A Contemplative Excursion

Although the new big-screen television is dramatically larger than the one it replaced, I can imagine it will seem inadequate after viewing even larger screens. Two years hence, I suspect asserting the need for an 85-inch screen will occur; Scandinavian crime shows deserve to show themselves in all their enormous glory. Yet I can imagine living in a tiny house, instead, in which a 36-inch screen might seem monstrous. That little house, set far from the madding crowd, might seem like a luxurious refuge from a world spiraling into conspiracy-theory-propelled madness. If so, then I crave luxury. But I crave ascetic deprivation, too. And I seek meditative cures to mental maladies; I want to think my way out of a grey ball that resembles depression, but really  may be  unsatisfied greed. Greed need not be a thirst for material things. Greed may be a hunger for knowledge or understanding or acceptance of an imperfect world. What might the experience be like, sitting in a room with nothing to do but think and stare at four blank walls? Would boredom set in, or would one’s mind adjust to the lack of external stimuli by experiencing a lively inner world of its own creation? Or would one escape from the deprivation by forcing oneself to sleep? Odd, how acquisition of an enormous magnet for one’s attention can cause the mind to shrink back and into itself.

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My mind this morning wanders between contemplation and meditation. Between reflection and reverie. I can imagine spending the entire day sitting beneath a tree, listening to Plato’s teachings. Or dreaming of sitting, alone, on the deck of an abandoned ferry drifting in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic off the coast of Iceland.  But I have obligations today. First, I have a doctor’s appointment. Later, I will help fellow church-goers by picking up and disposing of their recycling. And during the course of the day, I must deal with the intricacies of calculating and processing requests for required minimum distributions (RMDs) for the year.

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People who privately and quietly create or simply find beautiful, serene places in which to enjoy life have every reason to restrict access to their hidden retreats, because the rest of us hunger for placid places. And our appetites puts those hidden oases at risk. We want the benefits of their creators’ or discoverers’ visions, so we invade their sanctuaries. Our search for asylum transforms the peacefulness of those sanctums into frenzied replicas of the places we leave behind.  Whether quiet little towns, pristine natural wonders, or purpose-built, restricted-access communities, tension exists between “founders” and “intruders.”  The tension is understandable. Founders deserve to quietly enjoy the fruits of their creation or their discovery. But exclusivity is anathema to equality; we seem to insist that everyone should be free to experience all the wonders of existence on the planet. Yet we somehow manage to chisel out restrictions that satisfy almost everyone; our homes are our castles, open only to those we invite in. And we agree to share, otherwise. Public streets and public places are open to all. Some places, though, are subject to fierce disagreement and debate. Those places—home to the fortunate few, in many cases—always are in flux.  Ski resorts, for example, often are carved out of pristine near-wilderness. The lives of the people who live there, who may value the isolation, are disrupted when the area is invaded by people who want recreation, luxury accommodations, and all the amenities of a high-end resort. The same area, though, may be discovered by other groups, though, who want only the privacy and isolation that founders enjoy. Tension from three directions. Who, if anyone, should be given precedence?

These matters are on my mind this morning because I wish I could find that beautiful, private, serene, undisturbed place. But if I found it, I might ruin the quiet a “founder” might have discovered or created. And even if I took care to ensure the continuing privacy and quiet enjoyed by the founder, I can imagine fighting tooth and nail to keep others from invading my new-found private retreat. Where is the fairness in all this? It is not strictly about public property versus private property; it is about access to and enjoyment of both. The dilemma may be just another aspect of the Tragedy of the Commons, adapted to modern desires for the private enjoyment of…everything.

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The first person, who, having inclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, battles and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes would not that man have saved mankind, who should have pulled up the stakes, or filled up the ditch, crying out to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and that the earth itself belongs to nobody.”

~Jean-Jacques Rousseau ~

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Light filters through the trees, calling on me to complete my finger exercises and retreat to the kitchen in search for a suitable breakfast. And so I shall.

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On My Mind

Shortly after I awoke this morning, I viewed a friend’s Facebook posts. She is cruising the coastline of Norway, absorbing the sights and sounds of a magical Scandinavian adventure. A few photos from her journey triggered a resurgence of my longing to visit places like Bergen and Stavanger and Trondheim and Oslo and Bodø and Lofoten and Geilo.  Though some of the places are only place-names to me, nothing more, they represent exposure to cultural experiences that fill me with excitement. I am not quite sure why I am so intrigued by the Norwegian experience; whatever stokes that interest, though, is quite strong. One of her dreams has been to view the aurora borealis, a dream I share. And I was glad to see she finally saw that spectacular phenomenon. Her cruise is taking her north, far beyond the Arctic Circle. That is a part of the world I think I would like to visit. I suggested to my friend that she pack me in her suitcase for the trip, but she rejected the idea for various reasons, including her legitimate belief I would cause her luggage to exceed weight restrictions. Known as Spitzbergen or Svalbard, that part of Scandinavia is among the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, where rugged tundra is home to Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, and polar bears. The coastal area further south is home to one of my fictional characters, Kolbjørn Landvik, who I have incorporated into a few incomplete short stories. Kolbjørn is a man made of the same cloth as another of my characters, variously named Springer Kneeblood, James Kneeblood, and Calypso Kneeblood. That character may, in fact, be multiple characters who are related to one another by blood. One day, I may complete some of the stories about Kolbjørn that I have begun. When my friend returns from her trip, I hope to lure her to spend time with me and regale me with tales of her experiences so I can fantasize vicariously through her stories. Perhaps her experiences will find their way into my tales about Kolbjørn. Time will tell.

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Night before last, we went to a Halloween party organized by and at my church. In preparation for the event, mi novia bought several bags of candy she planned to take to the party. After we entered the building, I asked her if she had brought the candy inside with her. That’s when she realized we had left it at the house. Unprepared to return home in the driving rain to retrieve the candy, we left it where it sat on the kitchen counter. Ever since, we have allowed ourselves to consume far more candy than is healthy. I am not especially fond of sweets, but when sweets are within easy reach, I consume them. So it has been with the Halloween candy. Based on the amount of candy I have eaten since we returned from the party, I suspect I have gained a good five or ten pounds and elevated my levels of blood glucose by a factor of five…or more. As they say, though, you only live once. So, I have thrown caution to the wind and probably will continue to do so until the candy is removed from the house and delivered somewhere else, where it will contribute to others’ sugar highs. Where the hell has my discipline gone?

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Yesterday morning, instead of attending church, we spent time with a couple of landscapers we invited to view an area adjacent to the house where we hope to create an outdoor retreat. The idea is to transform the rather rough, uneven area into an oasis of sorts where we can place a fire pit and have seating. I envision an area with large flagstones set in a bed of gravel. Strings of lights would provide lighting and atmosphere suited to casual conversation and laughter. Except for the fact that I have been told to stay away from alcohol because of an episode of acute pancreatitis, I would imagine that I would sit in this outdoor oasis and drink wine. Damn health issues! It’s patently unfair that I cannot enjoy something I so appreciate without risk of spurring bodily outrage and the potential for a painful demise.  I think I’ll insist on doctors evaluating anew the diagnosis of acute pancreatitis. I suppose I can get used to the idea of trying non-alcoholic wine. I’ve gone three months without drinking alcohol, without withdrawal or other difficulty, so I suppose I can get used to the idea of abstinence for the rest of my life. Especially if I can consume medical cannibis  to assuage the pain as I sit among the trees. Somehow, though, the investment in creating an outdoor oasis is no longer quite as appealing as it once was. Perhaps I could get used to the idea of using the oasis as a place for my morning coffee; a place to sit outdoors and soak in nature. We shall see, we shall.

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Speaking of Scandinavian influences on my life experiences, we continue to watch Trapped, the first two seasons of which represent a prelude to the third season, which was released with a new title, Entrapped. I am absolutely enthralled with the Icelandic thriller. I find it interesting that the Icelandic characters easily shift from speaking Icelandic (pronounced ist.l̥ɛn.ska) to speaking English when non-natives enter their domains. According to Wikipedia, about 314,000 people speak the language, the vast majority of whom live in Iceland, where it is the official national language. But the language is not what I find so enthralling about the series. Much of the appeal of the series, for me, is the engaging storyline, coupled with the easy integration between the very modern Icelandic culture of places like Rekjavik and the semi-rural and rather isolated lifestyle of Siglufjörður, a fishing village in northern Iceland. As brutal as one assumes the weather in Iceland to be, it does not seem to me to be awful. In Rekjavik, for example, the highs year-round range from 36°F to 57°F and the lows range from 28°F to 49°F. The range in Siglufjörður is not much different. The film, though, shows periods when brutal snowstorms with fierce winds drive virtually everyone indoors. I assume the film depicts actual conditions in the village. And, I assume, the brutality of winters in Iceland is not due so much to temperatures as to wind and driven snow. Hmm. Worth exploring further.  Yet the weather is not the main story, either. The main story revolves around crimes, including murders, dismemberment, human trafficking, drugs, and the like…you know, the same sorts of things that make life in Arkansas so much like life in the rest of the United States. 😉

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Bad weather always looks worse through a window.

~ Tom Lehrer ~

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Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds. We can send so-called ‘peacekeeping forces’ into areas of conflict, but peace cannot be opposed from the outside with guns. Only by creating peace within our own mind and helping others to do the same can we hope to achieve peace in this world.

~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso ~

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Sonic Situations

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.

~ Khalil Gibran ~

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Absolute silence—the complete absence of even a hint of the slightest noise—is but a fantasy; an artificial reality that exists only in our imagination. Even if a person was placed in a sound-proof box, insulated on all sides with three feet of acoustic insulation and buried ten feet underground, the vibrations produced by the blood coursing through his veins and the air flowing in and out of his lungs would interrupt the serenity of silence. We deceive ourselves into thinking we have experienced pure silence; that experience simply represents a reduction in sound level or a purposeful dismissal of attention to noise, not its absence.

Listen. That sound is both decay and rebirth; fierce silence and the timidity of deafening noise. The absence of sound, if that were possible, would signal the rejection of everything that matters. Consider that the noise emanates from atoms and molecules slamming into one another. Those chaotic encounters cause ripples in space, triggering yet more sounds that form a natural symphony. Even when we sleep—when we experience what we believe to be quiet—the sounds go on and on and on. If ever we were  able to experience the emptiness that accompanies the absence of sound, we would be bereft; the experience would be like having our hearts and brains ripped from our bodies, leaving behind only quivering masses of dying cells. Pure, unmitigated silence is available only to the dead; but even they are subject to minute vibrations of their environments—though, of course, the dead are not conscious of sounds at the molecular level. Yet even in the absence of operating receptors of sound waves, the waves continue to interrupt the serenity of space.

It occurs to me that even total deafness does not equate to pure silence. The sound waves remain in play. I suspect that the simple act of thinking must cause miniscule reverberations in brain tissue that could/should be classified as sound. The more I think about this matter, the more thoroughly convinced I become that absolute silence is an impossibility; at least in the universe in which we live. Yet I long to experience that impossibility, if only for a moment. But that wish is contrary to reality. Just like everything else that conflicts with authentic existence, even silence is a fantasy.

Despite the futility of seeking real silence, I value both the endeavor and the outcome. Much like the hunter who fails in his pursuit of prey, the quest itself is enormously rewarding. Simply thinking of silence may be as gratifying as experiencing it.

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Today is Sunday. A few minutes before 7:00 a.m., I hear an airplane overhead. Noise that interrupts my quietude. But listening to the buzz of its engine makes me wonder what the pilot sees in the pre-dawn darkness. And why he or she is wandering the skies at this hour. I make up reasons the pilot wants or needs to be aloft. I imagine the purpose of the flight; delivering a freshly-harvested kidney to someone desperately in need of it. Or, perhaps, the plane was stolen by an inexperienced pilot who is now fleeing from law enforcement. I wonder why the cops are after her? Did she steal a piece of prized art from a Hot Springs gallery? Did he murder his wife’s paramour in a fit of rage and he is now running, hoping to escape his inevitable capture? Or is it more mundane…returning a wealthy family to Kansas City after a Saturday meeting with a financial advisor? If I could ask the pilot, I would. But I can’t. So I won’t. And I won’t let my inability to get to the bottom of it ruin my day. I just won’t.

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I am in the mood for a thick, juicy steak. Or some superb sushi. Or a bowl of miso soup. But my mood will be ignored when it’s time for breakfast.

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Options

The Subaru, a 2016 model, is seven years old, having been purchased around the last quarter of 2015. Its odometer reads something like 104,000 miles. Its tires are showing signs of wear, sufficient to warrant consideration of replacing them. The car’s second battery just died; the first one lasted three years, the second one a year longer. Tiny pockmarks on its windshield offer evidence of its many miles on roads laden with sand and gravel and other enemies of smooth, clear glass.

Paragraphs like the one above emerge from desire, not from need. They flow from a thirst that can only be quenched by forcing rationality to overcome unreasonable greed. That’s what “new car fever” is all about; greed. And desire stoked by clever marketers who know how to plant the seeds of want deep inside one’s psyche. The cure for this unhealthy lust for something new and exciting and decidedly different is forced rational thought. The potential impact of surrendering to this unbridled hunger is enormous. It is fraught with danger, including the risk of financial disruption. So, the thing to do is this: publicly announce one’s commitment to keep the Subaru until the cost of maintaining it equals or exceeds the cost of replacing it. But circumstances that run the gamut from soup to sirloin could derail such a commitment; so, it’s better to leave that pledge chained in the proverbial basement until absolutely necessary. And, in the interim, exercise restraint.

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Partisans tend to be blind to the dangers presented by their ideological brethren. While clear-eyed with respect to the menace posed by their opponents, their senses are dulled with respect to their allies. People whose political mindsets mirror mine tend to readily acknowledge the dangerous lunacy of the reactionary right; but they dismiss the potential for violence instigated by their progressive supporters. And, of course, the opposite is true; conservatives tend to reject the possibility that people on their “side” could do irrevocable harm to human decency. The unpleasant reality of today’s political climate is that the majority of people in the two largest political camps turn a blind eye to the damage done by their peers. For those of us who recognize this reality, the best response is to insist that both sides tone down the rhetoric that stoke violent and/or dangerous behaviors. But I am not optimistic that anything will come of it; except more indefensible violence.

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Rain. This time, I hope, more than a brief and utterly inadequate shower. I would be delighted to see, when dawn finally breaks, that the pine needles covering the street in front of the house have washed away. And I want to see the grass, now parched and thirsty, soften and bend as roots soak up moisture and deliver it where it is needed most. I hear the rain on the roof and the sound of water flowing through the gutters and downspouts. I understand rain worship. I appreciate the dozens of rain deities, though I am especially intrigued by Zeus, the Greek god of sky and thunder and the ruler of the gods of Mount Olympus.  I would like to deliver a speech, which I would open with these words: “I have a personal relationship with Zeus, the god of thunder and the ruler of Mount Olympus…” I do not know why the idea intrigues me so; it just does. Living a fantasy is so much more appealing than reading someone else’s ideas about fantasies.

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Last night, we sought out and finally found Trapped, the Icelandic-language series which represents the first two seasons that morphed into Entrapped, the title given to the third season’s episodes. Entrapped is available on Netflix; Trapped is available on Amazon Prime. I suspect collusion between Amazon Prime and Netflix; watching the first three seasons of the series requires subscribing to both services. Though I already subscribe to both, the requirement that I do so in order to watch three consecutive seasons is an affront to human decency. Well, it may not be quite that bad, but it’s fundamentally wrong. At any rate, we’re well into watching Trapped. I managed to stay awake last night. Thus far, my review of the two series (based on what I have seen) is quite positive. I recommend both, based on my limited exposure to them.

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The climate is punishing us. It is forcing us to confront a reality we desperately want to avoid. Its public face, weather, is changing so fast we cannot keep track of it. I suspect we will either wither in perpetual drought or drown in unceasing rain. Or we will roast in the sun’s heat or freeze as glaciers reclaim continents they long ago lost.  In the meantime, we will pretend nothing untoward is happening. Until denial is no longer an option.

There is no forgiveness in nature.

~ Ugo Betti ~

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Climb Into the Day

There was a time when I would have said I believe the development of technology should not be harnessed by bureaucracy. I would have said developers of technologies should not be restrained by unfounded fears about its misuse. I would have bristled at the idea of imposing limits on the application of technologies.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

~ C. S. Lewis ~

But I now realize just how powerful technology has become. Or, rather, how clever some unscrupulous users of technology have become. My change of heart came as a result of several abuses of technology. First, the ways in which social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have been used to drive public opinion to either the political/social right or left. Second, the manipulation of audio and video files to mislead listeners/viewers into believing they are seeing/hearing a person make statements the speaker never made. I now am very much in favor of well-conceived regulations that attempt to control such abuses. And I have grown skeptical of users of technology. By extension, I have grown suspicious of technology, not just its application; its development merits monitoring and management to protect society from itself. Technology is innocent, but often people who apply it are not. Technology is simply a tool that can be misused to do great harm. A hammer can drive nails into wood; and it can break windshields and crack skulls.

Hmm. As I think about the comparison between technology and hammers, it occurs to me that regulations do not prevent broken windshields and cracked skulls. Will bureaucratic restraints, then, limit that harm done by technology? Perhaps it’s not regulation of the tool that’s needed. Perhaps it’s a complete revamping of the environment in which it’s used. That is a task whose implementation will take far longer than the time available to it.

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My presence on Twitter over the years has been minimal, at most. Learning the news that Elon Musk has completed his acquisition of the company and fired its CEO, CFO, and others, my immediate reaction was to think the company’s ownership is irrelevant to me. But thinking about it for just a moment, my laissez faire response transformed into one of  concern. The fact that the world’s richest man now has control over a social media platform with such enormous power to shape public opinion bothers me. The fact that a multi-billionaire who exhibits an unhealthy conservatism now controls a mechanism that feeds “news” to such a huge population of users bothers me.

I do not want the world to be controlled by rich egotists. I do not want public discourse to be moderated by someone whose motives are cloudy, but whose self-interest is almost certainly behind the purchase. What I want and what I get are not necessarily in synch, though. Money talks. I sometimes loathe the “free market,” the economy that rewards greed and promotes the idea that all value is determined by monetary worth. No, not sometimes. Always.

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We began watching Entrapped last night. The Icelandic film, I learned this morning, is actually season three of Trapped. Entrapped involves the disappearance of a member of a cult. I have decided we should try to find Trapped, and watch it, before we go back to Entrapped. The “third season” might make more sense, though it flows well and does not seem to be untethered, the way some programs can. At any rate, I drifted in and out of sleep while trying to watch Entrapped. The film was not at fault; it was mine, entirely.

The last few nights, we have dipped our toes into various films and series with little success. After getting so engrossed in truly interesting series and films, viewing lately has been hit and miss. In scanning my “want to watch” list, it’s apparent I’ve become addicted to Scandinavian films, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. But not just Scandinavian. Foreign language films; Spanish, Italian, German, British, etc.  I don’t remember which one it was, but I recall watching something set in Finland; in and around Helsinki, I think. There’s something about many of the foreign films and series I’ve seen lately that is fundamentally more appealing than most American-made products. The creators of those products have canned something I cannot quite describe, but whose taste is quite nice.

But maybe we’ll try some more American-made stuff. Yesterday, a friend recommended An Unfinished Life, which is now on my list to watch on Amazon Prime. We’ll give that a shot one of these days before long. In the meantime, mi novia will find time to watch Sons of Anarchy, which she rented a day or two ago. I may join her from time to time, even though I’ve seen it. It is among my favorite series; very near the top.

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Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.

Alexander Hamilton

And with that, I will climb into the day to see what I can see.

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Launch

The task of completing the house in which we live is a never-ending process. I tire of looking at unfinished wood trim. I grow weary of noticing the intersections of walls and doors, where old paint is exposed next to the new color, thanks to adjustments made to door jambs and frames. The kitchen sink is an affront to good taste and practicality. I suspect I could spend another $50,000, just to deal with all the little—and not-so-little—things that remain incomplete. If I were more energetic and if my limbs were more limber, I could complete most of the remaining unfinished items in a week or so. But I am lethargic and brittle. I have grown lazy over the past three or four years, leaving me wishing I could find capable, reliable, dedicated, and affordable workers to do what I should do myself. But people with the attributes I seek exist only in my imagination. If I could find a way to live in that fantasy-land around the clock, my problems would be solved. But, alas, that search is nothing but hallucination on top of delusion; a mirage that disappears as I inch close to it. By the time I’m where I think that vision should be, it has turned to transparent vapor, leaving no more than a trace of what I thought I saw. Oh, the jobs eventually will be done. But by that time, normal wear and tear will have taken their toll, requiring the expenditure of more efforts, efforts that have slipped into physical bankruptcy. My optimism is being held under water, against my will; I cannot allow myself to drown in unfulfilled promises I make to myself.

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I conducted “interviews” with my remaining siblings yesterday, my two brothers and my sister. They went well, except for the fact that I failed to hit “record” before launching into the first interview, the one with my oldest brother. I hope I can remember enough about his comments to reconstruct the conversation. During the conversations, I realized I should have set aside more time for each of them. And I realized how important it will be for the four of us to follow up with a group conversation. My intent is to capture memories from our respective childhoods, thereby allowing me to paint a picture of my family’s life from the earliest days of my siblings’ childhoods to the present. That may be a more demanding task than I initially thought. Time will tell. Given my perpetual state of laziness, I may have to shift priorities between getting the house “fixed up” and documenting histories about which I know little and recall even less. One way or the other, I hope I can muscle through my projects; I could use the boost to my morale that completing a project or two might give me.

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The appeal of television and film—even the best of the genres—is slipping of late. I train my eyes on the screen and promptly lose my focus on the program I am watching. Though I am not asleep, I want to be. I do not have much interest in watching even stuff I found riveting only a few months ago. As I sit on the loveseat, I daydream about sleeping, instead. I imagine taking a nap that lasts days or even weeks; a long rest from which I would awake feeling energized and enthusiastic about everything around me. But weeks-long naps are out of the question. I will have to dredge up my energy and enthusiasm some other way. It will come. It always does; sometimes, it just takes longer than usual. My state of weariness may be a sign that I need some uninterrupted rest; time that requires nothing more of me than to loll about the house without obligations of any kind. Or it may be a symptom of mild depression, which I hope will dissolve in response to the tiny sertraline (AKA Zoloft) pills prescribed by my doctor’s nurse practitioner.

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Speaking of depression, the appearance of what seems to be growing Republican momentum is troubling to me. All I can do, though, is to vote. And to let others know my stance on political races: unless I have substantial and defensible reason to do otherwise, I will vote for Democrats and democratic ideals. Some Democratic candidates, though, are so off-putting that I would rather vote for either a Libertarian or withhold my vote all together. For example, John White is running for Congressional District 4 against Republican incumbent Bruce Westerman and Libertarian challenger Gregory Maxwell. White’s positions are more offensive to me than Westerman’s. Depending on further assessment, I will vote either for Maxwell or will withhold my ballot in the race.  But my vote, especially in Arkansas, does not make much difference. Except to me and to my sense of self-worth. That sense of self-worth notwithstanding, I am afraid Republicans are poised to retake the House and the Senate, turning the remaining two years of Biden’s term into an exercise in futility, thanks to Republican obstructionism.

My tendency to lean Democrat does not mean that I am a Democrat. I usually vote Democrat because my philosophies are in much closer alignment to Democrats than to Republicans. But my world-view sometimes conflicts with elements of the Democratic platform. I believe blind adherence to a party platform, regardless of the party, is tantamount to shirking one’s responsibility for determining for oneself the best way to support practical solutions to problems facing us. Partisanship, especially partisanship fueled by chanting confrontational slogans, tends to put distance between logic and morality.

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I am to be referred to a rheumatologist. The reason has to do with the expansive worsening of muscle and joint pain. I hope the referral comes soon.

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The Swedish tradition of fika—something like an official, almost enforced, coffee break—is said to be among the reasons Swedish workers are, by and large, happy and live with less stress than their counterparts around the world. I say we should adopt the idea here. Thinking of fika makes me long for a cinnamon role and another cup of dark, rich coffee. Actually, I would love an espresso, although I think a triple or quadruple espresso is what I’m really after. And a croissant or an apple fritter or a jalapeño-sausage kolache would be just fine, if cinnamon roles are not available. For the moment, though, I think I’ll have to settle for cereal or a piece of avocado toast. And, with that, I’m off to launch into Thursday.

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Between the Lines

As I skimmed Facebook posts yesterday, I came across one that tickled my fancy. Ostensibly, the post represented the way young children who are learning the English language compensate when they encounter situations or circumstances for which their command of the language has not yet prepared them. Whether the examples are legitimate or not, I liked them. Some of the ways the kids compensated are:

    • Panic water: Used when the child could not remember the word, “tears.”
    • Water zoo: Used when the child could not conjure the word “aquarium.”
    • Hibachi breakfast: A child’s term for “Waffle House.”
    • Jesus stores: Instead of “churches.”
    • Loud period: A child’s alternative for “exclamation point.”
    • Foot waist: The term a child used for “ankle.”
    • Beach chickens: “Sea gulls,” to the clever child.
    • Leg elbow: The knee, I assume.

When I am able to find humor in such stuff, either I feel safe and secure or I am using every opportunity to find the distraction that will lead, eventually, to mental salvation. I have reason to believe a sense of safety and security is responsible for my mood, yet I must acknowledge my thirst for distraction and the deliverance it will bring. Emancipation from both the pleasure and the pain of long, awkward moments when one finds it impossible to put into words an experience that one finds both terrifying and exhilarating. Just another inexplicable moment in my brain.

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Today, I will “interview” my three remaining siblings, via Zoom, to place into the record their memories of certain aspects of their (and my) childhood and development through young adulthood (and, perhaps, even later…depending on how the interviews go). From my perspective, it is important to mine their memories, beginning with the early days of my family’s history; because my memories of those times is extremely spotty. And I want to get three different perspectives on some moments in our collective histories about which we all have some memories.  Today, I have set aside one hour, back-to-back, for the three interviews. That may be insufficient. If so, later I will revisit and extend the interviews, if my siblings are amenable. My interest in the genealogical history over the course of multiple generations of my family is not strong. But I have a healthy and growing interest in learning more about the history of my immediate family. Perhaps this little endeavor will satisfy my thirst for knowledge. Perhaps not. We shall see. I am looking forward to hearing what I will hear in the next few hours.

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I came across a promotion for an event that I think I may  attend: Buddhism 101, sponsored by the Hot Springs Buddhist Society. The information I found (from a Facebook event link) does not mention registration, so I assume it’s open for drop-ins. If that assumption is correct, I expect I’ll attend: December 8, 5:30-7:30 pm at the Garland County Library. Though I have some limited familiarity with Buddhism, I have never truly absorbed what I have learned; perhaps learning in a setting dedicated to that purpose will help the knowledge “stick” this time. Buddhism is not a religion, in my view (and, most likely, in the views of others more knowledgeable than I); it is a practice. Adopting the practices of Buddhism could well provide a guided route to greater serenity. My own serenity is under my control. I know that. But accepting that is far simpler than adopting it as an attitude and a discipline. Every time I learn or re-learn something about Buddhism, I feel that I am getting nearer to understanding myself.

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Season 9 of The Blacklist is behind us. Thankfully. Though when the series began it was interesting and kept my attention, the longer it has played out, the less interesting it became. I suppose that was due to the fact that the stories became increasingly outlandish and the characters’ interactions between one another lost any shred of believability. By the time those flaws became apparent, though, we were so deeply invested in the series that it would have seemed wasteful to abandon it. So we suffered through the recent badly-conceived seasons and their absurd episodes. I suppose we will watch season 10, as well, but first we will explore other opportunities for entertainment.

After ending the viewing marathon of The Blacklist, we watched a movie called Lou. It was okay, though some important matters were hidden until late in the film, which spoiled its structure, in my opinion. After Lou, we watched 21 Bridges.  Last night, after trying to remember that film, we decided it was mind-numbingly tolerable, but not memorable enough for us to say we liked it…or not. A “docu-drama” entitled, Lost Girls, came next. Again, tolerable for entertainment but not something that grabbed me because…well, because it wasn’t that interesting. The writing, in my opinion, was rather dull and the acting was decidedly average. Better than I can act, but mediocre at any rate. We then turned to a Polish series, The Green Glove Gang. We watched three episodes; I am getting comfortable with it, but I am certain I would enjoy something else far more—if I just knew what that something else might be. Let me hasten to add I know there are dozens of films I want to see; films I will enjoy. But matching my moods to the films available to fit them can be quite a challenge. It will happen, I am sure. Perhaps a return to generic Scandinavian police procedurals or Norwegian political dramas will capture my interest. We shall see.

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And, now, for a snippet of pointless fiction that came from, and is going, nowhere.

Calliope Lathrop wept when her mother announced the decision to sell. “But Mama,” little Calliope whined, presenting the most pitiful, twisted face she could muster, “I need that water zoo. I can’t sleep unless it’s next to my bed.”

“You should have thought about that before now, young lady! You haven’t cleaned it up since we bought it. And I’ve had to remind you every day to feed the fish. No, I’m selling that tank and all the fish in it. That’s final!”

And it was. Clandestra Lathrop placed an ad in Craig’s List: “50-gallon fresh water zoo, complete with pump, gravel, decorative plants, and ten fish. $225.

Skeeter Maplecutter offered $200 and Clandestra Lathrop accepted immediately. Panic water streamed down Calliope Lathrop’s cheeks when Maplecutter left the house with the empty water zoo and several bags of squiggling, live fish. Clandestra watched as panic water etched her daughter’s cheeks.

“I told you, young lady!  Didn’t I tell you?!”

The silent stare, Calliope’s response, should have warned Clandestra. But if it did, she failed to act on her apprehension.

Two days later, when Clandestra and Calliope strolled along the waterfront, Calliope stopped and pointed to a distant flock of birds gathered at the water’s edge. “Aren’t those beach chickens?” she asked.

“Ugh!  I hate those filthy creatures! They’re good for nothing but eating discarded French fries. Don’t encourage them.”

But Clandrestra’s admonition to her daughter was too late. Calliope had already motioned to the birds to come do her bidding. The birds—twenty-eight of them—strafed Clandestra in rapid succession. One by one, the birds flew past her, slashing at her with open-beaks. Each of the birds made a second pass, after which Clandestra’s face was marred by fifty-six deep gashes, blood flowing from each.

“Damned beach chickens! I hate those damned birds!” Clandestra shouted, wiping the blood from her face. Screaming, as if her words would have some effect, she tried to get the birds’ attention. And, apparently, it worked. Her declaration of loathing apparently sparked a rage reaction in some of the birds.  They returned in precisely-timed sorties, tearing at Clandestra’s face and neck with each pass.

Her mother’s failed efforts to push the birds away may have caused Calliope a tinge of regret. But if it did, it was short-lived. And it was not the kind of regret that accompanies compassion. No, it was the sort of regret that a jewelry thief feels when he leaves a particularly valuable stone behind.

And thus ends an especially long and unnecessary blog post.

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Good Fortune

The news from my visit to the oncologist yesterday was as I had hoped: nothing new. No changes; no indications of anything untoward taking place at the cellular level, no need to be concerned in the least. So, consuming the barium slurry had a positive outcome.

But before I could celebrate, I had to deal with my car’s battery, which died in the parking lot of the oncology clinic. Thanks to my AAA membership, I got a jump start within fifteen minutes of making a call. (My call, by the way, was answered by an automaton and the rest of my interactions were based on a smart-phone app texted to me by the AAA automaton.) The live tow-truck driver, Dustin, suggested I go to Walmart to get a new battery; best prices and good service, he said. So I did. I went to Walmart on Central, where I was told they had a battery in stock and it would take in the neighborhood of thirty minutes to handle the exchange. Mi novia, who had met me at the oncology clinic and who followed me to Walmart, took me out for lunch while the battery was being replaced. During lunch, I got a text, then a phone call, from Walmart. “Oops. We do not have the battery in stock, after all. But we called the Albert Pike store, and they confirm they have one.” So, we finished lunch and mi novia dropped me off at the Walmart on Central. I drove to the Albert Pike store, where I was told the wait would be two hours. It was more like thirty minutes. Though it’s always a pain to deal with dead batteries, yesterday’s experience was a lesson in gratitude. I was grateful that AAA was so responsive and that Dustin, the tow truck driver, came to my aid so quickly. And I was grateful that I was able to get a new battery; even though it was a more involved process than I would have liked, it was relatively painless, and it did not rob me of an entire day. In hindsight, I was quite fortunate to be wrestling with the effects of a dead battery than with the effects of a resurgence of cancer or the effects of a military invasion of the place where I live.

The lesson in gratitude was this: if one puts one’s experiences in context, one will find that there is reason for being grateful, even when circumstances are not “ideal.” Though things could always be better, they also could be considerably worse. Context and comparisons can be used either to complain or to celebrate; it’s a matter of choice.

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I sometimes regret agreeing to do things I once claimed I would like to do. Odd, isn’t it?

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Incivility in the political arena disturbs us. We fret about politicians modeling uncivil behaviors, worried that impressionable young people will imitate the interactions they see, thereby being molded into rude bullies who lack compassion. Though politicians deserve some of the blame, most of the culpability for bad behavior falls to the rest of us. We allow civility to be cast aside in favor of doing as much damage to our political opponents as possible. Debates in which participants must articulate and defend their policies are too tame for us. We prefer to watch and listen as “our candidate” verbally assaults their opponent, inflicting mortal wounds with weapons crafted from lies and half-truths. Yet when the other side lands painful blows, we complain about the demise of civility on the public stage. We are hypocrites. We accuse the other side of playing dirty politics, but we find ways to defend our own abusive gamesmanship, claiming we had no choice but to use every political weapon in our arsenal—considering how the other side “started it.” Like children, we lay blame elsewhere in defense of our own misbehaviors.

Taking sides in political contests leaves me feeling dirty and exposed, as if I were the ugly partisan. And, of course, when I take sides, I am the ugly partisan. Rather than support a specific candidate—and rather than attack one—the honorable thing to do is to take a stand in favor of (or in opposition to) a particular position and/or philosophy. We claim we do that today. I think we lie about that. We prefer to see ourselves as principled supporters of ideas, but the reality is that we may like or loathe ideas, but we are far more passionate about the people behind them.

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Rain. I worship water from the sky.

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True Witness is a False Positive

I am making this up. Except I’m mixing reality with fantasy. I am not prepared to reveal what is real and what is decidedly false. So here I go.

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The light beige liquid is cold. Try as they might, the producers of the stuff could not completely mask its chalky characteristics. Instead, they tried to conceal them by disguising the barium mixture behind an artificial taste vaguely reminiscent of a sweet coffee drink. The pharmaceutical grade liquid, which looks a bit like congealed, viscous cream, comes in a plastic bottle. The instructions command me to consume half the liquid two hours before the procedure. I am to drink the remainder an hour in advance. As I drink the first half, I get the distinct sense that this liquid mocha “treat” is heavier, by volume, than molten lava. I feel it—though it might be my imagination—racing down my esophagus and into my stomach, the speed of its descent enhanced by its weight and by the fact that the stuff is slippery. I hate to even think it, but I cannot help but feel like barium has a consistency very similar to phlegm; with that thought in mind, drinking it is not as easy as I had hoped. I manage to get the first half bottle down, in spite of the sensations that surround my consumption of the radioactive slurry.

And, after that first half bottle, I wait for an hour. I sit and wait to see how my body reacts to the heavy liquid attempting to fill me with nuclear…something. Did I consume isotopes,  I ask myself? What is the half-life of the stuff I just drank, I wonder? Will the magical atomic flood enable radiographers to see through me? To make the subterfuge worthwhile? Or is this entire process simply a diversion, a way to distract me from something strange and sinister? I cannot allow myself to think such things. It is unhealthy to attribute malevolent motives to radiographers and the technicians who manipulate their patients. What possible reason would they have for tricking me into believing all these processes and procedures are legitimate if they are, in fact, unnecessary? If I try hard enough, I am confident I could con some QAnon adherents into believing the doctors and nurses and techs who surround me before and during and after my CT scan are political operatives. People whose objectives are immoral and dangerous to life as we know it. But the idea of confusing QAnon simpletons has very little appeal. It would be too easy, I reason. I should do something more difficult. Like convince people who have known me for eight or ten years that, despite the stories I have told to the contrary, I retired in 2011 as a CIA field agent. The boring story about my association management career, I could tell them, was just cover. My claims about living in Dallas were just part of the plan, I might say. In fact, I lived for five years deep in the Bolivian forests with an indigenous family. There, I carefully watched drug lords oversee the cultivation and harvesting of opium poppies. I monitored the transition from vegetation to potent drug. And I fed false information to Mexican and Columbian cartels, courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Ah! Those were the days! Living in the jungles of Central and South America, wearing only a loincloth and clenching a bone-handle knife in my teeth and carrying a deadly weapon—a spear carved from a tusk of a now-extinct sabre-tooth tiger.

Only 18 more minutes until I am to consume the second half of the bottle of coffee-flavored phlegm. Time is creeping along slowly, as if speed is the enemy of distance. Perhaps I should explain that. But I cannot find the words. The best I can do is this: “as if speed is the enemy of distance” Those words just sound right, as if they were designed to convey a sense of hallucinogenic confusion. They are up to the task. They work. They deserve the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” Except they were not involved, directly, in an aerial fight. Instead, they sent unmanned drones into battle. The world changes. We adjust and adapt.

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Time to drink more goo.

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Sunday Savagery

Yesterday morning, as my sister-in-law and I were heading into Hot Springs for pre-dawn breakfast, I gazed up at the sky through the open moon roof. My head back and eyes trained on the clear sky above, midway between warm and cool, the sheer number of stars shocked me. It had been quite a while since I stared upward at the darkness of a crystal clear night sky. Yet time disappeared as I looked skyward. That remarkable view brought back to me a feeling of wonder and awe, the same sense of amazement I have felt so many times before. There were too many stars to count as I stared in reverence and contemplated the meaning of distance. I doubt I am alone in confronting the impossibility of comparing the distance between Hot Springs and Havana, Cuba (roughly 1000 miles) to the distance between stars. Proxima Centauri, the star closest to Earth (aside from the sun) is 4.246 light years from Earth. I tried to convert the distance measure of 1000 miles to light years; the resulting number: 1.70108e-10. Just like the visual effect of staring the blanket of uncountable stars above, the intellectual effect of trying to comprehend the distance between Hot Springs and Havana, Cuba was mind-boggling. This morning, I stepped outside into the ink-black darkness and looked skyward; no stars. Cloud cover hid the thousands of stars I saw yesterday. The fact that one cannot depend on experiencing the awe of a clear night sky every night makes it imperative to go out and look as often as possible. We do not want to miss the chance of seeing a jewel-strewn sky. Good fortune comes to those who seek it out with fervor.

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The population of Earth today is roughly 7.753 billion. The United Nations says the population of the planet one hundred years ago, in 1922, was between 1.86 billion and 2 billion. Assuming exactly the same rate of growth as between 1922 and 2022, the population one hundred years hence will be in the neighborhood of 22.3015 million. Gandhi once said “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Various groups of scientists have produced estimates of the planet’s “carrying capacity,” the maximum population size an environment can sustain indefinitely. Those estimates, according to an undated Australian Academy of Science paper, range from ≤2 billion (obviously wrong, given Earth’s current population) to ≤1024 billion. The majority of studies (20 studies) though, suggest ≤8 billion (20 estimates) or  ≤16 billion (14 estimates). The lower of those two figures is a little terrifying, given how close we are to 8 billion right now. Many (perhaps most) demographers acknowledge that the planet can sustain a number greater than today’s population, but they also seem to be concerned that the tipping point, though unknown, is near. I continue to be a proponent of the thinking of Thomas Malthus. While Malthus may have gotten the timeline and the numbers wrong, I think his logic is far stronger than today’s proponents of allowing population to grow exponentially. Malthus suggested that, if unchecked, people breed “geometrically” (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.). But he said the production of food can only increase “arithmetically” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.). Again, he may have been “off” with his numbers, but his theoretical underpinnings were correct, I think. The idea that the supply of Earth’s resources will somehow magically expand to meet the demands of overpopulation is absurd. Utter nonsense. Mind-numbingly stupid. Okay. I may be slightly judgmental on this subject. So be it.

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We had lunch yesterday at the Pasta Grill in Russellville. The place is a moderately upscale Italian restaurant. Worth a visit. As is Leonard’s Ace Hardware in Russellville. Leonard’s is a truly “old-style” hardware store, a big, cavern-like building stuffed to the rafters with damn near anything one could expect to find in a hardware store. I could wander its aisles for days. I could empty my bank accounts and those of a hundred wealthy Villagers, if I released the hold I’ve placed on my urge to buy; were I to permit myself to do it, I could spend millions of dollars, just in pocket knives and power tools. Before we left yesterday, we had picked up a set of four telescoping metal marshmallow forks (because everyone needs telescoping metal marshmallow forks). I also bought a few peg-board hooks, obscenely overpriced…to the extent that the cost of the hooks with which to hang tools is approaching the cost of the tools themselves.

The drive to Russellville was unplanned. We just got in the car and went. We wandered up Highway 7 until we got to Highway 314, which took us to Highway 27, which led us through Rover and Danville and Ranger and Chickalah and Dardanelle. Nice drive. Very little traffic. Just relaxing. A calming getaway.

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Today, we will go to church. Afterward, we will go to lunch with some folks from church. And, then, we will come home and I will mull over what tasks I should tackle and in what order. And I will think about tomorrow’s CT scan and my visit with my oncologist. I look forward to the time when she will say to me, “You’re cancer-free.” That statement requires five consecutive years in which there is no evidence of cancer’s return. That’s a year and  a month from now. I just hope my good fortune continues, so I can hear those words and feel a bit of weight fall from my shoulders. Although if I got word that cancer had returned, I would not be panic-stricken or otherwise devastated; it would just be a setback I would have to address. Either I would overcome it or it would overcome me. A simple, if deeply concerning idea.

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Enough for now. I now need to shave, shower, and dress suitably for church. I believe flip-flops, shorts, and a ragged t-shirt should be adequate, but I live among people who are not quite as savage as I.

 

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Not Yet Daylight

After a short brush with winter, temperatures are beginning to moderate; proving, again, that the third week of October can remain harsh and summer-like. Although, to be fair, 61°F does not feel especially summer-like. The expected high of 81°F, though, may remind me that summer remains on the prowl.

My sister-in-law is taking me out for breakfast this morning, in celebration of my birthday, which was yesterday. We’re going to the Track Kitchen, an operation that originally was set up for the jockeys, trainers, and other people deeply enmeshed in horse-racing and related equine endeavors. I still find it difficult to believe that, for the last forty years or so, I have climbed steadily and certainly toward the precipice of geezerhood. It is hard to determine the precise moment when the journey toward age discrimination began. Perhaps it was at age 18, when my obligation to vote and take up arms in defense of my country’s imperialist impulses commenced. Or maybe it was at age 21, when I was permitted to consume alcohol, legally, in a pointless attempt to deaden the pain of knowing my pedigree—as a member of Western civilization for whom war and war-like behavior was and is a significant aspect of my heritage.

But that’s not the topic for today’s breakfast, is it? No, today’s topic revolved around a post-birthday celebratory breakfast. That is, just a happy acknowledgment of the pleasures associated with early breakfast. The Track Kitchen opens at 6:30, about an hour later than a breakfast eatery should open for business but at least a couple of hours earlier than most other so-called breakfast eateries. My sister-in-law and I should arrive about the time the doors open, so our breakfasts will be among the first ones prepared today. I am willing to be a guinea pig in the name of flavor. And off we go, in just a matter of minutes.

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Some mornings, I realize I have the freedom to simply drive away. Just disappear into the early morning darkness. I have the freedom, but with it comes the realization that exercising it would be an act of extreme cruelty. I cannot imagine behaving in such a cruel and callous way. Yet the appeal of anonymity is incredibly strong. The obscurity that accompanies being a complete stranger has a ferociously strong appeal. But overcoming that attraction is a stronger obligation than is yielding to it.

All of us have more freedom than we are willing to acknowledge. Our freedoms are broader and more beautiful and dangerous than we know. We have the capacity to upend our own lives and the lives of countless others around us. All we need do is step out the door and keep going…ignoring the expectation that we will return…dismissing the hideous torture to which we would thereby expose people who matter to us. The allure of anonymous freedom is rarely strong enough to make us act on it. The appeal of blending in with grey crowds in distant places simply does not have the power to easily overcome empathy, compassion, love, and all the other emotional strings that tie us to the lives we live.  But the fantasy of expunging our existence…the illusion that we could erase all previous experience and eliminate in others the memory of our existence…remains. Even in the face of knowing that any attempt at erasure would unleash emotional firestorms capable of melting entire galaxies. And, so, we secretly dream, despite knowing we have been sentenced to life. On we go.

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Darkness persists. The forest creatures wait. They will watch us drive away, soon, and they will watch when we return in full daylight.

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Holding On

Bona fide creativity is thick and bulky and as rare as ice on the surface of the sun.  Creativity—the real stuff, not the version made of artificial ideas bent and shaped to look authentic—is in short supply. Stand-in creativity, made of brittle plastic and glue that does not maintain its grip, floods the places where actual creativity has grown weak and unstable. Stand-in creativity replicates itself by capturing the reflection of the real thing when the real thing strolls in front of a mirror. Physically, fake creativity looks almost identical to genuine ingenuity—except the artificial stuff is almost as thin as a breath of air. Comparing actual creativity with a badly botched replica is akin to comparing Audrey Hepburn with Marilyn Chambers. Or George Clooney with Ron Perlman. Why is it that, when we try to illustrate a spectrum ranging from exceptional beauty or physical appeal  to appearances that are deeply offensive to the visual senses, we always dredge up actors or other public figures? Why not select from life-like drawings of non-existent ideals? That, it seems to me, would be more fair and reasonable. But that’s a question for another day or another lifetime. So many unanswered questions that will remain unanswered until the answer becomes irrelevant and annoying.

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The outside temperature at the moment is 45°F. Inside my computer, a tiny electronic meteorologist sends me a note: “Today’s high will reach 77°F. Prepare for a rapid 32°F warming.” I am prepared. My paint-stained sweatshirt and old, worn sweatpants are easily set aside, replaced with a short-sleeved t-shirt or button-down and a pair of shorts or jeans. I am prepared for any microclimate thrown at me today. I could respond with just as much success if temperatures went in the other direction. Though I do not have a parka, I have enough jackets and blankets and other such instruments of warmth to protect me from blizzard conditions. I am ready for climatic engagement.

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The increasing speed with which birthdays come and go grows more stunning with every passing year. I remember the health scare yesterday—or was it a year ago—which began with a blood test early in the day. Hours later, during the evening meal, I got a call from the nurse, demanding that I go to the hospital emergency room; the test suggested the possibility that I might be experiencing a pulmonary embolism. It all worked out just fine. But the fact that the experience took place a year ago is frightening. My memory is just as clear and precise a year later as it would have been just a day later. Time accelerates exponentially.

The breakneck speed, after age forty, of the aging process is mind-blowing. Fortunately, I applied the brakes at age fifty-one. That’s when I had a double coronary bypass. I vowed then I would not grow immediately and irrevocably old. And my vow worked. Mentally. In fact, I succeeded in turning back time. I behaved like a twenty-five-year-old in a forty-five-year-old body. And that worked for quite some time. Until the evidence of aging became too obvious to ignore.

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Today is my birthday. Birthdays were not especially important to me when I was a child. They have grown increasingly irrelevant as the years have passed. But, for some reason, this one is catching my attention. This one has grabbed me by the shoulders. It has shaken me like a can of carbonated soda. And it is threatening to throw me against an unyielding piece of steel-reinforced concrete, just to watch me explode. At some point, if we reach an as-yet undefined “ripe old age,” each of us becomes conscious of our diminishing capabilities. Whether those capabilities involve walking or singing or thinking or speaking or writing or stepping up on a curb to avoid being hit by a bus, we watch and experience the diminution of attributes that made us what we were. Pieces of us drop off, almost unnoticed, until the legs that once were like massive tree trunks suddenly appear as if they were twigs. Thick, muscular chests wither into hollow vessels that barely contain what’s left of our lungs and heart and liver. Arms, barely held together by thinning bones that seem intent on turning to dust or shattering into pieces as fine as sand.

It’s all a matter of attitude that keeps us from dissolving into barely-recognizable goo. Attitude, coupled with actions guided by that attitude, can prevent the decay. But only if started early enough and practiced long enough. Though I suspect decay can be turned around with remedial intervention. We shall see.

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Time to explore what, so late in the morning, this day holds.

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Futility and Hopeless Labor

When I saw her two days ago, my primary care physician’s advanced practice nurse ordered four lab tests. I suspect the tests will reveal nothing of consequence. A CT scan—or several different types of CT scans—are more likely to reveal the causes of my neck and joint and shoulder pain. The skeptic in me expects the outcome to be simple: the pain is caused by normal wear and tear and there is nothing to be done to eliminate or minimize it. Irreversible bodily decay is the likely culprit; the inevitable deterioration that accompanies aging probably is the source of my physical unhappiness. My pain is just another experience that I will have to accept and to which I will have to adapt. I could be wrong, of course. The tests could reveal something far less sinister or far more terrifying. Circumstances are what they are; no more, no less. I cannot control the universe, no matter how badly I might want to be master of life as we know it.

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Nothing profound is apt to flow from my fingers nor spill from my lips this morning. I cannot imagine summoning more wisdom today than I summon every other day. I am deeply average; unremarkable in every way. That’s a reality we humans tend to reject; we refuse to accept that we are nothing special, hoping beyond hope that we will stumble upon some extraordinary attribute we did not know we had. There is no such extraordinary attribute. There is only deeply, unremarkably plain and fundamentally dull. We’re all like that, but in different ways. Our mediocrity is woven into every shred of skin and each brain cell.  We might as well be amoeba. Yet, on occasion, we shine. We sparkle. We glitter and glow and bathe the world in which we live in brilliant light. But that’s just our imagination, paired with the imaginations of everyone else in close proximity. We collectively persuade ourselves we are something special, indeed, and we cast off our mindlessly dull attributes in favor of being clothed in magic. And so it goes. From dull to luminous to plain and back to delightful, all in the space of less than a microsecond of spectacular experience. Odd, isn’t it? Odd that the world allows us to pretend we matter?

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Daylight begins far later than it did just a few months ago. I awake and look outside into a blackness that lasts much longer than it used to last. It’s after 6:30, but the sky looks like the sun was shuttled off to a distant galaxy, where it is being kept hostage while ransom demands are being clarified and polished. Who do we ask to pay the ransom for the sun? And how do we respond if our demands are rejected out of hand? Do we dare threaten to drown the sun if our demands are ignored? And, once we make the threat, do we dare carry it out? Once the sun’s furious fires have been snuffed out, do we have any hope of recovering them from the ashes? I wonder, some days, how helpless we would feel if we were to learn that the sun’s source of fuel would burn off in just two more days’ time? Would be try to prepare for the end? What could we possibly do to prepare for it? Is there anything we might be able to do that would lessen the terror? Could we somehow take preparatory measures that could minimize the horror of watching everything that matters turn to ash?

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The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

~ Albert Camus ~

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Imaginary Nostalgia

Let me be very clear, first: I adamantly oppose as inexcusable harassing behavior—too common among too many men—in which people are treated as objects. Yet, even as I find harassment offensive and inexcusable, I cannot precisely define the point at which indulgent appreciation becomes improper and abusive attention. That is, where is the fine line at which, once crossed, behavior transforms from acceptable to unacceptable? Generally speaking, I am referring to behavior, by males, aimed at females. But it can be the reverse, I am sure, or gender-on-gender offensiveness. I’ll stick to males behaving badly, for the moment.

At what precise point does an acceptable level of “girl watching” transform into unwelcome glares? When a man’s eyes follow a woman walking by him, at what point does his glance become a harassing stare? At what point does innocent flirting between acquaintances merit rejection as uncomfortable overture? Does there exist a universally accepted sphere of behavior that, if transcended, is recognized by both males and females as a bridge too far? Assuming such a point exists, how close does “acceptable flirting” come to that point?

The nineteenth century believed in science but the twentieth century does not.

~ Gertrude Stein ~

This is on my mind at the moment because I am mulling over a story I wrote a few years ago. It involves a relationship between the executive of a nuclear watchdog agency and a woman who works for him. Their relationship, as written, is rather flat; its genesis is weak and not sufficiently explained. I am thinking about revising the story to make their relationship more three dimensional and its ramifications more believable. But getting a better, more clearly defined, “red line” understanding of how a relationship might develop that, at first, seems natural, is important. And making a believable transition between an acceptable relationship and one in which the behaviors of both parties have crossed the line will make the story, in general, more believable. Though, in honesty, I doubt I’ll do much with the story in question. I lost interest before I finished writing it and I’m having a tough time reviving the embers. We shall see.

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During the course of several years, as I have written more than once, the scent of patchouli incense conflates with a sense of serenity. Yet I have noticed an odd dichotomy involving that odor, one in which thoughts of the patchouli scent spark a rather intense, almost frantic, desire to smell that aroma…a frantic desire for tranquility.

Now, as I think about it, I wonder whether my brain has convinced itself that tranquility is assured only if my nose can confirm the presence of the patchouli aroma. And I wonder whether the ecstasy of tranquility is so powerful that mere thoughts of the Patchouli scent cause an addictive response between my nose and my brain?

This morning, as I reached for the incense cone, I felt my heartbeat hasten and flutter, as if the mere thought of the aroma caused an eruption of passion.

Biochemical reactions. Is that the simplest explanation of what we humans are? Just responses to chemicals—natural and otherwise—in our environment? Or is there something much deeper than that? I choose to believe the latter. But I cannot begin to explain just what it is.

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On rare occasions, a single shred of memory bursts from the darkness—a tiny fragment of my forgotten past—to enlighten me about certain childhood moments. This morning, for no apparent reason, a memory of what may have been my first trick-or-treat Halloween experience. This scrap of memory has two parts. The first is my recollection that a very chilly cold snap had descended on the town where I lived, Corpus Christi. The second consists of my olfactory and my gustatory memories of the delightful flavor of candy corn. The sugary treat had been given to me by neighbors displayed seasonal spirit through their Halloween decorations and brightly-lit front porches. My memories are not crystal clear, but they are sharp enough to count as some of the very few real “memories” from childhood I can claim as my own.

I say there was no apparent reason for my memory. That may be wrong. I had just noticed my computer’s assertion that the outside temperature is 30°F. The chill and the fact that the middle of the month has come and gone point to the changing of the seasons. Those factors and my specific memory of a childhood Halloween following on the heels of a cold snap worked in tandem to dredge up a memory. There’s always a reason. We do not always know what it is. But it is there, waiting to be discovered.

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Nostalgia projects an imprecise and incomplete memory from an imaginary past onto the real present. Though the idea of nostalgia is appealing, the reality of trading tips on coding smart-phone apps with one’s great, great, great, great grandmother is an absurdity. It’s not because the greatnth relative is stupid; it’s because the greatnth relative’s life has an entirely different context, one in which smart phone apps are meaningless.

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Light is spilling from the sky, bathing the denuding-in-process forest with dim illumination. It won’t be long before the deciduous trees will be naked and the pine trees will be clothed in a green negligee. But not today. Today, the forest creatures will retain their modesty. For a while longer. Damn! It’s too cool this morning to go dancing nude in the forest. That’s true whenever it’s not too hot.

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Return

Governance these days relies less on persuasive guidance and more on raw power. The strength of authority that accompanies a politician’s position is far more important than leadership finesse. Whereas a politician’s  ability to rally her supporters once was the test of her leadership capabilities, her capacity to instill compliance through fear is today’s measure of political promise. The transformation has relied not so much on changes in the politician as on changes in her constituency. We have changed. We have accepted and embraced the legitimacy of dictatorial control. Until we make clear our unyielding rejection of dictatorship, we will risk behaving as if we were subjects in an absolute monarchy rather than people with inalienable rights. Until that time, our obedience will be equivalent to our wholehearted support. In the meantime, we watch political races in which two or more candidates seeks public support for their election to positions of near-absolute power. And we willingly give that support to the candidate whose exercise of control seems, to us, most tolerable.

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I woke late this morning, around 6:30. Such a late start tends to trigger my sense of dissatisfaction with the day, though by summoning the right attitude and the stamina to keep it alive, I can counter that dissatisfaction. The question of whether I will succeed in countering it will be answered as the day progresses. The only obstacle to my freedom today is my scheduled appointment with an advanced practice nurse, who will evaluate the extent to which her prescribed treatments have improved my ability to breathe. I think they have, finally, made progress.  Here it is, only four years post-lobectomy, and I think I may finally have achieved some degree of bronchonormalcy (that’s my very own word; a personal neologism). That’s enough to improve even the greyest of grey days, isn’t it?

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Sunlight, filtered through diminishing leaf-cover, offers intriguing sights. For example, as I look out my window, I see just a few branches of an otherwise drab-looking azalea bush bathed in bright light. The sight reminds me of an actor on stage, the spotlight trained on him leaving everyone else on stage almost invisible, looking otherworldly. As if a spotlight from the heavens above had found this one person who merited special attention from the sun gods. If we can imagine such absurdities, we can persuade ourselves to believe them. And therein is one of our collective problems; we manufacture delicate castles in our heads and spend the rest of our lives attempting to climb up and down nonexistent staircases.

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And off I go, drawing my sword in defiance as I plunge into a day riddled with challenges I have not yet imagined. If all goes well, as I expect it will, I shall return.

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Human Nature

This morning, I have an appointment with my oncologist’s office to have blood work done in advance of my next follow-up visit, a week from today. The follow-up visit will include a CT scan, another routine follow-up intended to catch any evidence that might suggest a return of cancer. Later today, I will visit my primary care doctor’s office, where I have an appointment with one of his senior nurses. The purpose of my visit is to get a referral to an orthopedist or other specialist who might be able to address my increasingly widespread and painful experiences with joint and muscle pain. While I am there, I may ask for a referral to a psychologist or counselor; someone who might be able to address symptoms mi novia suggests may be depression. I am weary of visits to doctors and hospitals and clinics and anyone and anyplace dedicated to healthcare. I am tired of watching and listening to healthcare professionals as they attempt to derail the human body’s natural decline; tired of wishing for magical treatments that will return my body to the way it felt and behaved ten or twenty or thirty years ago.

When I was diagnosed with cancer around Thanksgiving 2018, I considered refusing treatment (for many reasons I won’t go into now). Had I decided against it, my oncologist said at the time, I might have lasted two years, the last few months of which probably would be a period of severe decline and considerable pain. I decided not to put myself through it. More importantly, I decided not to put my wife through it. Less than eighteen months later, though, she went through the kind of hell I opted out of by accepting treatment. Had she been given the option of not going through that hellacious period, I am sure she would have accepted that option. I often think about what I could have done differently during her “treatment” and decline that might have made her last few months of life more comfortable and more tolerable. I’ll never be able to forgive myself for failing to adequately explore other options than letting her languish in treatment facilities that did nothing of any substance to help her and, instead, confined her to a bed and to a wheelchair in an environment that robbed her of any semblance of emotional comfort.

Emotional pain can make anesthesia seem so attractive. Perhaps  many people who get addicted to drugs and/or alcohol slip into their addictions while attempting to find relief from that pain. The attraction of something that might help deaden the pain is strong. Whether a person knows it at the outset or not, a retreat from emotional pain by way of chemicals of one kind or another is a pointless endeavor. It is my understanding that the duration of periods in which the pain is effectively deadened grow shorter and shorter. That decline in effectiveness or in the length of time the pain is addressed probably is responsible for addiction; a downward spiral with no end.

I heard a brief conversation yesterday about the “death with dignity” laws in Oregon, Washington, and California. Laws that prevent the State from infringing on individuals’ rights to decide how and when their death will occur seem, to me, a return to the natural order of things. Prolonging life by giving precedence to quantity of time versus quality of time should prohibited unless demanded by the person most dramatically impacted by the decision. That’s my moral position.

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I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.

~ Stephen Hawking ~

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The tendency of late among some liberals/progressives is to urge others of the same social and political stripes to treat conservatives with a modicum of respect, hiding liberal contempt for conservative philosophies. And when I say “a modicum,” I mean a tiny shred. And that scrap is small, indeed. In fact, the respect contained within that miniscule bit is artificial; it is an imitation of actual appreciation and honor, designed to tone down conservative loathing for progressive initiatives. The bottom line is that many—perhaps most—progressives dismiss virtually every utterance and every idea offered by conservatives as contemptible efforts to place rich conservatives in positions of power over destitute progressives. There is no “respect” of any kind hiding behind liberal tolerance of conservatives. Mockery and derision, instead, is the attitude behind the masks.

Until progressives willingly and honestly attempt to understand the reasoning behind conservative concepts, moderation and compromise will have no chance of success. The same is true of conservative treatment of progressive concepts, I suspect, but I cannot make that assertion from a perspective based on experience. Listening to progressive comments, though, and “reading” between the lines, I can say with near certainty that many/most progressives have no respect whatsoever for conservative philosophies, nor for the people who hold them. That attitude is a nonstarter with regard to achieving even a remote possibility of bipartisanship. One response, from progressives, to my assertion is that conservatives will not be given respect until they give respect to progressive philosophies. And that attitude is understandable. But if neither side is willing to acknowledge the possibility that the other side makes any valid points, all efforts to reach any substantive agreements are wasted. One side needs to make the first overtures. As a progressive/liberal, I think it behoove my side to retreat from its position that “all progressive ideas are good and all conservative ideas are bad.” In fact, I think both sides should actively seek out those opponents’ positions that they might be able to support.

Unfortunately, I think the divisiveness strangling our democracy will continue its choke-hold on us until we are too weak to fight the disease of incivility. Damn. Is it just human nature that causes us to believe that anyone with different ideas is our enemy? If not human nature, what is it?

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I hope my experience with this Monday becomes brighter and more appealing as the day unfolds.  I’ll do what I can to make it so.

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Difficult Options and Unintended Consequences

Finally, after weeks of living in fear that we had experienced the very last rainfall—weeks when the soil dried, then hardened into dusty rock. Weeks of watching robust shrubs wither. Weeks of fearing the air would become so parched it would crack into tiny, sharp fragments capable of shredding my lungs with each breath. Finally, though, it ended. Or, at least, it paused. As I sit here this morning, loud claps of thunder punctuate the constant sound of drops of water slamming against the window and the noise of rain pouring down on the roof. It is too early to tell whether this morning’s deluge is breaking the drought. But it is not too early to express gratitude for the rain and to celebrate the fact that millions—maybe billions—of plants have been given an opportunity to recover and perhaps survive, after a long, miserable period in which terminal dehydration became a very real worry. For now, though, the worry can be tucked safely at the back of mind.

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I know a woman in Chicago who is passionate about water and humans’ cavalier attitude toward it. Every chance she gets, it seems, she preaches about the effects of wasting water. My late wife became friends with this woman when both of them were in graduate school in Austin. While my wife was pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology, this woman was wrapping up a master’s degree in public policy administration. Perhaps one of her projects during graduate school focused on public policies relevant to water. Or perhaps her knowledge about the shrinkage in supplies of potable water grew naturally from her voracious reading. I don’t know. I know only that she speaks passionately about wasting water and about the inevitability of water crises owing to that wastage, among other factors. I write about this woman as if I know what she thinks today; I have not spoken with her in years, though I do follow her on Facebook, so I think my description of her passion about water is reasonably close to accurate.

I share the woman’s opinions about water; humans continue to behave stupidly, believing they can put off until another day finding solutions to water shortages. “Another day” has long since come and gone; witness the dramatic shrinkage of Lake Mead. Satellite images from 2000 and 2021 illustrate the enormous loss of water in the lake in just nineteen years. A satellite image from earlier this year shows an even more rapid shrinkage. Research into developing practical technologies that will perform very large scale desalination on a very short timeline is critical; I am of the opinion that funding and prioritizing a project on the scale of the Manhattan Project is called for to develop such technologies. Of course, we should explore and understand the unintended consequences of such a major effort, too. Our extraction and conversion of sea water into drinking water might well do irrevocable harm to the planet’s oceans. Storing or otherwise disposing of the extracted salt could create problems of its own.

Life is full of difficult options and unintended consequences. A successful desalination project could have unintended household consequences. The ready availability of an endless supply of water could change humans’ habits and possessions and avocations: long, luxurious showers; elaborate lawns filled with thirsty grasses; even more golf courses; leaving the water running while brushing one’s teeth; complete abandonment of conservation measures; a monstrous spike in the number of private swimming pools. The list could go on interminably. My point: we must be careful. But even while exercising care we have the ability to make tragic mistakes. We’ve proven that time and time again by engaging in war. War is the single most absurd, wasteful, entirely indefensible human activity ever undertaken. I would write more about that. But I’ll spare myself, and you, that unpleasantness. For now.

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Am I alone, I wonder, in finding myself inexplicably attracted to random strangers?

Not overwhelmingly attracted. But oddly and strongly attracted, I think. There’s something about certain people—usually random people I’ve never seen before and will never see again—that draws my attention. Either I stare at them or, if they notice my uninvited stare, I sneak furtive glances at them. I used to think the cause of my extreme interest was based in a sense that I might know the person or the person might remind me of someone I know. After giving the matter considerable thought, I have decided that’s not it, though. Many of my attractive strangers look nothing like anyone I can think of; these attractive strangers just possess a magnetism that I am powerless to fight. I just have to give in and let my visual curiosity run its course.

When I say I am attracted to these random strangers, I do not mean I have a desire to engage with them in some way. I mean only that I want to look at them. I want the freedom to stare at them, unimpeded by the judgment of other people who notice my gaze and find my obvious interest inappropriate. And I should acknowledge that a few of these random strangers are not strangers at all; they are people I know from various settings in which we both are involved.  A couple of people from my church fall into this category.

Thus far, I have not mentioned the gender of these random strangers. Most of them are women, but occasionally I see a male who for some reason I find visually appealing. And not necessarily physically attractive; that is true of both males and females. Their visual appeal is not necessarily connected to what I would call socially-engineered attractiveness (that is, they do not necessarily fit the mold of “movie star” beauty).

At some point, I think I mused about the similarity between my randomly attractive strangers and certain bronze or stone statues. There’s just something about certain statuary that is so intriguing that I cannot keep my eyes off of the art. Am I alone in this situation, this experience in which I find that random people require my eyes to follow them?

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The rain continues. Sweet, soft, nourishing rain. I think I could be persuaded to worship a rain god. And, at the right time, a sun god. If conditions were right, I might be converted to naturalistic pantheism. For now, I’ll stop and contemplate this moment; I will appreciate it for all it has done and will do for me.

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Concerns About Matters Over Which I Have No Control

For years, I have wondered why so much of the agricultural land I drive through on the side of the highway is devoted to corn and soybeans, as opposed to crops geared toward feeding humans. This morning, by chance, I stumbled upon several online articles that address some of the the reasons. And I discovered conflicting information, presented as factual data, that illustrates the difficulty in finding reliable interpretations of information. It is not necessarily the information that may not be completely reliable; it’s the way it is presented and the context within which it is assessed. I will not go into much more on that topic; lying with statistics has become an artform littered with mathematical proof.

Back to my curiosity; why do I see so much land devoted to corn and soybeans? Well, according to some ostensibly reliable data from 2017 and 2018, the demand for corn and soy is enormous. And decisions about crops and crop rotation are highly influenced by food and farm policies. An article from 2017, referring back to another one from 2013, credits Scientific American with the following quotation:

Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

I could argue that farmers should switch from grains to vegetables, thereby providing a larger, more stable supply of vegetables than the major supplier states (e.g., California, Arizona, and Florida) can provide by themselves. But, unless demand for vegetables is not being met under the current system of supply and distribution, such an switch could upset profitability for current suppliers. And a reduction in supplies of corn and soy could disrupt the current supply change for those commodities.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.

~ Anne Lamott ~

Personal experience in buying fruits and vegetables from Mexico and Guatemala and Canada and on and on suggests, though, the current supply chain in this country is not adequate. Or, perhaps, the current supply chain may be unable to compete on the basis of costs with international suppliers. The possibilities are endless. And, my ignorance of agricultural policies, general economics, and a  host of other factors contributes to my inability to come up with “answers.”

Yet I continue to have questions. For example, why are Americans in love with their unproductive lawns? Why do we not devote our efforts in “yard work” to “gardening,” instead? Why do we not grow more of our own vegetables? Well, again, if we did, the farmers in California and Arizona and Florida might discover the supply of their crops far outstrips the demand.

The complexities of the food supply are fare more involved than most of us understand, I think. But if our food supplies were to experience major disruptions, I suspect our understanding would expand exponentially. And the number of vegetable gardens would grow like kudzu. This is one of those topics that continues to press on my mind, urging me to explore it in more depth and, perhaps, prompting me to seek solutions. Later, perhaps.  When it may be too late.

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Universal education is not only a moral imperative but an economic necessity, to pave the way toward making many more nations self-sufficient and self-sustaining.

~ Desmond Tutu ~

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Some days, I feel completely inept. I have no skills, no capabilities, no knowledge about which I can be especially proud. I would like to think I am recovering from a lifetime of misleading myself, but I am afraid I’m giving myself reason to be skeptical of both my motives and my moods.

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Undreams

Emptiness. That’s what my sleep has been of late. No dreams. Just an absence of consciousness. A state of being in which I am utterly unaware of myself and my context. Although, somewhere in my brain and in every organ in my body, automatic responses to the external and internal environments take place all through the night. The same thing happens during the day, when I am fully awake and alert. But I also am unaware of those automatic responses during my waking hours. Unless, of course, I direct my attention to them: breathing, blinking, thinking, wishing, experiencing aromas and tastes and sounds. We are complex beings. But not as complex as the remarkably intricate nature of the interactions between and the interdependencies of all lives on the planet.  THAT is stunning in its remarkably convoluted, yet astonishingly beautiful, complexity.

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A BBC.com video short describes Vanuatu as one of the happiest nations on Earth. Vanuatu is a South Pacific Ocean nation made up of roughly 80 islands. One of the people interviewed for the video suggests that the people of the nation do not depend on money; he says people of other nations tend to rely on money to stoke their sense of happiness, but a genuine respect for and engagement with the environment and other people drive the emotional sense of comfort and joy for the the people of Vanuatu. The picture painted by the BBC.com video suggests that Vanuatu is such a happy place because life in the island nation is simpler than in the rest of the world. And that simplicity is based largely on a purity of attitude unique to the islands’ culture. A willingness to accept each day as it comes—and to consider each day a gift—paves the way to living a happy life in a happy society. That is how I perceived the message from the video.

If one reads the description of the nation produced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in its World Facebook, one would view the country from an entirely different perspective. Though absent much judgmental language, the country described in the CIA’s World Factbook suggests a very different place; a rather delicate nation beset by significant problems involving political factions, resource scarcity, and various other challenges. The following sentences are extracts from the CIA’s description of the country:

Linguistic divisions have lessened over time but highly fractious political parties have led to weak coalition governments that require support from both Anglophone and Francophone parties. Since 2008, prime ministers have been ousted through no-confidence motions or temporary procedural issues 10 times.

…and…

Economic development is hindered by dependence on relatively few commodity exports, vulnerability to natural disasters, and long distances from main markets and between constituent islands. In response to foreign concerns, the government has promised to tighten regulation of its offshore financial center.

Does the CIA’s description of an economically stunted and politically contentious environment comport with the BBC’s description of one of the world’s happiest nations? I suspect a deeper, more intense, and purely objective exploration of both the culture of Vanuatu and the nature of happiness would be required to answer that question. My guess is that neither the rosy image offered by the BBC nor the starkness suggested by the CIA is the “true” Vanuatu. And, in my innate skepticism, I suspect both images were created with purpose; the CIA has a vested interest in describing Vanuatu in one way, the BBC has a vested interest in describing it in another, somewhat conflicting way. And I have to sort through a carefully crafted series of mixed messages—both subjective and objective—to reach my own conclusion about the place. Unless, of course, I am content to let my assessment of the country mirror either the BBC or the CIA perspective. I am not content to let someone else decide what I should think, so I sort through messages of questionable reliability and come to my own conclusion: the culture of Vanuatu encourages an appreciation of the largesse offered by the nation’s history and its resources. But like everyplace on Earth, the country is constantly teetering on the edge of an abyss. The people of Vanuatu apparently have come to terms with their circumstances so, for the moment, they are living in a state of fragile contentment.

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He feels every emotion as if it were amplified a thousand-fold. Disinterest becomes loathing. Liking becomes passionate love. Curiosity becomes unregulated attraction; unchecked fascination.  Following on Facebook morphs into stalking in real life; watching, listening, longing to see and hear and feel.

But is that him, or are those emotions the expressions of a character struggling to escape the confines of his brain and make its way through his fingers to the screen in front of him? The questions become: Who is he? Where is he? Why is he so distant, yet so very close?

Finally, are these questions real, or are they ghosts of sentences long since erased and discarded? Sentenced to erasure… Hmm, riddles designed to engage the brain and lead to more, deeper, more engaging questions.

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In Search of Dreams that Awaken

Last night’s thunder was just a tease. It brought a moment of rain, but left the ground thirsty for more. We assume weather patterns will repeat themselves; we are certain we can always rely on October rain until October rain gives way to October drought.  That is the problem with reliable certainty; certainty is a fiction written in disappearing ink.

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Had I waited a little longer to put my house on the market, I might have found myself in a bind. Mortgage rates rising to roughly 7%, fears of unchecked inflation, and myriad other social and economic and factors ripped into a frenzied housing market, sucking the artificial wind out of its synthetic sails. For several months before I finally put my house up for sale, I was afraid the market might suffer an enormous “correction,” leaving me with a mortgage on the “new: house and rapidly-dwindling demand and a declining market value on the “old” one. Fortunately, my insistence that I put the old house on the market “right now” came at just the right time. Had I waited even two or three weeks, evidence of an impending market correction might have deterred prospective buyers from looking. And the price the Realtor recommended I ask for the house probably would have been unreachable. Thanks to the timing of putting the new house on the market, I dodged a bullet, as the old aphorism goes. Given today’s market, though, I am in a corner of my own making; I am tethered to a house and a mortgage that took the place of the freedom I might have enjoyed had I opted for a nomadic lifestyle. Yet living a peripatetic life would present challenges of its own; substituting a forced itinerant lifestyle for the comfort of a dependable home base.

The lesson I feel I am learning from my experience is this: try not to second-guess myself on irrevocable decisions. There’s no point in bemoaning decisions that cannot be unmade, nor wondering “what if” when it is impossible to revise one’s own history. It is healthier and less stressful to simply accept that my situation is what it is; accept it and move on. Make the best of reality as it is. I’m working on that.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

~ Carl Rogers ~

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As I ponder my circumstances, it occurs to me that my “problems” are simply “circumstances.” Whereas I stew over home ownership issues, other people whose living arrangements have always involved renting instead of buying face a completely different set of challenges. Though renting/leasing may attach one to a shorter period of obligation, it exposes a person to the vagaries of rental rates and the potential for dislocations when properties are sold or repurposed. Trade-offs exist with every decision. The perfect life or lifestyle is an unreachable fantasy.  Quoting someone who is working to learn the lessons of life,  “It is healthier and less stressful to simply accept that my situation is what it is; accept it and move on. Make the best of reality as it is.”

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Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

~ Carl Jung ~

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Deception

I finished my bachelor’s degree in about three and one-half years, graduating without fanfare and without ceremony in December 1975.  Although I think graduation ceremonies were available for mid-year graduates who completed their degree requirements outside the normal May-June cycle, I chose to forego the celebratory formalities of graduation. No one I knew was graduating at the same time; no one I knew would have been interested in attending my ceremonies, anyway. And though I am sure my parents would have attended, had I participated in the rituals of graduation, those rituals held no substantive meaning to me, so I opted to forego the rites.

The circuitous reason my college graduation is on my mind is that I heard a Janis Ian song, At Seventeen, a day or two ago. That song was released in the middle of 1975, just a few months before my college graduation. Despite the fact that the song expressed the story of a seventeen-year-old high school girl, its underlying theme of social isolation felt deeply personal and relevant to me—a nineteen-year-old boy who had become increasingly isolated and socially awkward during his high school and college years. My memories of high school and college, though indistinct and incomplete, confirm that I was felt that I was not noticed much; and when I was, the acknowledgement came in the form of mockery and teasing. At least that is how I perceived the experience. I was a loner, though not entirely by choice. I simply did not know how to overcome the shyness that grew like kudzu within me as I stumbled through my middle to late teenage years. Listening to the Janis Ian song brought back memories of how completely isolated I felt during the few years I lived in Austin, Texas, attending university there. I know from personal experience that one can feel lonely and so very remote from one’s peers in a setting with roughly forty thousand other students.

I learned, from reading psychology books and articles and from lectures in psychology classes, that feeling alone in the presence of others is also a common symptom of depression or social anxiety. Learning what to call it, though, did not translate into understanding how to combat my deepening sense of social isolation. No, I think I knew of ways that might have enabled me to make connections with other people; but I was too unsure of myself to put myself in situations that I thought could have been even more painful. I did not know how to engage with more gregarious people; I tended to gravitate toward the few people I encountered who, like me, considered themselves social outcasts. I resented my high school classmates who were popular, thanks in part to their involvement in school and extracurricular activities like sports, sponsored “clubs” like the Spanish Club and the Astronomy Club, etc., etc. I did not participate in those activities; I was not invited to join them and I did not know how to ask without putting myself at risk of rejection. My resentment followed me to college, where I honed my distaste for fraternities and sororities and college sports. My animus toward college football grew into intense loathing when I found myself in an elevator in Jester West Hall with several members of the University of Texas football team; they pretended they did not see me, but swatted me around the elevator as if I were a fly. Had I been armed with a gun during that experience, I feel certain I would have turned a group of football bullies into corpses.

Over time—a long, long time—I taught myself to mask my social timidity. I learned how to pretend that I was comfortable in social settings. I overcame my natural shyness to the point that I can, in certain settings, make myself appear to be a gregarious extrovert. My first job in association management required me to engage, personally and directly, with large numbers of people. That experience helped me overcome the appearance of shyness. But even today, what may appear to be easy banter with strangers and casual acquaintances, my initial engagement with others conceals discomfort. Though my discomfort is not as intense as it once was, it exists beneath a veneer of easy warmth. Even after the initial discomfort has worn away and after strangers finally become friends, it seems I worry that my new friends’ behavior toward me might be artificial, like my initial warmth is a disguise for my unease.  Even today, if a friend behaves in a way that I perceive as contrary to the way “real friends” behave toward one another, I am quick to react. I erect shields around me in an attempt to keep the emotional pain at bay. And I recall the lyrics of At Seventeen, including these…To those of us who knew the pain, Of valentines that never came, And those whose names were never called, When choosing sides for basketball

But those feelings of emotional fragility have sufficiently diminished to enable me to feel more— or less “normal” in many settings that once were very difficult. Yet the lyrics of a song can spark a firestorm of memories that reveal that extremely sensitive kid—the guy who mastered the art of deception.

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Peering

Not just beautiful, though — the stars are like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing. And they’re watching me.

~ Haruki Murakami ~

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My decision to go to bed early last night was deliberate; I made that call long before I crawled between the sheets and quickly fell asleep. A few hours after that early bedtime, I woke. I considered getting up and plunging into the day, but I discovered it was only a little after 1:30, so I persuaded myself to try to get some more sleep. I did sleep a bit more, but it was restive. Slipping in and out of wakefulness, the night seemed to drag on. But three hours later I finally decided I could not stay asleep. I caught brief naps, but they would not allow me to remain comfortably distant from intrusive thoughts and painful, aching joints. So, just a few minutes before 4:30 I slipped out of bed; awake and willing to explore what the day has in store for me.

Clean dishes, still drying on the kitchen counter next to the sink hours after they had been washed, begged me to finish drying them and to put them away. With that task finished, I made coffee. A cup of rapidly-cooling coffee sits on a coaster on my desk, just above my computer mouse pad. I can tell already, after taking a couple of sips of now-lukewarm coffee, that neither the heat nor the caffeine in the cup will be sufficient to jump-start my thought processes. I will slog through the next little while without the aid of a proper cup of coffee. But after I manage to adapt to the dwindling heat of anemic coffee, I will reward myself with a new cup; this one just hot enough and flavorful enough to awaken me from this languid state of consciousness. I will not let the new cup sit and cool; as I drink the hot coffee, I will feel a strong dose of pure energy course through my veins, as if the caffeine in the coffee has been injected directly into my bloodstream.

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Darkness prevails at this hour. This early morning retains its connection with the darkest, blackest night. I look out the window and see nothing but empty blackness. And I see the reflection in the window panes of the lamp on my desk. No movement, just blackness. Occasionally, though, either I see something move outside my window or my imagination is playing with me. Something out there may be watching me. A deer, perhaps. Or a fox. or a racoon. Or a human. A human who does not belong out there. It’s only my imagination, right? There’s nobody out there at a quarter after six in the morning. No matter the time, no one belongs outside my windows. And there is no one there. Right? No one peering in at me, watching me type; watching me peer out the windows.

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I surprised myself this morning by deciding to read an article I normally would have ignored and then dismissed as hype. The article contained excerpts of an interview with William Shatner in which he discussed his experiences surrounding his trip as a passenger on a suborbital space tourism flight. The flight was orchestrated by Jeff Bezos, the obscenely wealthy CEO of Amazon and god-knows-how many-other-companies. Normally, I would have skimmed the headline of the article and dismissed it as promotion and propaganda from a self-important actor. But, instead, I read the article. And it had an emotional impact on me. Shatner recalled that, after he returned to Earth from the space flight, he cried. He said it took him hours to realize why he cried: “I realized I was in grief for the Earth,” he said. Looking out the windows of the spacecraft, Shatner saw the utter blackness—the emptiness of space—in one direction and the glow of life—Planet Earth—in the other. He cried, knowing what humankind is doing to its only home planet.

Maybe it was hype. Maybe Shatner spoke those words and wrote that book to advance both his financial fortune and his fame. That notwithstanding, I thought his description of the experience was moving. And it emphasized to me the fact that we are too late in recognizing what we have done to this planet. Ach.

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Poverty is a ruinous circumstance. Nobody deserves to live in poverty.

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Opposition

Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness.

~ John Ruskin ~

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For every possession, there is another place. Another placeholder that can be misremembered or forgotten. Another “thing” whose location must be recalled if the “thing” is to be put to use. Possessions are both anchor and water into which the anchor drags us. We drown in overabundance. We confuse ourselves by overloading our memories with unnecessary rubbish that sullies what should be bright spots; the rubbish causes blemishes on the bright spots. Ashen residue of smoldering rubbish. Nothing matters much anymore because we possess too much. We cannot spread our gratitude equally among all our possessions, so we pretend everything either is equally and absurdly important or base and with no value whatsoever. We tell stories about value and meaning, but even the stories are too plentiful, too copious to retain their significance.

I doubt most of us have sufficient discipline to be ascetics for long. An ascetic is one who pursues contemplative ideals and practices extreme self-denial or self-mortification for personal, “spiritual” reasons. Many dictionaries insist ascetics behave the way they do for religious reasons; some ascetics may be driven by religion, but I believe most are motivated by non-religious spiritualism that defies definition. One either understands the concept or claims it’s religion masquerading as deep intellectual exploration.

People who addictively collect unnecessary luxuries are hedonists , but most of them would reject the title. They do not like be labeled with terms that might challenge their compassion; even while surrounding themselves with the accouterments of royalty (while commoners suffer the absence of food and water), they identify as caring, giving people. The extent of their blindness is staggering. Could it be that the owner of a spotless automotive garage filled with expensive collectible automobiles sees no disconnect between that luxury and the family of six living in the shack behind the garage; the one-room shack with no plumbing and no electricity?

I am conflicted between, on one hand, wanting to understand and appreciate deep minimalism and, on the other, hoping that everything I desire will magically appear at my fingertips or in my possession. It is a shameful conflict; one between greed and indifference. It is shameful, too, because desiring an absence of desire is tantamount to declaring war against the aggressors who oppose one’s pacifism.  Hypocrisy woven into the fabric of one’s trustworthiness. Or vice versa.

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I put off seeing a doctor for so long that, if I were to see the doctor now it would seem silly. Why didn’t I just wait until the annual physical, I can imagine the doctor saying. But that’s the way it is with me. I delay seeing a doctor, expecting my physical complaint to diminish of its own accord over time. No point in seeing a doctor, I reason, because my complaint is not sufficiently precise to enable a doctor to use it as a clue as to its etiology. On a couple of occasions, though, I’ve discovered that what I thought was the underlying cause had nothing to do with the symptoms. So, I should put my health in the hands of people who are trained professionally to determine causes and to prescribe cures or, at least, symptom relief.

It is impossible to compare one’s own level of pain with the levels experienced by others. It would be rather like attempting to understand how someone else perceives the color blue. We can pretend we know what blue is like to someone else, but it’s entirely possible that the way I experience blue is the way another person experiences green. That’s true of pain, as well. It could be that you experience pain the way I experience pleasure and vice versa. My reaction to pain and your reaction to pleasure may look exactly alike; how would we know that the experiences are so dramatically different?  Perhaps it’s easier to understand the concept with a hypothetical example: imagine that you experience an orgasm the way I experience a thorn puncturing the sole of my foot. And vice versa. I know, it’s hard to imagine. Try to do it anyway. Okay, let’s try another one. Imagine a child enjoying an ice cream cone. Now, imagine that the child’s enjoyment of that ice cream cone was identical to your experience of having molten lead poured into your mouth. Each of us may measure life’s experiences using very different scales. Still, I should call my doctor to see if there’s something he or his staff might be able to do for me to relieve the pain.

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Time to solve the world’s most vexing mysteries.

 

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Get Back

The forest beyond my window may be full of night creatures—deer, racoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and so on—but the pre-dawn darkness holds fast to the mysteries of the night, refusing to visually reveal those beasts.

By lighting a cone of incense in the dim light of my study, I attempt to create an enforced tranquility. The blanket of darkness, still thick and happily sullen, cooperates fully with my efforts. Here, where I am utterly alone, I am out of reach of the turbulence of daylight, with human voices and the hum of machinery and the sounds of delivery trucks in the distance, straining as they climb steep hills. My isolation in this room, where the odor of incense is strong and calming, imposes on me what I know to be a temporary serenity.

In this room—at this hour, in the early morning darkness—I can pretend only I exist in the world. I can imagine that I need not be concerned with the effects on other people of my actions or my absence. The peace extracted from the emptiness is mine to do with what I wish. This refuge I create with the juxtaposition of the odor of incense and the illumination of dim light in a small room with a small desk belongs only to me. Not just the physical me; the man sitting at this desk. This refuge belongs to the mind that inhabits this body.  It is the refuge of aloneness. The refuge of selfish solitude. The refuge of withdrawal.

For years, a strange, long-standing fantasy has occasionally resurrected itself in the deep recesses of my brain. The fantasy is always there, just beneath the surface; sometimes it  emerges  like a whale suddenly breaching from that serenity.  That fantasy breached this morning, even before I woke and got out of bed. There it was, in my mind’s eye. The fantasy is that I have entered a monastic order, a context that requires a vow of solitude and silence. This monastery, a complex of old but elaborate stone buildings, is in a rural setting within walking distance to a village.

My fantasy is half dream and half vision. It is an impossibility that refuses to succumb to practical reality. There is no religious aspect to the monastery, nor to the vows of silence and solitude. Yet the commitment to respect and adhere to the vows is deep and somber, as if it were embedded in the core of my being; living in accord with the vows is the price that must be paid for the gift of life. The “gift of life” aspect is difficult to grasp, because it sounds and feels religious. But it is not. It is transactional, like exchanging money for goods. A simple expression of the free market. Yet so, so, so much more meaningful. Sufficiently powerful that it can behave like a monstrously potent emotional windstorm that scours one’s attitudes and ideas, taking them down to their foundations. I can envision those storms, but I cannot adequately describe them; they are overwhelmingly powerful and unwilling to be pinned down to fit a description.

Some of the dialogue from a program I watched last night was especially thought-provoking. A conversation took place between two characters, in which they discussed a third character. The conversation revolved around the third character’s lifelong efforts to forgive himself for the way he had treated a fourth character, who was presumed to have died years before.  Forgiving oneself. It is an impossibility. Only the person who was “wronged” can forgive. If that person is no longer living, forgiveness is eternally inaccessible.

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A couple of articles on the China Daily website have caught my attention. The articles revolve around the dramatic growth in China of new energy vehicles (NEVs) within the past year. If my reading of the articles is correct, NEVs are electric-powered vehicles that operate on extremely energy-efficient batteries. One of the photos accompanying one of the articles shows a driverless electric tractor that was on display during the 19th China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Expo. While a couple of articles are insufficient to confirm a trend, I suspect there is, indeed, a trend among Chinese companies to develop and sell an extensive array of NEVs. Driverless tractors, passenger cars, fork-lifts…who knows what else? The development of NEV technologies seems to be driven in part by government investing and governmental policies and regulations designed to benefit companies that advance NEV technology development. To my knowledge, if that sort of government investing, etc. is taking place in the “west,” the level of investment is small in comparison to the Chinese market. I imagine we soon will depend almost entirely on Chinese products and technologies to power our own NEVs.

In reading the articles, I learned of some Chinese auto brands: Neta, Hozon Auto, and Wuling. Learning of those manufacturers prompted me to explore what others exist. From what I found, the major Chinese automakers are: SAIC Motor, Dongfeng, FAW, Chang’an, Geely, Beijing Automotive Group, Brilliance Automotive, BYD, Chery, Guangzhou Automobile Group, Great Wall and Jianghuai (JAC). I can imagine that, ten or fifteen or twenty years from now. American highways will be full of Chinese cars, the same as our highways today are full of Japanese and Korean cars.

If not for the potentially negative geopolitical aspects and ramifications of advances in Chinese automotive research and development, I would be pulling for the Chinese automakers. Simply because I an intrigued by technological ingenuity. If, in some blast of magic, planet Earth’s unique populations and their respective world governments would join forces, I would get behind all of it in a big way.

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It is Sunday. I must shave and shower and prepare for church. Back to the routine.

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The Sources of Emptiness

People can be magnificent, giving, caring creatures. But they can be monsters, as well. There’s a battle going on, an undeclared war between humanity as we wish it to be and humanity as it is. We’re soldiers in that war, fighting against an enemy we cannot readily recognize. We are not sure which side we’re on, nor how to identify who is with us and who is against us. The battle is chaotic, confusing, complex. The battlefield is hidden by smoke. We cannot hear gunshots from rifles and pistols, thanks to the explosive percussion of cannons that have rendered us deaf. So we fire our weapons indiscriminately, hoping the damage they do will inflict more pain on the enemy, whoever that is, than on ourselves.

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Hard to believe. The second Saturday in October already is upon us. If I lived near the Great River Road in Iowa or Wisconsin, day trips into the countryside would yield autumn experiences; Roadside stands selling pumpkins and small bales of hay. Leaves turning yellow and gold and orange and red. Country markets where caramel apples and winter vegetables beckon travelers in to spend their money. The smell of wood smoke, conjuring images of families sitting around the fireplace, relating their days’ experiences. But I do not live anywhere near the Great River Road. I am distant from Iowa and Wisconsin. I rely on semi-rural Arkansas to to provide an almost real autumn experience. Colorful printed flags on display, in place of changing leaves and actual pumpkins. The smell of asphalt as local roads are skim-coated, readying the roads for the onslaught of winter, whatever winter in an era of climate change may bring.

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I feel a need to escape. Escape from this time and place to a more hospitable moment, when humankind was kinder. Less judgmental. Not so greedy. Compassionate. Friendlier. I know, I know. There was never such a time. Humans have never been better than they are today. Selfishness has defined the species from the moment the transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens was complete. Though I wasn’t there, I suspect selfishness was an embedded characteristic even of homo erectus. I cannot imagine selfishness growing into such a powerful force of nature just in the time our species has existed. Selfishness of that depth and breadth and unfathomable weight must have taker much longer to develop. At least that’s what I think.

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The words immediately struck me: “…kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.”  The attribution for those words, which may or may not be valid, was reported as Revelation of Lao Tsu – The Tao. Ultimately, as I think about those words, it becomes clear to me: neither the originator of those words or the concept behind them matter. Nor do the words, in and of themselves, matter. What matters is the mental, intellectual, or emotional outcome that arises from the person who hears or reads or simply thinks about the words. And, if their impact goes so far, the physical expression that emerges as a consequence of exposure to, or thoughts about, the words.

The words that preceded the ones I quoted above are these:

When you realize where you came from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused

and then the words that captured my imagination:

kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.”

where you came from… Aha! That gets at the issue. Where is not a place, but a source. The source of the words purports to deliver the source for all…

Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source.

If I contemplated for long enough, I am sure I would dream up dozens of sources: the universe, light from distant galaxies, God (or some semblance of such an entity), the visual “screams” of stars exploding and disappearing into the inky blackness of space, and dozens of additional possibilities. Perhaps, though, there is no true source beyond one’s own mind. Our common source either is everything or nothing. Whatever fills the empty spaces inside our heads—those place-holders are the hiding places for the sources of everything, except for the place-holders themselves. Contemplation consumes one’s intellectual purity, leaving behind an impure mixture of recollection and wishes. And that, as they say, is that. The residue of an inexplicably impossible-to-comprehend experience and thought process.

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I woke up so very late this morning; it was after 7:15. For that reason, I feel I’ve wasted a good part of the day, the part of day that begins in darkness. I’ve used time in daylight to perform the functions usually reserved for pre-daylight hours, thus using up daylight hours that could have been devoted to pre-daylight thinking. It’s a shame.  A crying shame.

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