to protect borders from an onslaught of people seeking shelter from political and/or social repression, hunger, economic depravity, and other forms of oppression. Yeah, but those things wouldn’t exist if the world were truly an open system, a system in which geographic borders did not constrain the free sharing of resources.  I reveal myself as a social idealist, I guess. Yet my darker side reveals my more dangerous, felonious side. I’d happily label 45 and his entire clan as enemies of the State, subject to deportation on sight. Take every speck of wealth and prestige from them and release them naked in an area of the Serengeti least hospitable to human survival, much less health. A guy can dream can’t he?

That paragraph frustrates me. I want to be a better person. I want to value every human life equally to the next. But I can’t bring myself around to do it. The value I place on Donald Trump’s life is equivalent to the value I place on a mosquito. That is, very, very little. I do think there’s an argument to be made that preemptive euthanasia should be legalized by the state, so that certain people who pose threats to the state and its people could be put out of our misery. Yet, I’m fundamentally opposed to the death penalty. Go figure. How can I oppose state murder of certain criminals, yet be perfectly fine with preemptive euthanasia? I suppose it could be explained like this: in the first sense, the state has ostensibly “proven” the defendant has committed a heinous deed. In the latter, the public has witnessed the inherent indecency of the man and can demonstrate, using history as an example, of the danger posed by the monster in question. And that, my friends, is one of the reasons I will never be admitted to the bar.

 

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Physics, Philosophy, Phiction, Phriends, and Phiery Phood

Michio Kaku labels himself, and is labeled by his media adherents, as a “theoretical physicist, futurist, and popularizer of science.” From time to time, I see his name or his image, but I haven’t paid much attention. Kaku apparently is a regular contributor to CBS This Morning (which I do not recall ever watching). National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal consider him worthy of space in their pages. Among Kaku’s most recent books, The Future of the Mind suggests (according to reports—I’ve not read the book) humanity must leave our planet, our galaxy, even our universe in order to not only survive but to reach our destiny. To quote a blurb about another of his books, The Future of Humanity, on his website:

Finally, he brings us beyond our galaxy, and even beyond our universe, to the possibility of immortality, showing us how humans may someday be able to leave our bodies entirely and laser port to new havens in space. With irrepressible enthusiasm and wonder, Dr. Kaku takes readers on a fascinating journey to a future in which humanity may finally fulfill its long-awaited destiny among the stars.

Wait. Our destiny among the stars? Is this simply marketing hyperbole or does this physicist actually believe humankind is destined to essentially control the universe? I don’t doubt the man is a brilliant physicist, but I question the degree to which we should invest confidence in his work in the wake of a suggestion (intended or not) that humankind ‘s destiny to control the heavens.

I’m writing about Kaku this morning because someone sent me an article about him. I found the article interesting, but not especially educational. The article identified Kaku as a physicist and, in particular, a futurist. As I read what Kaku believes can and will happen (humans will “merge” with their increasingly fast computers), his credibility as a physicist dropped a notch in my eyes. He wasn’t theorizing about advances in physics, he was fantasizing about advances in the adaptation and adoption of science fiction to human lives.

I readily admit a bias against predicting the future of humankind. Too many potential influences simply cannot be accounted for, weighed, and sufficiently and thoroughly analyzed to predict the future. It’s like throwing a handful of darts at a distant dartboard at precisely the moment when a powerful gust of wind blows a tree and five cargo vans in between you and the dartboard. It could be two trees and seven cargo vans and a microburst downdraft. Factor all of that in and you might have a testable theory. But did you account for the fact that some of the darts weigh more than the other? How about the potential that someone behind you pushes you just as you release the darts? Or that, instead of being pushed, you’re yanked backward?

It’s probably unwise to ramble on about the thought processes of a man about whom I know very little and about books I’ve not read. But I am unbound by requiring myself to follow facts and, instead, I have given myself permission to allow my intuition to shape my uninformed opinions.

But speaking of science fiction and fantasy, the concept that our thoughts are simply complex expressions of energy intrigues me. What if, I ask myself, the energy of thoughts stored in our brains release upon our death and, released from captivity in our brains with the decomposition of our bodies, slip out into the universe? What if all the thoughts of brilliant theoretical physicists (e.g., Einstein) thereby released were available for “capture?” What if the thinking that went into the writing of the U.S. Constitution—the thoughts of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et al—were available for review and analysis? How might the ability to capture these free-floating bundles of complex energy impact our view of the world and our place in it?  I give thought to such possibilities, but haven’t the energy and motivation to expound on them in a coherent way in story or book form. Well, not yet.

+++

Today will be chock-full of activities. First, we will go to UUVC and listen to a woman speak on Soul: CPR, a title that on its surface sounds more than a little too woo-woo for my taste. I hope, once hear her presentation, I will change my mind. Immediately following, we’ll sit with a smaller group than sat in the sanctuary and watch a TED Talk (title and topic as yet unknown to me) and will then discuss the talk and its relevance to us and to UU. Once home and lightly fed, we’ll join neighbors for an afternoon youth symphony concert (they offered us two free tickets that landed in their laps). Upon conclusion, we will join them for a very early dinner at their favorite (and our least favorite) Mexican restaurant in the area. They’re driving and they suggested the restaurant. And they’re giving us the tickets. I couldn’t very well say “Hell, no! We won’t eat in that swill-factory” and expect them to remain friendly. They’re very nice people and exceptionally good neighbors. They just have misguided taste in restaurant selection. And they do not like highly spiced foods. I try not to associate a dislike for spicy foods with deep-seated character flaws, but I’m not always successful. I wonder what monstrous defects are hidden in their brains. Speaking of spicy foods, I found a jar of Mrs. Renfro’s Ghost Pepper Salsa in a local market. Hallelujah! I’ve only just sampled a bit, but it was enough to know the jar will last a long, long time. I’m not sure who mentioned the stuff to me recently, but I owe a debt of gratitude to that person. I noticed, in looking at the label that ghost peppers are much lower on the ingredient list than jalapeños and a bunch of other ingredients. If ghost peppers were the main ingredient, the cartilage in my nose would have melted and my eyes would have disappeared in a fiery mist immediately upon opening the jar and taking a sniff.

Posted in Just Thinking | 4 Comments

A Question of Identity and Hidden Secrets

I suspect that many people have at least one secret they are unwilling or unable to share with anyone, even the person (or the people) closest to us. Sometimes, I wonder whether we might be unwilling to share it even with ourselves. We know something’s concealed under self-deprecating humor or defensive anger or some other form of obfuscation, but we’re afraid of peeling back the protective layers. Either we fear what might be hidden beneath or we’re terrified that the impact of unveiling that secret might utterly change the way the world sees us.  The secret need not be something terrible or ugly, just something that might call into question the legitimacy of the façade we’ve spent so much time creating. The more time we invest in obscuring that truth about ourselves, the more difficult it becomes to understand how the secret defines who we are. We ask ourselves questions: Am I more authentically “me” with the secret hidden away, or am I, at my core, the person the world would see if the secret were revealed?

The question of authenticity intrigues me. I often think about the degree to which external influences modify who we are. I wonder whether the more “authentic” personality is the one within which we lived before or the one in which we live after being influenced. For example, let’s assume a person’s personality changes after a life-changing event such as the murder of a parent. Before the murder, he was a gregarious, cheerful, guy who was always ready to help friends in need. Afterward, though, he became withdrawn, sullen, and unwilling to help his friends, even when asked. And let’s assume that’s the way he is today, twenty years after the murder. Which expression of his personality is the more authentic one: pre- or post-murder? I suppose an argument can be made that both are authentic expressions of the person’s personality, but which one represents who he is at his core? Is he a naturally cheerful, gregarious person or is he naturally a person whose attitudes and behavior are shaped entirely by external events? The questions call for either/or answers, when in fact reality is far too complex for simple answers to suffice.

Back to people who hold secrets close: The question I posed might suggest that our authenticity (or lack thereof) hinges on how we are perceived by others. [And the questions about the murder-orphan’s authenticity might suggest the same.] That raises another aspect of “who we are.” To some extent, which I am sure varies according to the individual, we define ourselves through our responses to the way others perceive us. We modify what we say and how we present ourselves in various contexts. We behave like chameleons, adapting to our environments. I wonder how our self-recognition that we change to fit the situation impacts our self-image. We might question whether there is a “real me” or whether “I am defined not by who I really am, but by my desire to be perceived in one way or another.” When I mentioned secrets we don’t share with anyone, that’s the one I was thinking of. Is there, truly, a real me?

A few of the characters I’ve written into short stories question their own identities and whether their behaviors represent who they are or simply how they want to be seen. And they question the extent to which they possess a “real” identity, or whether they simply represent the emotional and behavioral output of their collective life experiences.

I have, on occasion, attempted to have conversations about these issues. Invariably, I get the impression that the topic makes the other person uncomfortable—a common response is laughter or a suggestion that I might be more than moderately crazy for thinking such things. And maybe the ideas are funny or crazy. Maybe I am either or both.  Maybe I, alone, have these questions, though I seriously doubt that’s the case.

I can argue with conviction that our secrets define us. I can argue with conviction that our experiences don’t define, but merely help shape, us and that we are who we are, regardless of how others see us. I can argue with conviction that we are simply products of  socialization and the way we are taught to behave and believe. But I never win any of the arguments. I’m simply left with questions that I may have answered, but the answers don’t satisfy my desire to know more deeply what is real, what is true.

Incidentally, “authenticity” is a word and a concept that’s bandied about far too often in the touchy-feely world of introspective exploration and self-help. “Be the authentic you” is the mantra of the month in some such circles. I have nothing against self-help circles, only in them co-opting such an attractive, genuinely good word. 😉

 

Posted in Just Thinking | 2 Comments

If It’s Not the Calendar, It’s the Raccoons

If I weren’t involved in a thirty-eight-year-long marital relationship, when I awoke this morning just after 4 a.m. I might have thrown a few clothes in a bag, tossed the bag in the car, and headed west. That’s what I felt like—feel like—doing. Just beginning an impromptu road trip that might take me, eventually, to the San Francisco Bay area. Or, instead, I might have veered north after getting as far as Dallas, opting to drive to the Twin Cities. I haven’t been to Minneapolis in many, many years. I’d like to see whether I remember anything at all about it or its twin. I do remember that my wife and I once boarded an Amtrak train in St. Paul bound for Whitefish, Montana. The thing I remember most vividly about that train ride was the stark, desolate scenery along the way. And I remember hearing comments from other passengers who found the desolation boring. I, on the other hand, found it enormously thought-provoking. There’s something about a naturally barren landscape that clarifies for me the nearly meaningless role humankind plays in this corner of the galaxy. I get the same sense of wonder when I’m in parts of west Texas and New Mexico. The vast sky and endless flat terrain emphasize how inconsequential each of us are, in spite of the enormity of our egos that tell us otherwise.

If I were a better psychologist (can one be better at being something one is not?), I might understand why I feel such a strong desire to just get up and leave this morning. Even if I were single with no commitments of any kind, it would be madness to head out this morning. Heavy rain, punctuated by brilliant flashes of lightning and violent cracks of thunder suggest driving in the predawn hours would be more than a little stressful. But I suppose whatever it is that might compel me to get in my car and go isn’t apt to be deterred by a little bad weather. Or volcanic eruptions. Or cataclysmic ice storms. I just get in these moods sometimes. I want to shed all my responsibilities and begin life anew. Would that we had the option of doing that. Just erasing the past and, in the grandest do-over of all time, putting all the lessons of a lifetime to use in creating a new lifetime. Without the maudlin lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

These thoughts remind me of a story I began to write a year or two ago but haven’t finished. It’s set in an undefined point in the reasonably foreseeable future. All people have bio-magnetic chips that can be programmed to erase memories implanted in their brains. The central character, a very wealthy lawyer, learns he has a terminal disease. In this future, an economy based on a bio-economic conversion algorithm enables individuals to buy back up to thirty years they had already lived, effectively purchasing youth.  Purchases are limited to terminally-ill patients, who—through their purchases—can revert to an age-state prior to that at which their diseases had manifested.  The purchase price, though, involves the individual’s erasure from the memories of everyone with whom the person had ever dealt (through the bio-magnetic chips). However, the beneficiary (the terminally ill patient) does not lose memories of his life. My main character wrestles with whether he wants to live, knowing that he will completely disappear from the memories of his family and friends or whether he wants to finish his life surrounded by his loved one. There’s more to it than that. For example, my wealthy lawyer also has to wrestle with whether he can cope with losing his wealth and professional prestige, inasmuch as his “new life” would be involve a time-limited financial stipend and a low-level administrative job.

With rare exception in my adult life, I’ve not just gotten in my car alone and headed for parts unknown. In fact, I can remember only one time. My wife and I got into a terrible argument (over what I don’t know) and I told her I was going to leave for a day or two to clear my head. And I left, just like that. I drove for five or six hours and stopped for the night in a small town. I ate dinner in a crappy little diner, stayed in a crappy little motel,  and spent the night wishing I were back home. The next morning, I got up and drove five or six hours back. There’s nothing romantic or compelling about that. That’s not the kind of impromptu road trip I have in mind. But I suppose the trigger that launched it—a wish to be away from the turmoil and consider a different direction—is related to what put the thought in my head this morning. Not that I’m in the midst of a particularly tumultuous  time. But I’ve been feeling a little caged in of late. Too many obligations (most of which I could easily break without significant consequence), too many claims to my time (again, few that I couldn’t control if I simply exercised my control), too many diversions from whatever it is I would rather be doing (which, if I knew what that was, I might be doing).

Last night, we were scheduled to go on a Lifelong Learning Institute trip to North Little Rock to watch an Arkansas Travelers baseball game. The appeal, for me, was that a guy I’ve met once or twice, a guy who lives in Hot Springs Village was going to throw out the first pitch. He is , Bill “Youngblood” McCrary, who played in the Negro League in the late 1940s. I’ve met him once or twice and have a book about him, written by a friend of mine who also lives in the Village. I expected it was going to be a nice time. We would drive to a church parking lot in the Village and be taken by coach to the game, where we’d dine on hamburgers while we watched the game. Unfortunately, my wife wasn’t feeling well for much of the day yesterday, so we cancelled. While I was sorry to have missed the event, it was an example of the things that fill my calendar that I sometimes just want to erase but feel like I can’t. But we did and I’m not the lesser for it. I could just as easily bow out of a the string of dinners on my calendar, dinners with people with whom I’d like to dine. I could stay home on Sunday morning instead of going to UUVC. I could opt out of a writers’ event on Monday. I could excuse myself from the Village history committee meeting scheduled for next week. I could disappoint my artist friend by not attending his showing. Yet I’m not going to cancel my participation in these things because the relief of “free” time would be offset by guilt or…something.

I think I’m just complaining for the sake of complaining. Maybe that’s what I’m doing. Maybe I don’t really want to just hit the road and be a free spirit. But maybe I do. If there’s a chance I can over think something, I generally try.

Soon, it will be daylight and I’ll be able to hang the hummingbird feeders. I wish I could leave them out, but if I do the raccoons get to them and spill sugary water all over the deck. Damn raccoons. See, there’s something else I can complain about.

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Reprise of Doing Without

Even years later, I keep coming back to this. Something about it holds me in its clutches. Something about it calls for action.

Just four months shy of five years ago, I decided to begin an experiment whereby I would test my self-discipline over the course of several months. I labeled this process Doing Without. I suppose one might think of it as an atheist’s version of Lent, without the compelling reason behind it. The idea was that I would give up, for a month at a time, something in my life that I enjoyed. My original plan was to begin with doing without coffee for the first month, alcohol the second month, meat the third month, and so on. I had in mind that I would practice this for one full year. For each deprivation, I would reward myself with a replacement. It was, essentially, controlled asceticism with a reward for sacrifice.

Instead of coffee, I would go for long walks. Instead of alcohol, I would drink as much iced tea as I desired. In place of meat, I would allow myself as many vegetables as I could comfortably consume. Giving up coffee and alcohol the first two months presented no insurmountable challenges. All was well until the third month. Midway into the month, I allowed the work involved in doing without meat to derail the plan. It wasn’t as if my craving for meat made it impossible to stick with my plan. The problem was two-fold: my spouse was not interested in going meatless and the difficulty of menu planning was greater than I realized. I called the third month a temporary setback and went about moving on, giving up social media (except for this blog) for the next month. But like my lengthy experience breaking diets, my failure to adhere to my self-imposed sacrifices made me feel like I’d ruined the entire process. So, even though  the miscarriage of meatlessness caused me to adjust the remainder of the plan with the intention of following through, it was a hollow intent. That hiccup in my performance made me feel inept and inadequate. My heart was no longer in it. Shortly afterward, I quietly gave up my doing without experiment. The experience left me feeling like an abject failure, in terms of self-discipline and otherwise. And, like my experiences with diets, the failure of doing without has haunted me ever since. It’s not like my every waking hour is consumed by guilt at my failure, but I haven’t been able to let the collapse of my grand experiment go.

I think it’s time for another shot at restoring my self-confidence and polishing my sadly tarnished self-image (recognizing full-well that another spectacular failure could do even more damage). It’s time to start anew. If I had the cajones, for the first month of my new doing without program I’d give up food, followed the next month by giving up water. That would be a true test of my will. Speaking of which, I’d best make sure mine is current if I decide to go that route. On a more serious note, one of my multitude of odd character flaws is that I simply cannot bring myself to start any major new endeavor that involves keeping a record except at the beginning of a month. So, I missed starting this process in April by only a few days. To put a positive spin on things, that lost opportunity for an April onset gives me more time to plan my newest doing without program. I will make a few adjustments this time around. For one, I will commit that, should an occasional misstep occur, I will dust my self-confidence off and continue on—a stumble will be no excuse to abandon the race. The new endeavor will be simpler and more flexible. Though I want to plan from the outset what I will give up on a month-to-month basis, I will not feel bound by either the order of my sacrifices or the list of items I intend to give up.

My mental abnormality that prevents me from beginning the doing without program in April does not prohibit me from getting in a little practice. So, between now and mid-month, I’ll decide what to give up in May. I may scale back a bit for the remainder of the month to ease the transition.

The mental acrobatics surrounding the planning for doing without must necessarily include some reflection on the core reason that I feel the need to do this in the first place.  While it’s a test of my self-discipline, why do I feel the need to test it? What flaw in my character am I attempting to work through by engaging in a series of short-term asceticism exercises? I’m just asking the questions here. I don’t yet have answers, at least not ones I’m willing to share yet.

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll record my plans here on my blog and will comment over time on my progress. And, if I figure out what I’m trying to prove (or what failing I am attempting to overcome), I’ll write about that, too.

Posted in Doing Without | 2 Comments

We Went Somewhere

A fellow blogger challenged a few other bloggers in a small band of writers to write about a memorable trip with my special someone. I thought long and hard about it. I’ve had so many memorable adventures with my wife, it was difficult to pick one. I concluded that, because I have no mementos of any kind to remind me about some of our travels, I should write about a trip about which no evidence exists but memory.

It’s odd, and a bit distressing, that neither my wife nor I have ever been people to make photographic records of our travels, though I have begun to do it a bit more in the recent past. I wish we had taken pictures of our travels around Europe and Australasia. I wish I had taken a camera on my trips to Moscow and Beijing and Dubrovnik. But the trip I most wish I’d recorded on film was closer to home.  At the time (this would have been about 1988) we lived in Chicago. I had recently quit my job with an association management company to form my own ill-fated business venture. But I wanted, first, to take a long vacation, something neither of us had ever done. So we decided to make a circle trip around Lake Superior. My wife took her accrued vacation time, I took time in advance of starting a business, and we set out. We had no particular destination in mind. We just wanted to go see what there was to see.

We drove quite a distance the first day and spent the first night at a tiny motel a few miles outsides of Duluth, Minnesota. The motel was old—very old. It was either poorly constructed or its sheer age had taken an enormous toll on the place. I think ours was the last room available for the night and we were warned that it wasn’t quite up to snuff, but we took it anyway. I remember that the floor tilted so much that it was hard to maintain balance. The bed almost filled the room, with hardly any room for our suitcases.

Much of the rest of our trip is lost in cloudy memories. The lack of photographs makes my attempts at recollection quite a chore. The next day, though, I remember driving alongside the lake, with an occasional detour into heavily forested areas. I have absolutely no recollection of crossing the border into Canada, nor do I remember where we stayed the second (and subsequent) night. But I do recall that we wandered in and around Thunder Bay, Ontario for quite some time, maybe two days or so. From there, we spent a few days drifting around Lake Superior, stopping when the mood struck us. We must have gotten some literature about the area we drove through, but that memory is long gone, as well. I recall two aspects of our trip much more distinctly than others.

Somehow, we learned about a train trip that began in Sault Ste. Marie. The destination or perhaps the end of the line, was a small French-speaking village whose name I do not recall but which, if my research serves me properly, probably was Hearst. On the train ride, we chatted with a couple from Detroit. The guy had just retired from an assembly line job with an auto maker. His wife was a home maker. Both of them were about as free of knowledge about the world outside Detroit as anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t recall the guy’s name, but his wife was Norma. The reason I remember her name is that we cruelly nicknamed her (not to her face, mind you) “Abnorma.” During the day-long train ride, we stopped on several occasions to pick up passengers. The stops were not at stations (they were few and far between) but where people flagged down the train (I assume there must have been designated “flagging” stops). Abnorma complained about the stops and, if memory serves, wondered why the people didn’t just go to the nearest station instead of making the train stop for them.

We had dinner with them at a restaurant near the B&B where several of the train’s passengers stayed. I do not remember the food, but I remember it was truly local fare (which thrilled Janine and me), which astonished Abnorma. First, she wanted English menus. When told they were not available, she complained to her husband. Then, she wanted the ingredients changed because they seemed “odd” to her. Janine and I felt embarrassed to be associated with them. I am sure we tried to establish with the wait staff that we had just met this couple on the train and were not in any way, shape, or form cut of the same cloth. Especially not the burlap bag from which Abnorma must have emerged.  We managed to go our separate ways after dinner and for the remainder of the trip.

The next aspect of the trip that I recall more distinctly than most was the time we spent wandering around Mackinac Island. I don’t recall getting to Mackinac Island, but obviously we must have parked the car and taken a ferry. We visited the Grand Hotel, though we did not stay there because we were on a budget that precluded such luxuries. I remember wandering around on foot for a good part of the day and then renting bicycles and circling the island on two wheels.

I remember, quite vividly, during our drive through northern Michigan that I tried to persuade my wife of the wisdom of buying some remote forested land. The beauty of the forests we drove through enchanted me. I envisioned living far, far away from other people in the heart of that gorgeous forest. Never mind that we had no money to speak of, nor any way to make a living in the wilderness. I have never been a particularly practical person in the aftermath of natural enchantment.

You’d think I would have much more to write about a two week excursion around Lake Superior and, on our return, skirting Lake Michigan. But my memory betrays me as I try to remember more. Photos would have helped. If I had kept a journal about the trip, I’m sure my words would have served as a trigger for memories buried deep inside my head. Alas, I have neither to help dredge up more about the trip. But I remember enough to know we both loved those two weeks on the road. We talked about our trip for a long time, but those discussions have gone the way of my memories. Having written this little bit, I think I’ll see if Janine remembers more than I. She usually does. Perhaps she can resurrect that time.

Subsequent vacations (which have been rare) have been more meticulously planned. As much as I hate to admit it, there’s something to be said for knowing where you’re going and what you want to see when you get there. Our Thunder Bay trip, as I call it, was fun, but I suspect we missed quite a lot by not knowing much about the areas we visited or drove through.

The lesson to me in this trip down memory lane is that keeping a journal and taking pictures are valuable practices. Unfortunately, while it’s possible to create the skeleton of a retroactive “journal,” it’s impossible to produce a photo album from memories.

Why did I choose recollections of a trip taken thirty years ago instead of three weeks in France just two years ago? Because I have photos from France and I wrote some about that trip. If I hadn’t written about the Thunder Bay trip, a year or two from now I might have lost a little more of the fading memories of that time.

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To Sleep, Perchance to Hallucinate

I got more sleep last night than the night before, but still…I thought, after being awake for about nineteen hours, I’d sleep through the night. “But I thought…” That will teach me to think.  These images (click on an image to embiggen it—yeah it’s a word, it’s my word, though I admit to stealing it) reflect my bed’s assessment of my sleep patterns for the last two nights. Night before last, my bed tells me I slept well in spurts (the green bar), interrupted by tossing and turning (yellow). I got up during the night (the red line), then slept a bit but tossed and turned until I got up just after 3:00 a.m. Last night, I went to bed even earlier, just before 10:00 a.m., slept well except for a brief period of restlessness, got up once in the middle of the night, then slept in fits and starts until I finally decided to get out of bed just before 5:00 a.m. In the interest of full disclosure, my bed does not always know whether I’m sleeping or just pretending to be asleep by laying motionless. So I can’t be certain that the sleep patterns shown reflect reality. They may reflect the way my bed interprets reality. If you look closely at the image from night before last (again, click to embiggen), you’ll notice that my bed did not detect that I had a heartbeat. I am relatively sure my heart continued to beat all through the night. That discrepancy between reality and my bed’s representation of reality gives me reason to question other facets of my sleep and non-sleep experiences. Was my respiration rate really so much slower last night than the night before, or did my bed make a mistake? Or…I shudder to think it…did my bed simply lie? What possible reason could my bed have for knowingly reporting false information?

There was a time when beds did not communicate with their owners. In fact, I am relatively certain that most beds today are content to remain silent partners in the sleep process. They just provide a reasonably soft surface upon which to place one’s body horizontally. But my bed tracks my sleep patterns. The fact that my bed communicates with me through my smart phone suggests that I may be in danger of being watched by sinister strangers, strangers who might have nefarious reasons for knowing how and when I sleep. My first thoughts turn to the engineers and marketers who design, manufacture, and sell SleepNumber beds. If they can enable the bed to communicate with my smart phone, is it not possible that they have enabled my bed to communicate through my smart phone to them? Good God! My bedroom habits are being scrutinized by people with whom I’ve never slept and, frankly, probably have no desire to sleep with (I can’t say that definitively, for I don’t know them, but the probability is high).

Now that this train of thought has begun to glide along the tracks inside my head, I can see possibilities for my inability to sleep well these last two nights. It’s possible that SleepNumber employees or owners are sending signals to my bed that cause me to be unable to sleep. Perhaps the firmness changes from moment to moment, controlled by the manipulative bastards back at SleepNumber headquarters or, perhaps, in the company’s laboratories. Yeah, they could be toying with me, controlling my ability to sleep by establishing control over my home wifi. I wonder about the clandestine motives guiding this felonious intrusion into my life. And, now, I wonder whether the criminals did, in fact, stop my heart night before last and simply forgot to cover their tracks by changing the data reported back to me.

Ach! I may have uncovered a plot that threatens the sleep patterns of millions! It may be time to take this to the media.  I could become the next Erin Brockovich (though I’m not planning to become a female who stumbles onto…well, I’m just not going to).  And, if I play my cards right, I might get a book deal out of it. And then? I can see the movie version playing in my head. I wonder who would play me in the film? Except for his accent, I think Gérard Depardieu would be ideal in the role. I may be putting the cart before the horse. First, I have to prove that SleepNumber stopped my heart while conducting odious research without my consent.

Until this very moment, I’ve not thought about the fact that I’ve never spoken to anyone, except my wife, about the communications between my bed and me. Are there others out there whose beds communicate with them regularly? Is it odd that my bed shares with me intimate details about my sleep patterns? Is it even more bizarre that I’m sharing these details with as many as five or six others who, either by accident or misguided intent, visit this page?

See, this is what sleep deprivation does. It robs one of his self-discipline and self-respect, causing him to share his intimate sleep information with the world. I think I’ll have to take a sleeping pill tonight. Or maybe I’ll sleep in an unconnected bed to thwart the sick bastards who count my heartbeats and every breath I take as part of their fiendish plans to take control of the world while we rest. That’s it. But, first, I’ll have another cup of strong, black French roast coffee. That will get my heart started.

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Fiction

I hit post instead of save for this piece of fiction I began writing. Never mind.  😉

 

“No one can love a person who doesn’t love himself. That’s been drummed into me since I don’t know when. I guess that’s why I’ve always understood, deep down, why I’ve never felt loved the way I envisioned love ought to feel. Sure, I’ve felt the love of my mother and father and my siblings and my wife. But I’ve always been suspicious that the love was given not freely without strings but, rather, as an obligation. Because that’s the only reason someone would love me. Out of a sense of obligation. I’ve tried to view myself in other ways. I have exchanged the lenses through which I see myself, dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But there, at the core of that man who looks at me in the mirror, is someone who isn’t worthy of love, who isn’t sufficiently honest and open to warrant love. No, what I should get isn’t love but scorn. Contempt. Dismissal.

Is it any wonder, then, that I grew up skeptical? Is it any wonder that I questioned the motives of people who spoke well of me? Is it any wonder that I didn’t trust people? Why should I? People who would lie to me,  people who would say things about me I knew were not true, were not to be trusted. They must have ulterior motives. Otherwise, why would they lie to me? Why would the suggest I was worth their praise?”

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Sleepless in the South

Tonight—I suppose last night is the more appropriate term, given the time of day—is/was another odd one. I went to bed early, just after 10:00 p.m., and fell asleep quickly. But I awoke around 1:00 a.m. After tossing and turning for two hours (and possibly drifting off intermittently), I decided at 3:00 a.m. to get up for a while. Awhile has now been quite some time and I see no signs that a return to bed would result in sleep, so I think I’m up for the duration of the day. During the last hour and a half, I made the mistake of trying to make sense of the world by reading online news. I might as well have broken a half-dozen incandescent light bulbs and ingested the shards of glass for all the understanding the news has given me. Realizing the pointlessness of that endeavor, I decided to watch and listen to an online course in which I’ve been participating (with others, who meet periodically to discuss the content). I must not have been in the right mood, because my reaction to it was along the lines of, “this is not education, this is cleverly disguised propaganda.”

Those efforts failing me, I decided to write something. But what? Again, I can’t be sure, as I’ve not yet written it. But here goes. There’s something wrong with the skin between my fingers. Not all of the skin, just the skin between the fingers where the fingers join the rest of the hand. There must be a medical term for the spot where the “wrong” is, but I don’t know it, or have forgotten it. At any rate, within the last two days I’ve noticed that the skin itches in those spots. Now, there are small red welts erupting between several fingers on both hands. The itching continues, but it now seems to be joined by a bit of pain. Methinks I should attempt to see a doctor, but methinks, too, that I may be a bit of a hypochondriac and perhaps should wait to see if this thing, whatever it is, decides to leave me alone without expensive intervention. I may hold off on the decision until my favorite spouse weighs in on the matter. She’s often more rationale about health care “emergencies” than I.

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Yesterday afternoon, I visited an acquaintance who I think is becoming a friend. He invited me over to play in his wood shop. I’ve done just a bit of wood working in years past; enough to know I wish I had the space and tools to practice it more often. We spent several hours working on his wood lathe as he showed me how to turn pieces of wood into pieces of art. First, we made a ring (like the things people wear on their fingers) for my wife. I had to guess at her ring size, inasmuch as the last ring I bought for her was her wedding band, purchased about thirty-eight years ago. I guessed wrong. I guessed size seven; apparently, a size five would have been a better guess. That notwithstanding, she now has a size seven ring; a stainless steel circle to which a very nice piece of very dense wood was attached and turned, finished with a high polish. The second item we made is the top of what will become a wine stopper when I get the polished stainless steel base. For now, it’s just the wood top of the wine stopper. The wine stopper was made from several pieces of wood that my friend had previously glued together. The pieces apparently were not all flush, but I think the “flaw” where they were not completely joined adds character. I think I could become addicted to turning wood. I wish I had space for a lathe. Maybe I can make space for a lathe. If I do, I will need money. Not just for the lathe, but for all the gadgets associated with wood-turning. Perhaps my next business could involve making and selling wooden pen cylinders and wine stoppers and bowls. I’d guess there are only seven hundred to a thousand guys in Hot Springs Village who are doing the same thing. Oh well, I understand why.

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Wednesday evening we will attend a wine tasting with a group of people we met at the World of Wine events we’ve been attending for the past year or two. We sit with one another at each event as we are offered wines from various countries around the world along with a menu ostensibly from the same country. We’ve tried wines from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, France…maybe more. At one of the recent dinners, my wife had the idea that we should gather at one another’s homes from time to time and do tastings of the same wine from various wineries and eat hors d’oeuvre. Each of us would bring a bottle of wine and each would bring hors d’oeuvre. We held the first such event at our house, tasting Malbec wine. Wednesday evening will be the second such event, hosted by another member of the group; we will taste Pinot Noir.  We have very little in common with most other members of the group aside from enjoying food and inexpensive wine. But we enjoy socializing with them. And so we shall.

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It’s now 5:15 and I’ve gone through two large glasses of water since I arose at 3:00. No coffee yet. Despite evidence that coffee does not keep me from sleeping, I decided not to have coffee on the off-chance that I would try to go back to sleep. I don’t know why I don’t trust the evidence. Awhile back, when I was in the midst of watching calories, I opted to forego wine and beer and other forms of booze. Instead of enjoying those refreshments, I drank coffee in the evening and had no trouble going to sleep. But I still harbor this sense that coffee “should” keep me awake. I will not do caffeine free. I tried it years ago and thought it tasted like bitter metal. People tell me decaf has improved since I tasted it in my thirties. I do not believe them. I should watch my calories now. Perhaps now more than ever. Beer and wine and other forms of booze are not good for my waistline or my liver. I would be taller and thinner if I were to forego alcohol again. I guess I could do as I’ve done thus far this morning and just stick with water. Word on the street is that water is good for our life form. But I just heard the coffee maker start up, letting me know that in just moments, it will be ready to produce for me. I think I’ll take a break and go get a mug of hot black French roast. My water-only regimen did not last long.

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That is all. For now.

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