To Forgive…

It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

~ Oscar Wilde ~

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Just shy of two months after surgery to remove the cancer-laden lower lobe from my right lung, I wrote the following:

Forgiveness does not excuse a person from having done wrong, nor is it a gift of redemption one gives to someone else. Forgiveness is not extended to another person for the other person’s benefit. It is a gift to oneself to achieve a measure of peace. That’s a lesson I’ve taken the better part of sixty-five years to learn. And I’m still learning it, still trying to internalize it so it becomes second  nature.

The issue of forgiveness keep popping up in my mind for reasons too involved to get into here. But no matter the context, the issue with which I find it most difficult to cope is self-forgiveness. It’s a subject that has long been on my mind; literally for many years. On the one hand, it seems self-serving and undeserved. On the other, if self-forgiveness enables one to improve the lives of others in some  small measure, then maybe it is not so self-serving. But the argument never holds; guilt and shame conspire to douse that phoenix arising from the ashes of doubt.

The sermon delivered by the UU minister this past Sunday dealt with forgiveness, though the topic was “universal salvation.” In my mind, that concept presupposes so many things I cannot bring myself to believe that I could barely wrap my head around the topic, itself. But I’m much more tolerant and far more flexible in my thinking than I was just a few years ago. It’s no long impossible for me to listen to such discussions…universal salvation, heaven, hell, etc., as if the concepts were based in verifiable reality. “What comes after…?” My answer is this: “For the one whose life has ended, nothing. It’s over. Complete. And the real finality will come, as the Jewish saying goes, ‘when one’s name is spoken for the last time.’ Yes, I’ll acknowledge uncertainty about that, but I am far more confident of that ‘fact’ than I am with the idea that there really is a unicorn.”

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I thought of how many people go to their graves unforgiven and unforgiving. I thought of how many people have had siblings or friends or children or lovers disappear from their lives before precious words of clemency or absolution could be passed along. How do the survivors of terminated relationships ever endure the pain of unfinished business? From that place of meditation, I found the answer-you can finish the business yourself, from within yourself. It’s not only possible, it’s essential.

~ Elizabeth Gilbert ~

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While I “get” the idea that people don’t want to go to their graves not having done something or having done something to redeem themselves with respect to something they did, I…don’t really get it. If the end is, as I think it is, the termination of both physical life and consciousness in any and all forms, it doesn’t matter whether one has absolved themselves of the guilt and the pain. The end comes, regardless. And there are no subsequent “consequences to the actions or inactions in one’s life. When it’s over, it’s over. Except for those left behind. The magnitude of their grief and their regrets and their desire for absolution is beyond measure. The exponential expansion of negative emotions knows no boundaries. In one sense, one can view death as a powerful, life-affirming context within which we live our lives. Death keeps us on our toes. And it thrashes our state of mind repeatedly, shredding our emotional lives into tatters, pieces of which blow away in the slightest emotional storm.

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I will walk a little now.

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Ten Years On

Too many words, not enough meat. That’s my primary critique of my writing. I recognize my propensity for thinking—and writing—in long, convoluted strings. So I’ll make this post brief. Relatively speaking.

Wordy, yes, but at least consistently wordy. Or should that be persistently wordy? Or both? I use words as though I’m afraid I will one day run out of them—I want to have used as many as I possibly could before that time comes. But not necessarily words from my mouth—those are relatively rare, compared to the ones that spring from the tips of my fingers. I have much greater confidence in my fingers than confidence in my lips. I think my fingers are wired more directly to my brain, whereas the circuitry between my brain and my lips is long, convoluted, and laced with broken connections and shorts. Regardless, though, I usually enjoy writing. Even when I do not enjoy it, I feel compelled to write because writing is sometimes the only way I know to relieve stress that has been compressed almost to the point of explosive release. Not to the point at which I would be a danger to others; only to my own sanity. And so, to avoid madness to the extent I can, I write. All of which is to introduce the milestone.

Two days from now—Wednesday, August 10—will be this blog’s tenth birthday. I’m of a mind to celebrate that milestone now, a few days early. I doubt I will remember to do it on Wednesday because—unlike marriages, college graduations, and citizenship ceremonies— linguistic stamina does not merit much in the way of festivities.

When I go back and re-read the very first thing I posted on this blog, I realize how little progress I’ve made in ten years. Ten years ago, when writing about the reasons I decided to create the blog, I wrote this:

…I have a history of being a hard-nosed guy on the job, someone who frequently confused work performance for success, both personally and with respect to the people around me.  I’ve been very hard on myself for what I perceived as failures and I’ve been even harder on the people around me.  That’s true of my work life and my personal life.

Those are personality flaws…I’ve allowed to grow and have in fact nurtured along.  Those are flaws I’m finally striving to overcome and, to the extent possible, correct.

I could just as well have written that yesterday. But it occurs to me now that I was not sufficiently explicit about what “correct” meant. Did I mean “eliminate” or did I mean “conceal?” I think I meant “eliminate.” Yet I think I’ve gone about the process in a way that doesn’t remove those flaws; it only attempts to hide them behind an obscuring façade. Better than ripping off the disguise and showing the demon behind the mask, I suppose.

This post—today’s, I mean, Monday, August 8—is published post number 4,064. Another 537 unfinished drafts await either completion or erasure or, more likely, eternal limbo.

Well, I said I would make this relatively short. So, I’ll close for now and go for my morning walk, my physical effort to regain my physical and mental stamina.

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Any Other Ideas?

The fundamental problem with human societies is and always has been rooted in one cold, hard fact. We have been unable to come to agreement on two things: what constitutes morality and how to enforce morality’s control over behavior: both individual behaviors and the collective conduct that emerge from our interactions with one another.

Put another way, we remain feral creatures whose selfishness is always greater than our sense of responsibility. We act as if behaviors that serve us, individually, are more important (and therefore completely excusable) than behaviors that serve the interests of society at large. This is not necessarily true of every individual, but its truth is sufficiently expansive that this fact exercises control over humanity’s inability to come to grips with not only living “in humanity” but its inability to behave humanely.

What is the solution? We’ve tried religion; that didn’t work. Any other ideas?

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Thoughty Conglomerations

I spar with the world, but I’m generally quite happy with it. If I had absolute power and control, I might change a few things about it—poverty, war, famine, thirst, sickness, loss, physical and emotional pain, politics, corruption, disease, judgment, etc.—but on balance, it’s still a pretty good place to be. As I said, I spar with it on occasion (at least twice daily), but we rarely land blows on one another as to cause any serious or long-lasting damage. Rare, but it does happen. The world has landed those punches on me; I haven’t been as successful. At any rate, even as I recall those unpleasant punches, I appreciate the other ones, when the world strokes my hand and my heart. The world is in the form of a human being at those moments, of course. Yet while the number of hard punches is far less than the number of strokes, the punches are much heavier and harder. The scale can remain balanced only if the number of hard punches the world lands remains quite low. A single addition could catastrophically upset the balance. There is no way of knowing when or whether the world will land another blow. Nor do we know whether another outpouring of pleasant strokes of the hand and heart could possibly outweigh an additional heavy punch. Eventually, we’ll find out.

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BC. That is shorthand for “Before Covid,” that carefree time when the world was closer to its ideal than is the case today. Among the things I miss about those BC times is the impromptu Sunday lunch gatherings after the service. A small group seemed to form out of nowhere; someone would say “join us for lunch?” This small group murmured its approval; a decision about location was made on the fly, as people headed to their cars. But that was BC. Today, even as the mask veils have been lifted, at least for a time, the impromptu lunches have not returned. The congregation remains friendly, but seems to be not quite as close; not quite as open to informal gatherings, which are increasingly rare. Bear in mind, any who read this, that this is one person’s perspective. It may not be shared by another living human; so keep that in mind.

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Recently, I switched channels from Netflix and Amazon Prime to Hulu to watch the first season of a series entitled Nine Perfect Strangers (now finished…worth watching, if a little odd and somewhat slow-paced). I had watched Hulu programming before, but stopped because of the volume of commercials. Nothing has changed. I felt like I was given 7-minute snippets of the story in return for watching 5-minutes of excruciatingly bad commercials. Regardless, I made it through a season of Nine Perfect Strangers. But, then, I switched back to Netflix. It was like stepping out of a worn and rusted 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk and into a 2022 Lincoln Navigator.  The former may be sturdier and have more value as an antique, but the latter provides instant gratification in the form of a luxurious interior.

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We have been spoiled. And we’re still being spoiled. There was a time, not so very long ago, that my options for television entertainment were ABC, CBS, or NBC. Today, my options have no bounds. If I wanted to watch a film, uninterrupted, I had to go to a movie theater; now, I simply press buttons to call up the film, then watch as much or as little as I like, at my leisure. Without interruptions. In days past, our options for dining out were severely limited, especially in terms of international foods. An article in The Atlantic reports that restaurants accounted for 25 percent of food spending in the 1950, versus 50 percent in mid-2017.  Too many options. These days, we do not even have to go to a store to buy our groceries or clothing or even an automobile. We can order them all online, from the comfort of our desks or dining room tables. On one hand, I find disgusting the level of sloth resulting from these millions of opportunities for overindulgence. On the other hand, I rely on these luxuries to such an extent that I question where I could live without them. It would be like doing without water, I think. Appalling.

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My lips form words. Your lips form words in reply. I watch your lips respond to the sounds produced by the way mine move. And I watch as you respond to the way I hold my jaw when I curl my tongue and purse my lips to form the sounds that combine to make the word “you.”  Our eyes meet during the back-and-forth vocalization, saying far more than the sounds coming from our lips. Our eyes tell unrelated stories; stories that have nothing to do with the vocalization and everything to do with all the years and years of silence that preceded it.

Before I met you, I was a different person. And you were a different person. Had we met a month earlier or a month later, the outcome could have been utterly different. We would have become different people, but not the same different people we are today. That’s what life is like. It is randomness that’s sometimes exponentially amplified by multiplying its own randomness.

The two preceding paragraphs could have been written with one person in mind or they could apply to a dozen people. Only I know which is true. Except I might fool even myself if I were to allow my mind to wander through its own thickets and find old paths that have never been used as fully as was intended when they were made. What if, the writer in me asks, I were to explore who they might have become, had the clock moved just enough to radically alter circumstances? The same writer answers, “That sounds like a good idea, but not now; at the moment, I’m in a ditch, covered by large, crack pieces of writers’ block. But as soon as I am rescued, taken to hospital, and then can leave my subsequent home at the writers’ rehabilitation center and move back into my own house, I’ll get right on it.”

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Old Medicine

Not long ago, I started walking again most mornings when temperatures and humidity levels have been low enough for outdoor jaunts to be tolerable. As relatively flat as I thought my new neighborhood was, realty has taught me otherwise. Compared to the old neighborhood in the Village, this one is flat; but compared to my old neighborhood in Dallas, walking this one can be akin to strolling through the Appalachians with a fifty-pound pack strapped to my back.  The relative paucity of truly “flat” areas notwithstanding, I am beginning to enjoy my morning walks, as short as they are. This morning’s stroll was just a tad more than one mile, a laughably short walk to most people, I am sure. To me, though, a mile represents an achievement after being so sedentary for so long. It’s not that I did not want to walk; it’s that I had no stamina and was quickly out of breath after only a relatively few steps. When I began my short walks no long ago, my stamina was as low as it has ever been, but in short order it has improved measurably. I still get winded quickly and easily, but not quite as quickly and easily as had been the case. I am determined to recover as much of my stamina as possible; I have places to go and things to do.

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Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

~ Epicurus ~

At its most fundamental, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature. The concept celebrates the appeal of the old and deeply worn as opposed to the new and untouched. It goes beyond “things,” though. It is embedded, for example, in the emotional appeal of a plain, white, mass-produced ceramic cup—an allure that outweighs the attraction of a one-of-a-kind hand-made mug adorned with brilliantly-colored glazes. One’s fascination with the plain white cup does not mean the hand-made mug is not attractive; it means only that the story behind the plain white cup, even in its mass-produced simplicity, is deeper and more powerful.

Wabi-sabi is on my mind this morning as I contemplate mi novia’s gentle mockery of my insistence on drinking my coffee out of that plain white cup. I choose my plain white Vortex brand cup, mass-produced for the hotel and hospitality industry, despite the fact that I have a collection of more than eighty colorful mugs that represent many places I have visited over the years. I could excuse my selection of the plain white cup by pointing out that the mug collection remains boxed because there’s no wall in the house sufficiently long to hang the mug rack. But that excuse would be false. No, I choose to continue using the white cup because it continues, even after so much time has passed, to take me back to a time in my life when everything was different. I was a different person then. I lived in a different house. My concerns about life were different. So, in my circumstances, the cup celebrates the appeal of another time that deeply etched itself into my psyche. There’s much more, of course; as silly as it may seem, it sometimes helps me get through memories that would otherwise be even more difficult. It represents stability in a time when everything else in life seems unstable.

Wabi-sabi. Beauty in imperfection. Profundity in nature. I suspect wabi-sabi is responsible for the attachment many people have to antiques. Or for the idea of buying and restoring an old car, the model a parent or spouse once drove. Or for holding onto and displaying one’s childhood toys. Or for repairing the broken toaster instead of buying a new one at a fraction of the cost. Or for refusing to have a monstrous old lightning-damaged oak tree cut down and hauled away. Wabi-sabi also can help explain the strong emotional attachment people have to old furniture that has lived long past its usefulness or pots and pans that look decrepit and allow food to stick. Memories are embedded in the stuff; whether they are used or not, their presence is medicinal.

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The words of wise people, when taken alone, can be truly insightful and thought-provoking. Taken in concert with the words of other people we assume were awash in wisdom, they can be both thought-provoking and unsettling; confusing and painful to attempt to understand. Take, for example, the following:

He that lives upon hope will die fasting.

~ Benjamin Franklin ~

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Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.

~ Albert Einstein ~

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I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquility will return again.

~ Anne Frank ~

It is for that reason that, as much value as I find in contemplating the words of other people, I am firmly ensconced in the belief that we must think for ourselves. We can listen and learn from others, but we cannot allow them to think for us nor to speak our minds; only we can do that.

I refuse cede my obligation to think to Rachel Maddow, no matter her level of intellect and outright brilliance. Though she and I share many social and political perspectives, I refuse to abdicate my responsibility to think for myself, allowing her to be my mouthpiece. I have perspectives both far more progressive or liberal than hers and far more conservative. Similarly, I will not permit my friends’ and acquaintances’ collective condemnation of every word spoken by Fox News hosts to take up residence in my own brain; the usual stupidity of Fox News hosts notwithstanding. Fox News anchors can occasionally have, or at least espouse, valid points. Automatically accepting the positions taken by Rachel Maddow or automatically rejecting those espoused by Sean Hannity is an unhealthy and unthinking response to propaganda, pure and simple. Such automatic acceptance is evidence that a person is either unable or unwilling to think for himself/herself. Though I personally have been guilty of such automatic acceptance, I find it contemptible and shameful. Whenever I realize I have done what I admonish others to avoid, I suffer deep embarrassment. I wish others would suffer the same when/if they realize they, too, are behaving like faithful servants instead of independent equals.

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Last night’s marathon viewing of Nine Perfect Strangers enhanced my appreciation for the series. The fact that it is on Hulu and, therefore, is laced with an enormous volume of commercials, detracts from the story, though. I understand the need for entertainment companies to earn money and I realize the economic models they follow may require change over time, but interrupting good television/film with commercials is an abomination unto me. If and when Netflix begins showing commercials in the middle of programming, I will seek another source. I would be willing to pay more just so I could avoid watching “Flo” of the Progressive Insurance (that is the advertiser, right?) television commercials grow older and less visually/intellectually appealing by the day.

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It’s damn near 8, time for a shower and a shave. But first, perhaps, some breakfast.

 

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Drifting

Once again, I awoke in the middle of the night—before 3:30. I knew immediately that I would not be able to quickly fall asleep, though I had done precisely that when I got up at 12:30 and again at 2 to pee. At 3:30, though, I was up for the duration. A few days ago, a friend shared with me an interesting article from The Atlantic about “segmented sleep,” which ostensibly was common until the Industrial Revolution interfered with humans’ “natural” sleep habits. Those natural habits, according to some historians and others intrigued by the sleep patterns of our ancestors, included sleeping in segments. During the night, people would awaken from their slumbers for a while and engage in various activities, then return to bed for their “second sleep” segment that would last until morning. The Industrial Revolution, some of these sleep aficionados claim, demanded well-rested workers who got a full night’s uninterrupted sleep. Perhaps, through my regular bouts of wee-hour insomnia, I am unwittingly attempting to return to my ancestral roots. The difference, thus far, is that I generally eschew the second segment; I’ll have to give it a shot one of these days.

In the meantime, I will continue to use the silence and solitude of the early hours as a refuge from the chaotic swirl of daily life. I will continue to read, or write, or sit in contemplative silence as I explore thoughts that border on the unthinkable; nothing murderous or otherwise violent—fantasies, instead, that belong in the heads of someone younger and less risk-averse.

In the absence of sleep, hunger sometimes creeps into my consciousness. I generally am not one to have “midnight snacks” to satisfy my cravings, but I do tend to focus on reading about and thinking about food when hunger strikes in the deepest, darkest parts of the night. This morning/night was no exception. I read about spicy fried chicken that originates in the Indian state of Kerala. More on that below.

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I lost myself trying to please everyone else. Now I’m losing everyone while I’m finding myself.

~ Buddha Daily ~

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Bordered by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to the east, the Indian state of Kerala is situated on the far southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. I know little about India and even less about its component states. But I know that each state’s unique culinary gifts have adherents worldwide. That is certainly true of Kerala. A food blogger, writing on the TravelTriangle website, is a die-hard fan of the state’s cuisine:

“Inspired by a fusion of Malabari, French, and Arabian influences and enhanced with a touch of Kerala’s unique culture, each dish in the state is an experience in itself that will leave you asking for more!”

Although Kerala’s foods are, traditionally, vegetarian, a distinctly non-vegetarian dish is among its best known culinary secrets. One of the dishes for which Kerala is known throughout Asia (and, it seems, the world) is Kethel’s Chicken Fry, whose origin can be traced to a restaurant that, years after its founding in 1949, remains famous for its spicy fried chicken. The restaurant, oddly named Rahmaniya Hotel , has expanded from its original site to four sites in Kerala: Trivandrum, Kollam , Kochi and Calicut. Locals refer to the place as Kethel’s Fried Chicken, or KFC, but the similarities between Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and the Keralan dish end with the generic main ingredient: chicken. Kethel’s uses only spring chickens. A BBC travel writer describes the dish as follows:

Only the legs and wings, the meatiest pieces of the otherwise small bird, are taken for the fry. The rest is chopped to make a gravy. A fiery masala is hand-pounded then hand ground, and then the chicken pieces are marinated in this special spice mix and deep-fried in coconut oil on a wood-fired stove. The leftover masala is also deep-fried, and when the chicken is served, the delectable bits, called the podi, are placed on top. 

Were I younger and financially flush, I would travel to Kerala to sample its cuisine. I would be especially interested in tasting Kethel’s Chicken Fry.

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At a friend’s recommendation (the same friend who alerted me to the article that addressed the “second sleep”), we began watching Nine Perfect Strangers last night. I found it interesting, despite the fact that I kept drifting off while watching it (a response, perhaps, to my insomnia and my failure to engage in my “second sleep”). I have not yet decided whether I will really like the series or will reject it as presenting an impossible/improbable situation involving almost supernatural powers or witchcraft. But I do not yet know where it’s going, so it is too early to judge. And I was not sufficiently and consistently awake while watching it to make any reliable assessments. So, we will continue watching. I hope I will be less prone to drifting off to light sleep in the process.

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Speaking of food, as I was, I made an interesting meal last night. At least I found it interesting. I seared some small strips of chicken breast meat and then sauteed them briefly with a sauce made from onions, garlic, shallots, dry sherry, spices, and vegetable stock. I made a vegetable side dish consisting of 2-inch pieces of asparagus sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and slices of Kalamata olives and pimento-stuffed green olives. I liked both dishes, though both of them took more time than I would have liked. Despite my lifelong enjoyment of cooking, I am finding the process of preparing meals less than fulfilling, these days. I’d rather have something extremely fast and simple, as opposed to something that takes time and is more complex. Cooking just isn’t as appealing today as it has been. I do not understand quite why that it. It may be the fact that I loathe the layout of and lack of convenient storage in the kitchen. But that does not fully explain my growing disinterest in cooking. The disinterest in cooking has not expanded into a disinterest in eating; if I could, I would eat everything within range of my mouth, I think. It’s all so damn confusing and annoying. Perhaps I need to engage a chef to prepare meals several times a week? Hmm. If I were exceptionally wealthy, maybe I would…

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If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.

~ Tennessee Williams ~

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I have plenty to do this morning, but my motivation is at a low ebb. If the air and the leaves weren’t so dry, I might go outside and build a fire so I could sit and stare at the mesmerizing flames as they lick the air above them. But even that would take work; I probably wouldn’t do it even if the air and the leaves were saturated with humidity.

Hmm. I drifted off for a moment. Maybe I need more coffee. Or more sleep.

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Lost

I lost the majority of what I wrote this morning. When I attempted to save what I had written, WordPress did not cooperate. Apparently, it had saved a fraction of what I had written…the parts produced below. I am annoyed, but not terribly upset. I hope I have overcome my tendency toward rage over the most mundane obstacles. But I do mourn the loss of my writing; I revealed more about what’s hidden inside my brain than I have done in very, very long time. All my revelations about secretly (or not so much) wanting to pursue a monastic life, if only for a while, are lost, as are my fantasies about traveling to New Brunswick and beyond. All that disappeared into the ether. Such is life.

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According to the Iceland Monitor, a considerable amount of seismic activity has been detected around Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula since noon Saturday, when a recent series of earthquakes began.  More than ten thousand earthquakes have been detected since then.  Laufey Fjóla Hermannsdóttir, who lives in Grindavík, Iceland told the Iceland Monitor that “All drawers and cupboards opened and food items fell to the floor. Decorative statues on shelves and photo frames also fell to the floor and broke. It was a mess.” The article that described the recent spate of earthquakes went on to address responses to, and plans for, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Though the article obviously addressed a serious situation, it did not constitute the major headline.

The biggest Icelandic news, if one judges importance by the size of headline, related to weather. Unlike the weather much of the USA has experienced during the past month, Iceland experienced an unusually cool July. The highest temperature recorded during the months was 60.62° F; the lowest maximum July temperature before this year was in 1989. In that year, Reykjavík had 77 hours of sunshine for the month, against 150 hours in July this year. Speaking of weather: the Icelandic word for weather is veður. If Google Translate is correct, that word is not pronounced the way I might have expected. It sounds a little like VEH’thickhh, to me.

About those ten thousand earthquakes… I have heard absolutely nothing about them from any domestic or global news source. I learned about them only by glancing at my English-language Icelandic news resource. Why, I wonder, does the rest of the world seem to ignore incidents involving 10,000 earthquakes? Incidentally, today’s high in Reykjavík is forecast to reach 50°F; tomorrow’s high is expected to be a scorcher, topping out at 52°F.

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It’s akin to sentimentality, but it’s not quite the same thing. Whatever it is, on occasion— usually in the wee hours (like now, at 4:25 a.m.)—those early morning moments lead to explorations of the past; and questions, like “what was on my mind all those years ago?” One of the benefits of writing a blog with some regularity is that one tends to record, almost in real time, one’s state of mind. Issues that tugged at one’s psyche, for example, or that caused one to ruminate on big, unanswerable questions that stay with us for as long as we remain curious and in awe of all existence. On occasion, looking back at the topics that were top of mind in years past reveals that those same topics remain just as vexing many years later. This morning, I read something I wrote on another of my old blogs, almost eleven years ago:

…I tend to be more than a little aloof in some circumstances. That aloofness tends to make people a little less than enthusiastic about approaching me. Another factor in “aloneness” can be attributed to my desire for private time. Though I’m by no means a loner, I enjoy people (in general) in small doses. I don’t “bond” over the most common bonding factors, either. Sports…not my thing. Politics…I’m deeply liberal on most issues, but tend to get bored talking about politics. Social consciousness…I care deeply, but I have to be in the right mood to converse about those matters.

I could have written those words ten minutes ago and they would be just as current, just as valid, as they were all those years ago. And I could have written the following, extracted from the same blog, written at roughly the same time:

Physics cannot explain all the “BIG” questions to my satisfaction. But I don’t buy the religious explanations, either.

It’s late. I have to sleep. These questions won’t get answered tonight. They won’t get answered in this lifetime.

One would think a person would tire of asking the unanswerable questions. When it becomes evident there is not—and never will be—a satisfactory answer, what’s the point of continuing to ask the question? Indeed. But so many such questions exist; we call them…some of them…rhetorical questions. Yet we ask them not to exaggerate a point or merely for effect. We really wish we had answers. We know we won’t get them, but we wish we would. Therefore, we keep asking them, perhaps in the illogical hope that one day—out of the clear blue—we will stumble upon a legitimate answer. I wonder, though, what we would do if we came upon that answer to those “BIG” questions? Would the answers disappoint us? Who knows? I don’t.

 

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Explosive Revelation

If news of the enormous August 2020 explosion of parts of the grain silos at the port of Beirut reached my eyes and ears, I do not remember. I suspect I never heard details of the catastrophe that killed more than 200 people, injured another 6,000-plus, and damaged entire neighborhoods all around the port. An article posted in August 2021 called the explosion “one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history.” Journalists who investigated the cause(s) of the explosion seem to have reached no conclusions, considering the circumstances surrounding the tragedy hidden and unknowable, thanks in part to what appears (from my perspective, at least) to be intentional withholding of information by people who should know and should share what they know. A judge, tasked with finding the cause of the original blast, has faced political opposition for bringing to justice people he believes are culpable for the explosion. The most common theories about the August 2020 blast suggest it was triggered by a smaller blaze that ultimately ignited a large store of ammonium nitrate—that is the same substance used in the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I have seen videos of both the Beirut and the Oklahoma City blasts. The Beirut blast was, by far, the largest and most destructive. One theory is that exploding fireworks provided the mechanical trigger necessary to set off the huge ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut.

The 2020 explosion was in the news again when, on July 31, the northern block of the remaining silos collapsed in a monstrous cloud of dust after a weeks-long fire, ignited by grains that fermented in the summer heat. I watched a couple of videos of the most recent collapse, which sent smoke and dust billowing into the sky and which plunged nearby areas into darkness. But watching those videos and the ones I viewed of the original blast revealed that the recent blast was minor in comparison.

I watched the first nine minutes of a 25-minute investigative journalism video report on the 2020 blast. The video was interesting—really intriguing—but my mind is racing too much this morning to focus on that video for 25 minutes. I will return to it.

Is it just that I forgot about hearing news of such an incredible catastrophe or does news of monumental catastrophes from that part of the world no longer stun me, so that I easily forget about them? I suspect it’s the latter. Perhaps I heard about the blast but dismissed it as “just more distant, unpreventable chaos that does not affect me directly.” If so, that is embarrassing in the extreme; not just embarrassing, but sickening in its revelation that I might be able to dismiss enormous loss of life and homes as “somebody else’s problem.”

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Yesterday, after I returned from my brief walk in the woods, I glanced through the front door’s glass. In front of the house, a doe and her young, spotted fawn, grazed at the roadside, oblivious to my gaze, fixed on them. A moment later, a buck—his regal rack of antlers tall and impressive—strolled into the picture. At about that time, I heard mi novia stir, so I called her in to see the spectacle. We spent several minutes watching those three deer and then an additional several more, including another buck, a couple of does, and at least one or two more fawns. I a grateful for the opportunity to live in a place so hospitable to forest creatures. And I am delighted to have the occasion, from time to time, to have the chance to view them clearly and in moderately “slow motion.” I feel the same sense of gratitude and delight when I sit here at my desk and at the breakfast table, looking through the windows as all sorts of birds take advantage of the seed feast we lay out for them on a regular basis.

Yet, in spite of my extraordinary good fortune, I sometimes feel utterly dejected, anxious…whatever the negative feelings that leave one feeling dull and spent and painfully aware of one’s inadequacies. In response to my expression of similar angst, several months ago, a friend wrote about advice he had received from a therapist—he had expressed his feelings that he had no right to complain about his depression, in light of the fact that his life was full of good fortune. The therapist compared the pain he felt to being scalded with hot water; the fact that an entire family somewhere else is fighting a losing battle against being burned to death in a housefire is irrelevant. His pain, the therapist told him, was his alone. Though that reality can sometimes make my emotions seem less absurd and less random, it also somehow makes it seem deeper and more real.

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September 15-29. That’s the first two-week period I could find without commitments. The first period available for a lengthy road trip. But two weeks is not long enough. Two weeks is just a start. A month, at least, is what I need. A month to explore places that could sooth my soul. That may be a bit of hyperbole; but it’s not too terribly off the mark. I just may clear the decks, as it were, of obligations for an extended period of time. Refuse to be held hostage to a calendar and the calendar’s insistence that it should control me, not vice versa.

+++

Promising too much can be as cruel as caring too little.

~ William J. Clinton ~

+++

I hear a woodpecker attempting to tear my house apart. There’s nothing I can do. If I go outside, it will simply fly away, out of my reach. But it will return. Over and over and over, it will return. Nature does not care one whit about whether my house survives a woodpecker’s hunger or rage. I, alone, must stand up to nature (or the woodpecker), yet I have no power to reverse the course of nature. Pointless repetition, leading to an unknown and unknowable conclusion.

+++

You think I’m not watching you. You’re mistaken. I watch. I watch constantly.

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Overture

This morning, I am scheduled to visit my primary care doctor’s office, where his nurse practitioner will grill me about my recent experience in the hospital, after having been taken to the ER by ambulance. Frankly, I am not sure of the point of visiting my primary care doctor, after having been attended to by specialists in a hospital setting. In that setting, the medical staff has access to far more sophisticated equipment and, I suspect, a staff trained in much greater depth and detail than a physician’s office staff. But I will go, anyway, because I was advised to do so. And my doctor’s office called me to check on me and set up a follow-up appointment the day after my release from the hospital. That follow-up, alone, was enough to impress me into following their advise and counsel with regard to a follow-up visit. I may question the hospital’s advise about what I put in my body, given their diagnosis of “acute” versus “chronic” issues. We’ll see. Perhaps the doctor’s patient-measuring scales will respond to me in surprise when they discover a slightly less-dense human standing atop them. I hope that’s the case.

I detest spending time in the hospital. Even a day or two is a day or two too long. Though hospitals are necessary and I am grateful we have them, I appreciate them in the same way I appreciate scalpels; I am glad they are available when needed, but I would rather not rely on them to keep me free of bloody lacerations.

+++

Suddenly, last night, The Sopranos came to a startling, unexpected end. No, how can I say unexpected? We were watching the last episode of the last season; how could I have been blindsided? I wasn’t blindsided. I saw it coming all along. It was not a radical departure from expectations. It did not stun me with its remarkable surprise. No. It just slapped me, hard, in the face. It forced me to imagine the final, heart-wrenching scenes, the ones not written and not filmed. So THAT’s over. I may need a respite from televised stress; just for a while. I might need to stay away for a bit from drama that stomps jack-boot heavily on the fragile morality of my delicate bones.

+++

I have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.

~ Irving Penn ~

+++

Anthroposophy is a spiritualist movement that expresses the perspective of the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, accessible to human experience. Until this morning, I had never (to the best of my recollection) heard of the “discipline.” And, after reading just a little about it, I dismiss most of it as pseudo-science that is only marginally more appealing than Southern Baptist philosophies. Bogus evidence of the power of magic is still bogus; the “evidence” part of that phrase gives the rest of it away. If I were less charitable, I might call the “discipline” by another name, perhaps: “intellectual idiocy” or some other complimentary term intended to reveal just how deeply valid the philosophy is and always has been. I admit to being judgmental. But I also admit to being open-minded, once the pry-bars have opened the crack in my skepticism wide enough for doubt to enter…or exit.

+++

Last night’s final marathon of The Sopranos reminded me how attractive I find Juliana Margulies.  I remember first seeing her in ER, then later in The Good Wife, among various other sort-term roles in other dramas. I do not recall whether I have ever heard her speak as Juliana Margulies, rather than as the voice of a character she played. I have an unrealistic hope that, if I heard her being interviewed about issues of substance, I would hear thoughtful, intelligent responses that would affirm a solid intellectual foundation. Maybe it’s not unrealistic; maybe it’s just depressingly unlikely. Incidentally, I came upon the term “anthroposophy” while reading something about Juliana Margulies.

+++

I sometimes hesitate to share with the world, here on my blog, my frame of mind. If I am not sufficiently cheery, words of concern may find their way to my ears or eyes. If I express humor, the assumption seems to be that I am the picture of pure happiness, unscathed by blunt trauma or injuries caused by invisible knives. Sometimes, I want only to document, for my own purposes, how I felt during a particularly difficult or especially gleeful time. Those brief moments, extracted from a pretty damn chaotic series of experiences, do not define who I am or how I feel. But I can understand how people might assume they do. What else do they have to measure my moods against? Just me and my head, in rage or fear or depression or hilarity, banging  against a wall of my own making.

I learned some things, maybe, while watching The Sopranos. I learned how expressions of rage or simple anger or grief or joy can emerge from mundane circumstances that we, who experience emotion, nurture into sustainers of “a certain mood.” We feed our own emotions with a diet we manufacture from raw materials we bring to the metaphorical kitchen. I knew all this, of course. We all do. But to watch it play out in such obvious fashion through the actions of such remarkably skilled actors…well, that’s instructional, informative, insightful.

+++

Monday. Here it is. I’m off to confront it head on.

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Nudged into Contemplation

I love to be nudged into examining issues from new perspectives; to look into matters from unfamiliar points of view. That provocation is almost always at play when I watch BBC Reel videos. Yesterday morning, after my walk up and down my street, I watched and listened to a video entitled, “The Dark Side of Empathy.” Watching the film forced me to think in a different way about an emotion I’ve always considered purely positive. I won’t try to explain it here; I’ll leave that to interested readers who want to learn more. But I will say the comments by some of the psychologists who were interviewed caused me to consider, deeply, the difference between empathy and compassion. Unlike empathy, compassion has no obvious, menacing dark side. Another brief video, which I have yet to watch but is on my list for some future morning after I come to grips with another new day, is entitled, “The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories.”

+++

A striking blog post—from another blog, Kelly’s Quest I visit on occasion—gave me pause this morning. As I skim some old, incredibly verbose posts, I feel the statement is aimed squarely at me:

You are too full of gibberish, you know too much. Because of your borrowed knowledge and too many words moving inside you, you cannot see the wordless beauty that can only be experienced in silence.

~ Osho ~

+++

I do not recall the last time I droned on about exploring other places to visit or live. I do not recall, but I am relatively sure it was within the last week. I won’t apologize for feeling the need to do it again, taking on my role of travel agent to the chronically nomadic. Today’s place to visit is Light on the Hill, a retreat venue that accommodates both individuals and groups. Describing itself as “a healing and inspiring space for reflection. deep inner work, and spiritual growth,” it puts itself in a position in which it simply MUST perform. Of course such places understandably turn the tables on their clients and patrons, responding with “it’s your responsibility to do sufficiently deep work that it leads to spiritual growth.” But that’s just supposition.  Located about 35 miles south of Ithaca, in Van Etten, New York, the retreat center presents itself as a refuge from the rest of the world, nestled in a wonderland of forests and lakes and overwhelming tranquility. I’m ready to make the trip!

+++

At the innermost core of all loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for union with one’s lost self.

~ Brendan Behan ~

+++

Look into a mirror. Search that face for clues about who is hiding behind the façade. The eyes are the best sources. They reveal everything; they really are the windows to the soul. The person looking back at your is not always easy to see. But look deeply. Try to glimpse the timid figure tucked away behind that obscure reflection; that shy child who is still trying to understand that chaotic world beyond the limits of the imagination.

Now, peer furtively but intently into the eyes of a nearby stranger. Pay no heed to her beauty or his frightening countenance—look deeper, to the real person. You will see a timid figure, much like your own, hunched behind a protective shield of emotional armor. Engage with the stranger long enough and the shield will be lowered, slightly. But it will never be dropped or discarded. Because it may be needed at some point. We all must shield our eyes, on occasion, whether with a raised hand or a raised shield. Or a raised sword.

+++

Years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts entitled something like “Doing Without.”  My purpose was to give up, for one month, something I took for granted and in or with which I indulged regularly. One month it was coffee. Another it was red meat. Another it was booze. Etc. The idea was to test my discipline and to do a “rinse and repeat” on my brain. I wanted to clearly identify the effects of various elements of daily living on my life in general and my sanity in particular…though, really, sanity was not top of mind at the time. It was easy to give up things I put in my body; edibles and such. It was not at all easy—impossible, I found by the time I abandoned the exercise—to overcome or abandon the emotional and intellectual controls and whims that swirl around inside my brain. More on that another time. I feel like stopping now.

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Euphoria

A fresh, hot cup of coffee. Another smoldering cone of patchouli incense filling my study with a scent that awakens memories of years ago. On my desk, evidence of procrastination abounds—so many little things left to tidy up, paperwork obligations undone, and paper that should have been filed or discarded days ago…testament to my innocuous indolence. It is early yet, not yet a quarter to five, but the day around me feels ready to flow forward, perfectly attuned to my own readiness to assert dominion over my tiny kingdom.

So begins another Saturday morning. Nothing special, but for some reason I find the ordinary disorder of this very early part of today almost too good to be real. I am an incredibly fortunate man to be who and where I am. I am beyond lucky, having people in my life who make this ordinary disorder, and everything surrounding it, so stunningly beautiful. I am filled with gratitude for everything in my life, even the unpleasant challenges. Without them, the happier components of my experience might not be so obviously and emphatically good. I wish I could capture this feeling of euphoria and distribute it to everyone I encounter and everywhere that needs to feel peace and appreciation—fill the atmosphere in Russia and Iraq and the entirety of Asia and Africa with it. Ach! My goals are too lofty. Perhaps I should start with other rooms in this very house and slowly move outward from there.

It’s too bad the pendulum of such a mood can swing so abruptly and forcefully to the other end of its arc.  There must be some acceptable way of preventing that dramatic swing from euphoria to despair.

+++

Okay. I’m too lazy to continue writing. So I’ll copy and paste the majority of a very long post (from one of my abandoned blogs) from ten years ago in which I described in excruciating detail my experience being supoenaed to testify at a trial in Los Angeles. It’s not really THAT boring, so please read on, if you have the time and the inclination:

July 18, 2010

I spent seven days, last Wednesday and Thursday, trying to testify at a trial in Los Angeles. I had received a subpoena that commanded me to be in Los Angeles for a week, beginning July 13, so I dutifully made my arrangements to go.

The FBI agent who was my contact told me not to worry, I wouldn’t really need to be there for a week. In fact, he said, I would only need to get there one afternoon and leave the next, after dutifully testifying in the case against someone the U.S. Attorney said had scammed many people out of many thousands of dollars. I believed the U.S. Attorney. Still do.

ANYWAY, I flew last Wednesday morning on a flight that got me to L.A. at about 12:30 pm local time. After dashing to catch the SuperShuttle, I sat inside said SuperShuttle for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes while the driver wandered aimlessly around LAX looking for marks. A mere hour and a half after we left the airport, after the driver hurriedly dropped off half the population of L.A. who was riding with me, I was the last rider to be dropped at my hotel.

IN THE MEANTIME, my office sent me an urgent email: the U.S. Postal Inspector who was working with my FBI agent friend had called to say go to my hotel and stay there and await further instructions. So, after I checked in to the hotel, I went to my room and sat patiently. Oh, I didn’t mention that the flight from Dallas to L.A. was supposed to have “food for purchase.” I was actually planning to have my lunch on board that plane. But apparently someone forgot to stock the plane with week-old dry bread and hard, hard, actually brittle salami; there was no food to be had.

Well, I couldn’t very well go to the hotel restaurant to eat because I was expecting a phone call from the FBI agent or the U.S. Postal Inspector or the U.S. Attorney or someone of like official capacity. And I couldn’t very well order room service because I might be called away before it was delivered or, worse yet, have to leave a perfectly good room service tray untouched in my room. So, I decided to wait.

You see, I had arranged to meet a fellow blogger and her husband for dinner. So I could wait to eat until dinner. Over the years, I had stored enough energy around my waist, neck, and thighs to sustain me until dinner, I reasoned. So I would wait.

Incidentally, all I knew about my fellow blogger was what I had read and seen online. The fact that she and her husband could have been, for all I knew, L.A.’s most fashionable serial-killer couple, did not phase me. I wanted to meet KathyR and the man she claimed to be her husband.

But I digress. Back to the story at hand. I waited. I continued to wait. And I waited more. No calls from the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspector, the U.S. Attorney, or anyone else. It was getting late. I was getting worried that I still would be waiting to hear from the Feds after KathyR arrived to meet me at my hotel. So I called and left her a message explaining the situation and suggesting that, if she would rather not risk being unable to have dinner even after the drive to downtown L.A., that would be fine. (This call of mine was NOT my way of backing out of the date due to my fear of becoming the latest victim of L.A.’s most fashionable serial-killer couple.). She called back to say she and her husband were already on their way and that, if things didn’t work out that I could go to dinner, she and that man would just consider it “date night.” I felt better.

Then, I waited some more. Just before KathyR was to arrive, the phone rang. It was the FBI agent. He apologized profusely that he had been unable to call me earlier; he had been in court, where, I learned, communication of any kind is forbidden. They still needed to talk to me. Now, please. I explained I had potential murderers, possibly cannibals friends waiting to have join me for dinner and that I would need to meet them downstairs to let them know I needed to visit with the Feds. He begrudgingly agreed to let me go downstairs to meet my doom friends; he would call me back in five minutes.

I proceeded to the hotel bar, where I instantly recognized KathyR. She was sitting with a man I assumed to be her husband. I explained what had just happened and that I was afraid I could not join them for dinner. They bought me a Grey Goose martini and we chatted for awhile, then FBI guy called and I agreed to leave the hotel at 7:00 pm to go visit him at the courthouse. I found KathyR and her husband, a non-blogger who seemed, nonetheless, to be a decent human being, to be interesting people and was annoyed that I could not spend more time with them. However, during our brief chat, she and her husband (I’ll call him Allen) agreed to visit me in Dallas, where I would be required to take them to the world’s most expensive steakhouse, otherwise known as Pappas Brothers Steakhouse. [My secret plan, though, is to lure them to Dallas, then to take them to a seedy dive or two to demonstrate that “Hidden Kitchens” offers good things to those who risk life and limb.

I have digressed again and again and again. Back to the plot. I loped off to the courthouse, where I was met (after a brief delay) by a Postal Inspector and led up to the U.S. Attorney’s office. I waited still more and, finally, was led into an “interview room” to be interrogated. The FBI agent was still a bit miffed at me, I think, because I had not come right over when he called. I soon learned why, though; he lives a two-hour drive from the courthouse and had been working 7 am to 9 or 10 pm for more than a week. ANYWAY, he managed to get out of having to participate in the interrogation, which was undertaken, instead, by an Assistant U.S. Attorney, shadowed by the Postal Inspector. They informed me that they would call me between 9 and 9:30 the next day to tell me when to go to the courthouse. Finally, I left the office for my hotel around 9:00 pm. I then had a hamburger and two more Grey Goose martinis and went to bed.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of miso soup, nori, smoked salmon with capers, and eggs benedict with bacon on the side (I freely admit to being a glutton), I waited in my room for the call. It came as promised and I was told to go to the witness room at the courthouse at 11:00 am. I got there early and waited. And waited. And I waited some more. At 12:15 or so, the witnesses (there were five of us there) were told to go have lunch and return at 1:30. We did. Finally, witnesses started being called. Four of them were called by 2:45 pm. About 3:00 pm, I began to start worrying whether I would make my 6:00 pm flight.

But not to worry! The Assistant U.S. Attorney and her entourage came in just at 3:00 pm, She explained that things were going well, better than she expected. So, my testimony would not be needed! Oh, joy, I thought! She explained, further, that the last witness had addressed most of the issues I was expected to cover and that, had I been put on the stand, the defense counsel probably would have attacked my credibility, accusing me of bias, etc., etc. (this due to the nature of the organization I was representing).

SO, I went to the 12th floor as directed to get my reimbursement vouchers, whereupon I was sent to the 15th floor, where I was made to fill out forms. I asked about the quickest way to the airport. I was advised to take the D-Dash bus to Union Station, where I would then catch the Fly-Away Shuttle to LAX. I wish I had known about that the day before. I spent $7.25 to get to the airport in about half the time and at a quarter the price it took the day before to get from LAX to the hotel.

It goes on. But you get the drift.

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Therapy

I want never to lose my sense of awe and surprise. I want never to erase from my psyche a sense of childhood wonder at the natural world. Too many old men and women seem to have abandoned the carefree attitudes of their childhood. They are no longer lighthearted and buoyant. Instead, they seem sour and brittle and perpetually dissatisfied with the cards they were dealt and the deck from which the dealing was done. They sneer and snarl at eclipses. They have no interest in the remarkable tides of the Bay of Fundy. Instead of marveling at the ingenuity and raw creativity of the people awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, they scoff and say their discoveries are utterly impractical—useless.

I do not want to become that chronic complainer, that ball of unhappiness stuffed into a human form. Yet I think I can understand how it happens. Disappointments pile upon disappointments until the environment is a toxic sludge of crushing adversity; there is no room for optimism and awe in that dense forest of disillusionment. Somewhere along the way, those folks have had enough shoulders to cry on or ears to hear their troubles or  helping hands—with no expectation on reciprocity— extended to them. That failure of society to recognize needs and help fill them then extends the blame for the chronically unhappy elderly to the rest of us. “If only” we had stepped in when a need was obvious, things might have been different. Indeed. Recognizing the need and doing something to meet it are two very different things with very different values attached to them.

+++

Keep your silly, unattainable fantasies to yourself, else you will be deeply disappointed to learn they are solely your own. No one else shares your ambition to walk the length of Route 66. No one else wants to join you in a boat far, far from shore on a clear, moonless night, to look skyward and count the stars. No one shares your vision of the “perfect life.” But maybe someone else has learned to keep their fantasies to themselves after being mocked one too many times for having them. Perhaps there is a soul-mate “out there,” or even a bevy of soul-mates who, if situations worked themselves out just so, would reveal themselves or be revealed to you. Maybe you should broadcast your fantasies far and wide, so that you might find that someone else does, indeed, share them. But be prepared to be disappointed, just in case.

+++

Before I write any more this morning, I will take a brief break for a walk up and down our secluded little street, which ends right around our house in the cul-de-sac. I feel a need to go outside and feel unadulterated air against my skin. Air that hasn’t been filtered and chilled and modified to make me feel artificially comfortable….

…and, so, I have completed my walk and cleared some of the tangled fragments of thought from my brain. Walking—even for someone whose stamina is at an all-time low and whose shortness of breath is, at times, frightening—is therapeutic. Walking, I think, must unleash an outpouring of serotonin and dopamine that makes one feel well and think positive thoughts. Those feelings do not always last long after the walk, but during the exercise they flood my head to make the process of slowly trudging up and down a forest road an exquisite experience.  But, then, my mind seems to slam into a solid wall. My head recoils in shock as my neck jerks backward from the surprise. Aha! The real world confronts me, with its jagged claws, razor-sharp teeth, and an appetite for the contentment of people like me.

+++

For quite some time, and especially during the last two or three months, I have invested considerable mental effort to overcoming my propensity for impatience. I regularly ask myself, when I feel myself growing impatient, “Why allow yourself to be frustrated with something you cannot change?” It has not been just the speed, or lack thereof, of actions that have bothered me. It has been the tendency for people to inject a tangled mass of jagged barbed wire into circumstances that would respond far better to soft dust cloths. To date, I have been generally satisfied with my efforts to “chill” in circumstances to which, historically, I might have erupted in angry frustration.  I have been able to dismiss others’ annoying behaviors as aberrations. But my newfound patience quickly is growing a bit thin. Perhaps these recent annoying intrusions into my pacific frame of mind have been lumped together temporally by coincidence. Maybe it has been out of sheer luck (or misfortune) that they have occurred so close to one another.  Or, possibly, my frustration is a signal that I am, indeed, misanthropic at my core. It’s the people, not the circumstances. Absent the people, the circumstances would be what they are; they would sort themselves out, eventually. Or, more likely, the circumstances would not merit a second thought. But, throw people into the mix, and a serene setting becomes a firestorm that greedily consumes all the available oxygen in the room. Rather than permit the growing calm inside me to evaporate in the heat of an arsonist’s fire, I could attempt to douse the fire or I could simply walk away from the flames. I will depend on time to determine my response to the heat.

Writing is frustration – it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.

~ Philip Roth ~

Would that he were correct. Perhaps for someone like Roth, it’s failure two thirds of the time. In my experience, it’s more like ninety-nine one-hundredths.

+++

I can feel, at the same time, giddy and deeply depressed. Am I alone in that capacity to experience diametrically opposed emotions simultaneously? For my entire life, I’ve wished for someone in my life who is both unafraid to explore the full range of their emotions and willing to talk about them. I realize I could share the full range of my emotions with a psychologist or counselor, but that would be only half the equation. I want to know what goes on in someone else’s head, someone whose emotions might not necessarily parallel mine but are sufficiently similar that we might speak the same language. It’s not just the expression of the emotions I want to explore, either; it’s their genesis. Do they emerge from a purely internal process that is unique to every human body, or is their etiology from a common electrochemical reaction that takes place in all similar creatures?

Admittedly, I am more interested, first, in “what” than “how.” I want to know what someone feels and thinks and why they think they react the way they do to whatever triggers their emotions. Only after an understanding of what do I want to explore how; how do these emotions form and how can we better control them. If, indeed, we want to control them.

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It’s approaching 8. Though I’ve been up more than two hours, I feel like I’ve frittered away part of the day by allowing myself to sleep until 5:30. I’d better get in gear if I’m going to retrieve some of the time I’ve lost to sleep.

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Restlessness

Map out your future – but do it in pencil.

~ Jon Bon Jovi ~

The ashes of a cone of incense, burned two days ago, remain on the corner of my desk, proof of my indolence—I should have disposed of the remnants of that incense long before now. If I did not know otherwise, I would think the cone was ready to be lit, appearing as it does—perfectly conical and solid. But if I touched it, it would collapse into a mound of fine dust.  I know I will have to light a new, truly solid, cone when I want to unleash a torrent of soothing scents.

Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.

~ Bob Marley ~

People, sadly, can be like that cone of burned incense. A person can appear confident, happy, and completely “together.” But if something touches a raw nerve or triggers a painful memory, that illusory image can dissolve like smoke, evidence that the smoldering embers of an emotional fire have consumed him. Unlike that cone of incense, the person cannot be discarded and replaced with a new one—one suitable for burning. Yet that sort of thing happens all too frequently. When someone’s attitudes or behaviors suggest burning embers inside them, people around them step away to avoid getting scorched. From a safe distance, they watch as the fire depletes the fuel, leaving only an empty shell.

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Living, as I do, in a perpetual state of fantasy, I spend considerable time exploring “what— ifs.” One of yesterday’s “what ifs” involved living in Toms River, New Jersey. Toms River is one of the most affordable towns in New Jersey, right on the Jersey shore. The climate there is much more temperate and livable than much of the interior of the state; winter lows are easily tolerable and summer highs generally are comfortable. Housing there is considerably more expensive than Hot Springs Village, of course, but it is not really outlandish. Unless, of course, you want waterfront property. If you do, you have to be willing to pay for houses that have been raised up on pilings to avoid future catastrophic floods—like the one that devastated the town during Hurricane Sandy. Aside from the possibility of drowning in a hurricane-driven surge of Atlantic Ocean waters, living in Toms River, New Jersey seems to have a number of positives, though many of them are due to the proximity of other places, rather than the city itself. As I examined aspects of Toms River, I came again to the realization that almost anyplace is livable, under the right circumstances. Everyplace has its pros and cons. One must simply adapt to cultural nuances that might be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I’ve done that before…many times. I adapted quite well to living in Chicago. I adapted quite well to living in and around White Plains, New York and Greenwich, Connecticut—though, granted, living in those places for less than a year, combined, and traveling away from them on business quite frequently gave me limited time to “adapt.” Regardless, though, my experience suggests I am at least reasonably adaptable.

The reason I explored Toms River is that I was curious about which states had the largest percentage of people who consider themselves either liberal/progressive or moderate. New Jersey was among states identified as leaning liberal (though Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts had higher numbers). A search of lower cost of living states led me to the Jersey shore. The entirety of New England and the upper Atlantic coast leans liberal, which suggests to me the political environment might be easier on my psyche than most places…in the USA. I still think I belong in Canada or Norway or Denmark, though.  The fact is that I probably live today where I will live in five years and ten years and twenty years if I’m still alive. Though that means I’ll be around people who matter to me, in another sense it saddens me to think I will not give myself a chance to evolve in a different climate…both weather and social. Oh, well. Time will tell whether I’ll be here and/or alive in five years. Time tells us all we need to know.

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The Changes We Dread Most

I have always claimed to welcome change. To relish it, in fact. To lean into it with great expectations. But sometimes I find myself resisting change for no apparent reason. It is as if change represents a discomforting disturbance to the status quo; the current state of affairs I have come to appreciate more than I realized. Laziness probably accounts for some of that resistance. But fear must play a part, as well; fear that change could reveal inadequacies and, therefore, failure. When I contemplate these matters—looking inward and trying to be honest with myself—I get the sense that I might have been a pretty astute psychologist, except for the fact that I am missing a thousand other necessary attributes. It’s a matter of “necessary but not sufficient.” But there I go again, veering off track.

Change imposed on us is harder to accept than change we initiate. Resistance to change imposed on us might be fueled by our distaste for either losing control or ceding it to someone or something else. But fear, again, is probably the most likely culprit. We are afraid of the unknown that accompanies change. Something as simple as considering a haircut can spark that resistance, that fear. “What will people think of me if I cut off my long hair? Will I no longer be viewed as pretty or attractive?” Frequently, I think, our resistance to change is based, at least in part, on the fear of how it will impact others and/or their perceptions of ourselves. The changes we dread most, I think, are the changes that confuse us about what they might represent in our lives and in how we view ourselves.

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The Mediterranean diet is not a diet at all. Rather, it is a lifestyle represented in the preparation and consumption of food. People who live in the Mediterranean do not follow a prescribed meal plan, nor is there a uniform diet or menu common to the region. In fact, plenty of people in that part of the world eat foods that are unhealthy; plenty of those same people live unhealthy lifestyles. But, by and large, people in the region tend to live a dietary style that many, if not most, doctors and dietitians promote as wise and healthy. In a nutshell, here is how many domestic dietitians describe how we (the rest of the world) can follow the Mediterranean diet, thereby getting many of the same health benefits as people who live in the region and come by the culinary lifestyle naturally:

Fruits and Vegetables
3 servings (½ to 1 cup per serving) of fruit per day (1 serving = ½ to 1 cup)
3+ servings ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw per serving) of vegetables per day

Legumes (beans & lentils)
3 servings (½ cup per serving) per week

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
At least 1 tablespoon per day, but no more than 4 tablespoons per day)

Fish (focusing on those high in omega-3 fatty acids)
3 servings (3-4 ounces per serving)
Note: Salmon, sardines, herring, tuna and mackerel are all rich in omega-3.

Nuts
At least 3 servings (1 ounce or 1/4 cup or 2 tablespoons nut butter per serving) per week
Note: Walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are especially recommended.

Whole Grains & Starchy Vegetables
3-6 servings per day (1/2 cup cooked, 1 slice of bread or 1 ounce dry cereal per serving)
Note: Potatoes, peas, and corn are among the most commonly mentioned starchy vegetables

Poulty
Maximum of 2 to 3 servings (3 to 4 ounces per serving) of skinless white meat poultry per week, baked, broiled, or grilled.

Dairy & Eggs 
Maximum of 2 servings (1 cup per serving) of low-fat milk and 1 egg per day; limit cheese to 3 servings (1 ounce per serving) per day.

Red Meat
While many dietitians recommend completely avoiding red meat (beef, pork, veal, lamb), they say if we insist we should limit our intake to no more than 1 serving of lean meat (3 ounces per serving) per week.

Other recommendations are to dramatically limit the intake of alcohol and the consumption of baked goods and desserts; nothing new, of course. But reasonable and logical.

With these recommended guidelines, it appears to me it would be a pretty simple process to develop a weekly or monthly menu, which in turn could be readily translated into a grocery shopping list. In my case, given some additional restrictions placed on me by doctors who say certain foodstuffs would be especially hard on my digestive system, the process might not be quite so easy, but it’s certainly not an insurmountable challenge. And, in my case, the benefits of following the rough guidelines of a Mediterranean diet would include much-needed weight loss.

All of the previous comments heretofore notwithstanding, Italy is a member country of the Mediterranean region. Last night, as I watched the last episode of the penultimate season and the first episode of the final season of The Sopranos, I became ravenously hungry as I watched the characters consume massive amounts of pasta with all manner of sauces that looked incredibly appetizing. How, then, can I ascribe to Italian food any “healthier than thou” attributes? How does that Mediterranean meal fit into a scenario in which the Mediterranean diet represents the holy grail of healthy eating? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. “Too much of a good thing”…and all.

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The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.

~ Barbara Kingsolver ~

 

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Choices

I demolish my bridges behind me—then there is no choice but forward.

~ Fridtjof Nansen ~

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Compare a cup of coffee—the way it tastes and makes you feel—to the sensation of sitting alone in an open-air convertible automobile on an isolated overlook,  gazing at the beauty of the endless waters of the Pacific Ocean. The idea of comparing two such radically different experiences is absurd, of course. But is it? If we consider each component of experience, separately, the absurdity of the idea of comparison lessens.

Coffee’s bitterness in the mouth, versus the salty sweetness of the ocean breeze. The smell of the ocean air, versus the aroma of coffee in the nose. The impenetrable near-blackness of the coffee versus the blue and green water against pink swirls of color of the horizon. The warmth of the coffee cup in your hand versus the cool Pacific breeze against your face. The hardness of the coffee cup versus the softness of the upholstered seats of the car.

It is possible to compare two seemingly unrelated experiences vis-à-vis the consideration of each element of their elements, separately. And, if one can compare two experiences, one can compare four. Or forty. Or four hundred. The intricacies of the observations will of course grow to the point of almost impossible complexity, but the comparisons will, nonetheless, be informative.

Comparisons that, on the surface, seem absurd, form the basis of all our life choices. The choices and the comparisons between them are almost innumerable. I suspect the confusion most people face—when given the luxury of options—in making decisions about schooling and career paths and marriage and a host of other major life events arises from the difficulty in making and assessing comparisons. They ask themselves, “what are my choices and how do I decide between them?” Enumerating the options, though complex in itself, is far simpler than evaluating the options.

A teenager approaching high school graduation may face choices between going to college or securing a job or attending trade school or entering an apprenticeship program or taking a summer or a year off, among many others. For each option, she may have to consider dozens or hundreds of corollaries; if college, what about living arrangements? Dorm? Apartment? Co-op? Staying at home? And for each of those, another set of considerations: Roommate(s)? Eating arrangements? Costs and covering expenses? And within each of those, still more comparisons and subsequent decisions.

Every single aspect of one’s life involves comparisons between experiences that may seem utterly unrelated but which, somewhere deep at their core, are inextricably connected. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one’s perspective), it is rare for us to be taught how to break down prospective experiences into their component parts and to compare each of those elements. Instead, we are given hints and clues as to what life may offer and sent off into the world to seek out options and process them, converting our decisions into experiential wisdom. Some people refuse to let mere chance dictate our futures, insisting on following paths that limit our choices but offer predictable long-term outcomes. Others of us stumble into circumstances that sustain us, purely by accident. And some people trip and fall, only to pick ourselves up repeatedly until they find an adequate, if not especially desirable, niche. And still others never learn how to differentiate between choices, always making decisions that seem always to be self-destructive.

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

~ Franz Kafka ~

The practice of comparing options and making decisions based on those comparisons is by no means limited to kids entering young adulthood. It applies equally to every stage of life, all the way to very end, up to and including choices about how to live out one’s final years.  At some point, though, I suppose making choices becomes more trouble than their outcome is worth. I suspect it becomes easier and more satisfying to just go with the flow. And perhaps that’s the easiest and best way to begin the process, as well. Take what comes, come what may.

Perhaps the example comparing a cup of coffee with sitting in a top-down convertible is too complex to be a useful lesson. Maybe there is no way to prepare for life but to live it and hope for the best. The example, which in large part omits any consideration of consequences, may be inadequate for that very reason.  Who knows. I certainly don’t.

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Open

I should not have attempted to write yesterday’s post, while moderately incoherent and under the influence of painkillers and sleep deprivation. Using my one-finger typing on my cell phone, to boot, made the message doubly irrational and laced with typos.

But I am home now. I was released from the hospital yesterday. I came home and almost immediately got in bed and went to sleep for a few hours, then took a brief break from sleep and did it again, the second time dozing in a recliner. Then watched an episode of The Sopranos. Then back to bed for another six hours. I’m awake now, my back sore from so much time in bed over the last few days.

The sound of my heartbeat is loud in my ears, loud enough and sufficiently disturbing that I almost wish it would stop. I don’t know why I sometimes can hear it so loudly. Perhaps it’s a message to me that life is loud and upsetting. That life interferes, intentionally, with serenity. An unwritten memorandum that life is, indeed, messy and noisy and troublesome.

But there’s no counterbalancing message in these noises. No competing theme that asserts the beauty and joy of life. It’s as if tinnitus, if that’s what it is, is a tool of the suicide fairy, working hard to convince me that the only way to silence the incessant whooshing, throbbing, beating, hammering, whirring of heart noises is to swallow a handful of deadly pills and let them do their magic.

Do not worry. I have no immediate plans to swallow a handful of pills and drift into permanent serenity. I have thought of plunging an icepick into each ear to put an end to the noise…just kidding. I’ve never thought of consulting a doctor about these heartbeat noises, because in the past the throbbing noises have been relatively infrequent. But lately they are more common and more maddening. So I may consult a physician. Yet if I consulted a doctor about every little physical annoyance, I would be labeled a full-on hypochondriac. And if I consulted someone about every little mental disturbance, I’d probably be confined to a protective padded room and denied the use of metal utensils for my meals.  If only medical doctors—the ones concerned with one’s physical well-being—were like psychologists, they would charge an exorbitant fee for a couple of hour’s worth of consultation. But the patient would, at least, have the doctor’s undivided attention for a while. Instead of three to seven minutes of a deeply distracted, not-entirely-present, person busily typing notes on an iPad for insurance defense purposes. In my experience, visits with medical doctors generally are restricted to two or three patient “complaints,” as if insurance or Medicare reimbursement were based entirely on limiting both the time and the topics allowed for each patient.

On occasion, I get the impression that doctors may not be entirely non-judgmental in performing their functions. During my brief time in the emergency room last Friday evening, one of the doctors—a hospitalist—seemed especially unfriendly. He seemed suspicious that I really have Crohn’s disease, which is what I had thought was the source of my pain. After my release, in reviewing the online tests ordered during my ER stay, I discovered that he had ordered a urine toxicology screen for:

    • Amphetamines
    • Barbiturates
    • Benzodiazepines
    • Cocaine
    • Opiates
    • Cannabinoid
    • PCP

Surprise! They all came back negative. Why, though, when the ER doctor before him who already had diagnosed the problem, did not to my knowledge suspect anything untoward, would this guy decide I might be chock-full of drugs? Oh, I was wearing an earring and I have a beard, reason enough. Okay, I may be overreacting…but I’ve never (to my knowledge) had a drug toxicology screen run during any medical encounter, whether office visit, emergency room, visit, or otherwise.

The bottom line for me, now, is that I have to change my lifestyle. Better food choices. Fewer calories. More exercise. No booze. The most common causes of pancreatitis (the hospital doctors’ diagnosis) are over-use of alcohol, high levels of triglycerides in the blood, belly injury or surgery, obesity, and various other triggers. Though I have a history of very high triglycerides and belly surgery and I am admittedly (though shamefully) obese, the doctors immediately came to the conclusion that I need cut down on and eventually stop drinking alcohol (which, incidentally, can cause high triglycerides). I am confident they are right. I’ve probably used alcohol as a means of dealing with issues that would have been better addressed in other ways. Self-medication is the term I’ve seen used with some frequency when describing others’ tendency to over-imbibe.

I think it was the same doctor who decided on the urine toxicology test who prescribed that I be given librium, a drug used to treat anxiety and acute alcohol withdrawal. I doubt his rationale involved anxiety. He never bothered to ask whether I had ever had any negative reactions to refraining from alcohol; if he had, I would have answered, honestly, that I have not. Not for a night or a week or a  month. But he did not ask. So I was given an unnecessary medication to treat a non-existent problem.  But, aside from never having problems with “withdrawal,” what if I have a problem I did not know about or acknowledge? I suppose the best response is to listen to the doctor who, when she signed papers to release me, said it would be best to “cut down and eventually stop.” But, instead, I think it’s best to simply stop. It’s cleaner and clearer. And, in the future, if I have any flare-ups of Crohn’s, suspicions of alcohol abuse will have no part to play.

But this tinnitus, or whatever, could drive me to hard drugs in the morning. Just kidding. I can just play loud music to keep my mind off my heartbeat.

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In Sickness and in…Health?

July 24. 4:50 a.m. For the umpteenth time, Sandy extracted blood. For the exponential tum Angel took my temperature and checked my blood pressure. The doctors earliest determined my ailment is not Crohn’s disease…at least not this expression of sickness. They decided, instead, it is pancreatitis. Whatever it is, the pain is remarkably similar to Crohn’s. Not that it matters. Who go gives a damn? It demands lifestyle changes. It requires a different approach to food and fun. Else I die in the throes of gluttony. I sometimes wonder what is worse…spending days in the hospital or days and nights in culinary bliss. Life can be a bitch. A raging beast whose choices are ugoly and unpleasant.

This morning begins my second day in the hospital. When can I go home? When, indeed?

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Worry

A snippet of fiction commanded me this morning to unleash it from the cage inside my head. It’s only a tiny fragment of what must be hidden inside my brain, but it claims there’s more where it came from. I may try to mine for it later. Or I may not. Well, whichever the case may be, here is the miniscule, utterly incomplete, fragment:

The stresses of her everyday life accumulated the way dust in an abandoned house collects from years of neglect. The little bothers and more emphatic anxieties banded together in an attempt to overwhelm her—they arrived slowly yet steadily. Sometimes they sprang on her suddenly, leaping at her from behind dark shadows that concealed unpleasant surprises. Over time, the cacophony of nerves scraping against nerves muffled the pleasant sounds of her hoped-for sounds of serenity and calm. The incessant noise grew loud and more insistent, as if determined to chase away from her every delicious morsel of peace. Almost all of her waking moments began to be filled with angst. And when she closed her eyes in the evenings—a rarity—sleep slogged through the night like an escaped prisoner fleeing bloodhounds in a mucky swamp.  Eventually, the intensity of her stress morphed into more powerful tension. And then into mental trauma that felt as burdensome as a heavy stone on her chest. Finally, after years of coping, her resolve collapsed. She could no longer maintain a front; no more could she pretend to be strong and sane and able to deal with her demons. All this came out later, after the episode that triggered everything that followed.

It happened on a chilly Saturday night in February. As was her Saturday evening routine, Siobhan Greely had dinner alone at the Prim Peacock, the quiet six-table restaurant on the first floor of the building where she lived in her walk-up flat. After dinner and her post-meal walk, Siobhan climbed part way up the stairs toward her apartment when she stopped. Later, she said she stopped for a moment to listen to the music wafting up from the street below. But that night, there was no street music. That night, the woman who managed the Prim Peacock said she heard a bone-chilling howl coming from the stairway. A moment later, the manager said, Siobhan came racing down the stairs, screaming incoherently that “the goddamn furies are after me!”

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For the second consecutive morning, I demanded that I take a short walk outside. I made two passes around the street’s circle just outside the house and walked up toward the end of the street, to the fire hydrant, and back. It’s not far, but for someone with my extremely limited stamina it was sufficient to get my heart started. The doctors I’ve seen recently have individually suggested that I need to do moderate exercise to help me regain my stamina. Moderate exercise may be too forceful a term; I just need to move a little each day. Yesterday, I saw a deer bound off as I entered the circle at the end of the street. Today, I saw nothing but heard birds make a racket in the distance; perhaps a creature, running from the sound of my footsteps, disturbed the birds’ resting places.

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Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.

~ Thomas Jefferson ~

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This morning, we will make a two and one-half hour drive to visit friends for lunch. Coincidentally, we’ll take my collection of vinyl records to them; my friend was the first to claim them, so they are hers. I feel the need to get back on the road again, even though it has been only two weeks since we returned from our three-week road trip. This short trip is not going to satisfy me, either; I can feel that. I have a hankering for cooler weather; Wisconsin seems too hot these days. The appeal of eastern Canada grows by the day. Oh, well. We’ll see.

I have little intellectual energy this morning, so I’ll stop trying to accomplish the impossible. I’ll charge into the day, instead.

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At Their Own Hand

I woke sometime around 3 this morning, thanks to being completely stopped up. I thought about getting up only for a while, until my sinuses decided to cooperate with my breathing. But I changed my mind. So, here I am at 4, torturing the keyboard by jabbing it with swollen fingers. In just a few hours, at 9:30, I have an appointment with a new cardiologist. I decided I was not satisfied with the cardiologist I’ve seen since moving to the Village more than eight years ago. He is the same one who treated my late wife; the one I blame for failing to understand and properly treat the severity of the weakness in her legs. So, far later than should have been the case, I decided to move on to someone else. I let my primary care doctor’s nurse recommend the cardiologist I will see this morning. Perhaps I should have done more research about her; I know little of her background, but I will explore it in more depth after I determine whether I like the way she interacts with patients.

I hate the fact that I regularly see various specialists. That reality makes me feel old and infirm. I suppose I could just deal exclusively with my primary care doctor. But what would that do for me? Nothing, really. It would prove that I am willing to live a fantasy life, one in which the reality of aging does not apply to me. Rubbish.

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Gianmaria Testa was an Italian singer/songwriter who died before his potential was fully realized. Though he was only 57 when he died, during his relatively short life he composed and sang some beautiful songs. Poetry, really, set to music. Following is an English translation of his song, Seminatori di grano (Sowers of Wheat), followed by an embedded video in which he performs the song. The tune is from Testa’s album entitled Da Questa Parte del Mare; “On this Side of the Sea.” The album focused on the theme of modern migration: “…on the reasons for it, the struggles, the leaving, the decisions, suffering, of crossing seas and deserts, on the significance of words like ‘land’ or ‘homeland’ and the sense of uprooting and of loss that the transition imbues in you forever.” He was a man who, I feel certain, was deeply compassionate. It comes across in his music; I do not need to know the translation of the words to know the compassion and emotional weight they carry. Testa once said he hoped his children would never be ashamed of their father’s music; why would they, I wonder? His music illustrated the decency of humanity that we all wish we could find. Testa was an actor, writer, musician, composer, and poet. And he was a trainmaster; he never gave up that role, in spite of his musical success. He remained connected to working people. He was both their champion and their student.

I would encourage anyone who reads this post to listen to the YouTube video while reading the English language translation of the lyrics (below). The music, by itself, is moving; the music, coupled with the lyrics, is for me incredibly powerful.

Sowers of wheat

They arrived at the break of the day,
men and women, to the highland
with the slow, silent, vigilant pace
of sowers of wheat.

And they were looking for something that wasn’t there
between the dumping ground and the railroad
And they were looking for what wasn’t there
behind the police’s binoculars
and they folded their hands and eyes in the wind
before leaving.

All the way to the road and surrounded by the night
they arrived from the highland
men and women with the intent gaze
of sowers of wheat.

And they left what wasn’t there
to the dumping ground and to the railroad.
And they left what wasn’t there
to the tearing eyes of the police
and they stretched out their hands against the wind
that was carrying them away

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People who are in love with language are at risk of feeling its effects too deeply. The evidence suggests  that is true. Consider how many poets—writers whose words often are aflame with emotions—die by suicide. The emotional weight of the thoughts that emerge from constant exposure to powerful language is greater than most other people know. Think. Think. Think. That’s what language makes one do. It forces a person to consider everything. And when one considers everything, it is impossible to avoid thinking about pain; both one’s own and the agonies of others. The weight of that thought and the additional pain it brings can become too much. Not all writers succumb to it, of course; most do not. And most writers may not even feel it, at least not deeply. But those who do cannot help but wish—at least occasionally—it would end. For themselves, of course, but for everyone else. I’m fascinated by the number of writers who die from suicide; sufficiently entranced by them to want to know much more about what they thought in the months and days before they took that final step. I wonder what could have been done to draw them away from the ledge, as it were. I suspect there was little that could have been done. They probably hid their most devastating emotional pain from family and friends in an attempt to insulate those people from the darkness. But they probably had to force themselves to keep quiet; they must have wanted to reach out in the hope that, by sharing their suffering, their pain might have been eased. I suspect, though, they knew how impossible it would have been to share that suffering. Unless a person has felt it, its depth and darkness cannot be comprehended. And they would have lied, had they been confronted. There always has been a stigma attached to what is perceived as weakness or cowardice or attention-grabbing by revealing one’s emotional fragility.

Here is a terribly, woefully, awfully incomplete list of writers of all genres who—facing depths of darkness about which we can only speculate—took their own lives:

    • Sylvia Plath
    • Abbie Hoffman
    • Hunter S. Thompson
    • Gerard de Nerval
    • Virginia Wolf
    • Wallace Allan Wood
    • Jack London
    • Arthur Koestler
    • Vladimir Mayakovsky
    • Ernest Hemingway
    • Phil Ochs
    • John Berryman
    • Cesare Pavese
    • Richard Brautigan
    • Anthony Bourdain
    • Yukio Mishima
    • William Lindsay Gresham
    • Anne Sexton
    • Byron Herbert Reece
    • William Relling Jr.
    • David Foster Wallace

They may have been afflicted by mental or physical maladies that made living impossibly hard. Or they may have become so disenchanted with life that any other existence, even one which involved terminal emptiness, was more appealing. There could have been other reasons to have taken them to the conclusion that death was better for them, or their friends and family, than their continued lives.

I am not sure why I am more fascinated by the suicides of people whose vocations or avocations involved writing than by the suicides of train conductors or lawyers or civil engineers or store clerks. If someone were to compile a list of store clerks who died by suicide, I suspect it would be far longer than a list of writers who died at their own hand. There is nothing special about writers, except that they tend to reveal themselves and their demons, in one way or another, in their writing. Those revelations are less common, I suspect, in civil engineers and train conductors.

What the hell do I know about the pain of writers or train conductors or lawyers? I can only guess about what went through the minds of people who decided, ultimately, to take their own lives. Guessing is a pointless exercise. Only by devoting time and mental effort could I learn enough to make my guesses more than mere conjecture. And what value would my educated conjecture hold? I think we ought to respect the privacy of people who, for whatever reason, decide to end their own lives. And I think we ought to remove the stigma of suicide. Judging people for making decisions most people never have to make is, in my mind, supreme arrogance.

The list, above, of writers who died by their own hand represents just a tiny fraction of all writers who found the experience of living too much to bear. A search online of any one of their names reveals details of a life riddled with problems and challenges that might seem tolerable to most people. But to people who actually have confronted those problems—not just contemplated them from a comfortable distance—those difficulties might spark compassionate heartache. We cannot know what is hidden in another person’s mind. We cannot understand troubles that have not plagued our own thoughts.

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I’ve been sitting at this keyboard for too bloody long. It’s nearing 5  and I am no closer to understanding the secrets of life and death than I was two hours ago. There’s no point in going on. I’ll just settle back and see where the rest of this morning takes me.

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Curious and Needy

There was a time when works of fiction were far more adept at capturing my imagination than were revelations about historical events. While fiction remains an important force in keeping my inquisitiveness and creativity alive, well-told stories of earth-changing historical events are at least equally interesting to me these days. The thing about “history,” though, is that it is viewed through the lens of time and experience, so even so-called dry facts and figures become fodder for interpretation. Actions and events have meaning beyond simple occurrence; their impacts are subject to one’s perspective and analysis.

One event in history (actually, the trigger for a plethora of events that followed) that recently has captured my attention and interest is the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. A BBC Reel video by Izabela Cardoso & Fernando Teixeira asserts that the response to the earthquake by the Marquis of Pombal (Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo) led to the modern science of seismology. The Marquis effectively ruled the Portuguese Empire as chief minister to King Joseph I. The event, the videographers and their primary sources suggest, coincided with and perhaps triggered the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, in which science and scientific evidence began to assert dominance over religious imagination and theory in interpreting the world around us. A writer (Vic Echegoyen, author of Resurrecta, an “historical novel” about the Lisbon earthquake) says the earthquake unchained a series of earthshaking events like the end of slavery in Portugal, which prompted the abolition of slavery in other European countries. Echegoyen suggests the response to the Lisbon earthquake was responsible in part for the American Revolution, as well. Though something of a stretch, that assertion is worth reflecting on and exploring further.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.

~ Marcus Garvey ~

I love it when I get wrapped up in an issue about which I knew virtually nothing. The sense that there remains something new and different that has the capacity to capture my attention so thoroughly is breathtaking. It almost makes life worth living, after all, if for no other reason than to get to the end of the story. The down side of getting so enmeshed in such stuff is that I sometimes hit a dead end. Though I’d like to read the book, Resurrecta, I find that it is available only in Portuguese and in Spanish, neither of which is suited to my insufficient linguistic capabilities. If I were king, I would demand that all children be taught to fluently read and speak at least two—and preferably three or more—languages. Europeans and others who recognize the incredible value of proficiency in multiple languages are, in many respects, quite superior to Americans, who arrogantly seem to think English is the only language anyone needs to understand. Increasingly, I feel ashamed to acknowledge I belong to that arrogant subspecies.

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To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.

~ Marilyn vos Savant ~

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My intellectual batteries sometimes seem to run so low that I feel at risk of joining the masses of people whose only sources of amusement are action-based violent video games and Survivor-like television shows. Fortunately, I actually haven’t crossed into that murky, ugly swamp of an existence, but on occasion I ask myself what’s stopping me. Whenever I have gotten dangerously close to abandoning inquisitive thought, I’ve gotten lucky in that I’ve encountered someone who is sufficiently similar to me and sufficiently different to spark my interest. And, then, we manage to engage in conversation that refuels my tired, nearly-drained batteries. Those of the people I call my friends. It’s too easy, though, to let those relationships languish while I embark on other pursuits that seem important but, in hindsight, always seem petty and superficial. The lesson always sticks, but not firmly enough to remove the risk. That’s why I sometimes think a regular practice of quietly reflecting on what is really important in one’s life is vital. It is by thinking, deeply, about such stuff that one comes to realize that material wealth has no real value; it is just unnecessary decoration.

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Real hugs last a minimum of twenty seconds. I learned that from one of those people who really matter. Anything less than twenty seconds is just a torso handshake, in my view. But casual hugs between mere acquaintances can take less time, of course. I think back to the constant embraces I have been watching on The Sopranos. The hugs are, in fact, handshakes elevated to full-body embraces, with kisses to the cheek added like a cherry on top of a milkshake. If one is reared in a culture in which it’s not just “okay” for male (and female) friends to embrace but, instead, it is expected and demanded, one has no qualms about hugs. But in other cultures—cultures ruined by puritanical ideas and attitudes—hugs seem to be viewed as overtly sexual and unbecoming “civilized” society. Ach! Humans sometimes are odd and unhappy creatures.

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Off I go to confront society and seek out hugs.

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Awake for the Day

Sometimes the draw of isolation in the wee hours is stronger than the comfortable pull of the sheets. As I write this, it’s not quite 3 in the morning, when I’ve been up for almost an hour. I hope to convince my brain to settle down and let me get back to sleep, but before that happens I must expend the pent-up energy that got me out of bed in the first place. Perhaps it was a dream that caused me to spring awake three hours after I went to sleep. Or perhaps it was something else; an idea that emerges in those mysterious moments midway between the dreams of sleep and the reveries of semi-consciousness. What did it does not matter. What matters is that, once awake, I noticed that elves had packed my sinuses with wet concrete that was in the process of drying into a hard plug when I awoke. I now am awake and more alert than I’d like. What matters is that I want to return to that state of happy unconsciousness we call REM sleep. Talking about it probably will not do the trick. I have to find something else.

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I sat in front of the screen of my notebook computer, my eyes closed, letting my mind go where it went. No pressure, no direction, no admonition that sleep would come only after I allow the energy keeping me awake to dissipate. Maybe I went to sleep. I think it was more like going into a waking dream state. I felt comfortable, content. The slight headache I felt earlier was gone. I could breathe without wheezing or whistling. I was conscious of where I was and what I was doing, but not overly aware of my surroundings. It was as if I were experiencing myself third-hand. Odd, that. All was well until my sinuses—which I thought had recovered from their tantrum—decided to intervene. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of my cough. And there I was again. Awake. Ten after 3. Desiring sleep, but still awake.

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The doctor visits since our return from our road trip have revealed nothing untoward. Nothing of concern. As expected, the underlying “lose weight and get more exercise” has been the underlying theme, whether spoken or unspoken. But nothing else. That’s good news. So, the bottom line (thus far) is that I really do need to get some exercise. Slowly, very slowly, at first. Slow enough not to overtax my lungs, which are constantly short of breath, but enough to permit my body to gain a little stamina, bit by bit, day by day.

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Enough of this for now. I may try sleep again. If my effort succeeds, I will return to this after I wake for the day.

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I slept. Until after 7. Getting up so late causes me to feel like I’ve frittered away a significant part of the day. Fortunately, after I woke up late this morning, I was able to entertain myself for a while by reading about Baraboo, Wisconsin. Today’s high temperature in Baraboo is expected to reach 86°F, but tomorrow and the latter part of the week the highs will barely exceed 80°F, which seems delightfully cool in the context of this monstrous heat wave that has engulfed most of the country. The National Weather Service forecasts heat index values here will exceed 110°F after 1 pm today. Baraboo is beginning to sound especially attractive. Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, is even more appealing, with highs this week ranging from the mid 60s to the low 80s and lows settling around the upper 50s to low 60s. I haven’t checked on housing in Corner Brook, but I found a listing in Baraboo, a cute, updated, and well-maintained little bungalow for $259,900. Actually, I suspect even more appealing would be the area around Helsinki, Finland, where I found a 3-bedroom house (with an additional 2-bedroom guest house) on the sea coast for roughly $712,000 dollars. Except for the price, the place might be perfect. Anyone care to invest with me in buying this delightful place near Helskinki, where current and forecast temperatures of the upper 50s to the low 70s are expected? Your part of the investment will be only $550,000. Call me.


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The Republic

I want to be remembered as the man I wanted to be, not the man I was.

~ Confidential ~

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Some people seem capable of ignoring their flaws, as if flaws did not matter in the least. Others appear able to focus their attention on little else. Somewhere along that continuum of self-knowledge is a stretch we might call “healthy self-assessment.” On both sides of that limited stretch, the outcasts live. People who are self-absorbed, but at different ends of the spectrum. Hmm. How can they find their way closer to the center?

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I “read” a book, Big Panda and Tiny Dragon, this morning. Mi novia insisted I read it. It’s a very, very, very brief book of drawings of a panda and a dragon with accompanying text of their conversations. The conversations are deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophies. It is a thought-provoking book; it is not revelatory, but it emphasizes issues and ideas all people should think about. Issues to which ample consideration should be regularly be given.  I suppose she wanted me to read it as a means of encouraging conversation.

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I’ve been struggling to think of something I wanted to write this morning, only to arrive at the conclusion that nothing I want to write is appropriate for an audience about which I know almost nothing. I know some people who read this blog consistently, but only a few. The rest? Who knows? They could be government agents or right-wing nationalists, for all I know. I’ll stop trying, for now. My failure to “produce” will not bring down the Republic.

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Everything is Mystery

Words are made for a certain exactness of thought, as tears are for a certain degree of pain. What is least distinct cannot be named; what is clearest is unutterable.

~ Rene Daumal ~

The fictional Arkansas town I created and wrote about in 2017 was on life support from the outset. I think COVID-19 would have turned it into a ghost town, had I allowed the pandemic’s grip to take hold.  Since then, I’ve made at least nine posts in which I’ve written short fiction or mentioned the town and its key gathering spot, a tavern which serves as a gathering place for an unlikely mix of intellectuals and backwoods rednecks. That tavern, despite the fact that it does not exist, has become something of my Third Place. A town in Colorado where we stopped for lunch on the way home from our west coast road trip reminded me of my Arkansas town. Though much larger and more vibrant than my struggling little town, a few blocks of the downtown area of Trinidad, Colorado could serve as the setting for much of my story. Trinidad is much livelier and obviously more prosperous than my town, but its bones are, in many respects, the same.

The similarities between my little Arkansas town and Trinidad prompted me to explore a bit more about the Colorado town. I learned that the town became known nationally in the early 1900s for having the first woman sports editor of a newspaper, Ina Eloise Young—who was the only woman sportswriter to cover the 1908 World Series. Mine disasters, fires, and floods afflicted the town during the first few years of the twentieth century, but the town recovered from each. For a small town—the population peaked at more than 13,000 in the early 1940s, dropping to just above 8,000 today—Trinidad has been home to quite a few “famous” residents, including Bat Masterson and Stanley Biber, the latter a physician who pioneered and practiced sex reassignment surgery in the town, resulting in the town being labeled the “sex change capital of the world.” The website, historycolorado.org, says “For more than forty years, “going to Trinidad” became slang for undergoing gender confirmation surgery, and this otherwise quiet and previously little-known Colorado town found itself on the map, not just in the United States but the world over.” Another bit of national recognition came to the town, beginning in 2015, when the marijuana business got a foothold. Some residents of the town credit marijuana with reviving the “dead town.” A 2018 article in High Times quotes a restauranteur, Nick Cordova, as saying “Without weed, half this town wouldn’t be here. Literally.”  Stories about the exceptional rebirth of Trinidad were published before the 2021 legalization of medical and recreational cannabis in New Mexico, so it may be too early to say Trinidad is stable. But it looked good as we passed through not long ago.

But, back to my little Arkansas town. It remains in the back of my mind all the time. And it surfaces fairly often; more frequently than I write about it. Yet I want to write more about it. And I will. I will breathe life into the little town on life support. I will, somehow, replicate Trinidad’s rebirth in my little town. Whether the resurgence of my town lasts remains to be seen. Only after I write it into a believable existence and give it a period of life will I know where it is going. At the moment, I envision a series of stories that could, conceivably, be made into chapters of a novel. I haven’t made mention of the characters in my town; they are at the heart of the stories. My characters, as I see and hear and talk to them, are quirky—to say the least. They are larger than life in some ways, but in others they are absolutely as real as anyone within my sphere. When will I get back to this? When time-consuming obligations stop gnawing at me night and day. When I can devote the time necessary to put myself in the right frame of mind and get myself energized about writing nonstop for a while. When the time is right. If ever it is right. Time will, eventually, tell.

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The printer I ordered last week arrived a few days ago. Yesterday, I opened it and tried to set it up. It does not work. I am sending it back. I have a love-hate relationship with technology. Maybe it’s not technology I hate; maybe it’s the lack of quality control. Or maybe it’s ineptitude in manufacturing. Or maybe it’s manufacturers’ propensity to cut costs by slashing component quality. Or maybe it’s all the above. On one hand, I wish the “old timey” product quality would return. On the other, like everyone else, I would bitch and moan about how much quality costs.

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Yesterday, I set up a game camera on our deck in an effort to capture images of raccoons or whatever other creatures are devouring bird-seed at an ever-increasing rate. I have not yet viewed what, if anything, the camera may have captured. That will be an interesting undertaking. Maybe. But, first, I should shower and shave and get ready for church. I have to make a pitch for committee membership at the beginning of the service today. If not for that, I would not go. I am not in the mood for church. I never am in the mood, though, but I always seems to appreciate being there when I convince myself to go.

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I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

~ Anne Lamott ~

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Anything

No matter how well-mannered you are—no matter how clean and pure your your thoughts and actions—no matter how distasteful you find violence or pornography or public displays of intimate behaviors that you believe belong only in the privacy of one’s own home—

It matters not that you are the model of decency and decorum. Hidden beneath all the layers of good behavior that put you in good stead in polite society is a beast that craves everything you claim to find reprehensible.

The existence of that heinous barbarian is not entirely your fault. Granted, it has been there all along, but it has been fed a stead diet that guarantees its growth—without which it might have remained stunted and controllable. But you live in a world in which its nourishment is always assured.

Television and film allow people to comfortably experience reprehensible emotions and behaviors from the safety of their own homes. Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, for example, draw the viewer into emotional storms that pump adrenalin into areas of the brain that thrive on excitement. You may reject those television programs, claiming the sex and violence portrayed in them is offensive to you. But that rejection is only a cover; it is an effort to hide your thirst for adrenalin. You would mainline that adrenalin, if you could, but you cannot. Your fear of publicly revealing the beast hidden behind your soft and gentle countenance will not allow you to risk losing control of the needle.

What parts of our psyches do we hide from ourselves? Does the gentle face we present to the world actually conceal a carefree savage, an emotional animal that hungers for action and danger and thrilling excitement? I suspect taking certain pharmaceuticals, both legal and not, might cut through the padlock that keeps the beast in its cage. On the one hand, we want to unleash that demon, but on the other we are afraid that, once released, it can never be put back in its protective cell.

Some of what I wrote above may be true. Most, though, probably is not. At least not to the extremes that I suggest. Writing can be either revealing or concealing. Or it can be both. If “both,” then “either” is evidence of dissembling. “Evidence.” That’s a word one might find in a district attorney’s office or in a courtroom. So, as I consider writing and the law—and occasionally breaking it—I realize the links between them. Writers may leave trails of evidence in their words or paragraphs or chapters. Like bread crumbs for the hungry reader. Thinking of bread crumbs takes me to the kitchen, a place full of aromatic spices and oils infused with herbs and pots and pans aching to be placed on a hot stove-top. How, I wonder, can a pot or pan feel an emotion? How can they ache to be subjected to intense, painful heat? Painful? Pots and pans cannot feel pain.

Do you see what’s happened here? Do you see that my brain has waded through swamps filled with unrelated “stuff?” And do you see that I have manufactured “truths” that probably have no basis except in the easily changeable words I used? Believe nothing. Believe no one. Everything is subject to verification. Verify everything before acting on anything. That is not possible, of course. Nothing is possible. Everything is impossible.  We live in a world in which highly structured chaos is randomly ejected into the emotional atmosphere at precise intervals. How does that make you feel? Anything? Anything at all?

 

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All Around Us

Art surrounds us, providing an impetus to maintain our struggles to understand who and what we are. Art is embedded in everything we see and feel and taste and smell and hear. Even in the rare absence of deliberate art, we are immersed in its natural expressions. Trees and beaches and rocky ledges. Sunrises and sunsets. Dark, menacing oceans—at once comforting and compelling while just as ominous and foreboding—that stretch far beyond what the eye can see. We adorn our walls with art. But we sometimes fail to realize that art is in plain sight in the design of kitchen cabinets and in the trim around doors. And in molding, where walls intersect with floors. Lawn sculptures adorn large, empty stretches of grass…adjacent to landscape timbers and elaborate designs crafted from colored pebbles. And near bushes shaped and trimmed to look “just so.” Chairs and sofas and tables and lamps represent the expression of utilitarian art. Automobiles may once have been primarily modes of transportation, but today they are mobile collections of art and design.

This morning, I spent a few minutes marveling at the expansive artwork of Andres Amador, whose enormous, expansive earthscape designs on sandy beaches inspire awe. His art is breathtaking in its beauty and stunning in its brevity; he must complete his art on a tight timeline during low tide and then watch it disappear when water overtakes the sand. Yesterday, I viewed two photos of the side of a big, unimpressive building several stories tall. One photo showed it plain and unadorned. The other showed it after an artist transformed it into a stunning piece of art—a three-dimensional image of a kitten emerging from a cardboard box. Art, no matter its form, can be uncomfortable; it can make us think thoughts we would rather not confront.

Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home.

~ Gwendolyn Brooks ~

Beauty is not confined to the strictly visual, as I’ve already suggested. Chefs create art both visually appealing and a delight to the nose and the tongue. Musicians create aural art pleasing to hear and, frequently, that is accompanied by vibrations pleasing to one’s nerve endings…perhaps it’s one’s sense of touch? Photographers both preserve and create art with cameras; they present images exactly as captured by the lens and as manipulated by the photographer’s use of imagination and technology. Writers create and share insights and emotions and concepts through their use of language; they “get inside our heads,” where they “paint” images and ideas.

Our lives would be more fulfilling and more peaceful if humankind would cultivate recognition and appreciation of art in all its forms instead of seeking to control an uncontrollable world. The pursuit of power is an affront to artistry; art is an homage to universal freedom.

A line is a dot that went for a walk.

~ Paul Klee ~

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Sometimes I feel like having long, in-depth conversations on topics that, in my opinion, too few others find interesting. Like the importance of art and how it shapes our culture and our sense of what is and is not moral. I recall initiating a brief conversation in which I asserted the importance of art. The response was, essentially, “so what?” And that was followed by “talking about it has no value…our conversation will not change what anyone things about art.”  I remember thinking how the person with whom I was speaking must have been absent when even shreds of creativity and intellectual curiosity were distributed. That, though, is deeply judgmental. Though, in my opinion, deeply true.

The only justice is to follow the sincere intuition of the soul, angry or gentle. Anger is just, and pity is just, but judgement is never just.

~ D. H. Lawrence ~

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No matter what D.H. Lawrence thought about judgement, I judge myself all the time. I recognize many of my innumerable faults (though probably not all of them) and realize my positive attributes can never equal them in number, nor overwhelm them in impact. I pass judgement on myself more quickly and easily than I do on others. Why? Because I know myself far better than I know others. That having been said, I know myself only superficially. There’s someone inside me I have never met and probably never will. Several someones, I suspect. Not literally, of course, but figuratively; we are far too complex to really understand ourselves. Our wiring is too labyrinthine to ever hope to fully grasp how it works. Or doesn’t. Anyone who claims to know themselves completely is delusional. Faced with circumstances we have never before faced can change our understanding of how we might react in such situations; thus changing what we understand about ourselves.

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And we’re off to happily engage with another Friday.

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