Category Archives: Commentary

What I Want For My Birthday

This month–October–I will be 77 years old. Not 77 years young, and I beg those who favor that euphemism to stop using it. It infers that aging is so bad that it needs to be cosmeticized. There are a lot of people that feel that way; in truth, the whole business of being unhappy with growing old has become institutionalized. It is usual to joke about it, but the humor is always dark and sometimes gallows. Industries–billion dollar industries–exist for the sole purpose of hiding age in one way or another, even though every wrinkle cream is seen for what it is by anyone who cares to look. But aging is only an enemy when we make it so. It is not aging that is our enemy, but decrepitude, and the stereotypes of aging our culture encourages us to accept.

Decrepitude, the loss of function and vitality, eventually comes to most of us unless we die young and healthy, but much and often it is something we bring on ourselves by disrespecting our body and mind. On top of that, we are forever adopting the negative views and distortions of old age that surround us. How better to throw away the personal power and vitality we own at any moment in our lives than to buy into the black balloons,  the “over the hill at 40,”   or “old people are weak, lonely, forgetful, and burdensome.” It is not that life may not force us into situations where one or more of these conditions is our lot; the problem is owning them before they’re ours because they are part of a common view of aging.  

So here I am at 77, neither decrepit nor pumped full of negative thinking about aging. For the past few weeks I have been anticipating this birthday, not to celebrate the day but to take stock of where I am at this moment in my life. I have done that, pretty much, and will share some of it with you. Not as advice, but in the manner of an open letter which you’re welcome to read if you care to. Some of the things will appear so obvious the critical importance of them may not be obvious; others may be irrelevant or make no sense. But if you remember I am writing these things down for me, as stock-taking, then it will be OK.     

First of all, here is a list of the things I have done less well. I have not succeeded in getting rid of all the excess weight I carry. I have often not been courageous in the face of physical or emotional threats. I have not been a warm and caring parent or husband. I have often indulged anger at myself or others, knowing how destructive angry feelings are.    

And here is a list of the things I have done better. I have lived, and lived well, within my means. Except for a home mortgage and car payment I am debt free. I am mentally and physically active: walking and writing are necessary parts of my daily routine. I am reasonably knowledgeable about diet and nutrition: I avoid red meat, most heavily processed foods, and sugar; eat lots of fruit, nuts, seeds, chicken, and fish–often organic. I do anonymous acts of kindness when I can recognize a need. In offering arguments or disagreements, I have learned to choose my battles carefully, and have become more successful in avoiding them.  I understand what it means to live in the present moment, and why that’s beneficial. My journey at this stage in my life is live in the here-and-now, and gain greater access to that reality that transcends our sensory experience.  And there is one last thing I am getting better at: letting go of the things age takes away.  It started with my hair, of course, but advanced to things I cared about more. My sexual enthusiasm has faded, and I can no longer run distances of 10 or 15 miles as I once could. I miss those things, but there would be no better way to ruin the life I have left than to cling to or ruminate about them. And for everything that I have lost, I have found a new thing of interest to replace it. 

I feel that, however many calendar years remain, I have important things to do: learning to care more and love unconditionally, for example. And living in the exact moment I have to live in, Those tasks  seem important to me, and worth the time and energy I expend on them. If you’d like to give me a really nice present for my birthday, wish me well with those tasks. And if you ever choose to make those goals your own, I will wish you well, too.

 

  

Remembering Pogo

Yesterday there was another White Nationalist rally in Seattle.  It was smaller than Charlottesville, and there was more police intervention. No one got killed. The event did not make big headlines, you had to search for it in the popular news outlets. 

As extremist events go  it was not so much, although it did add more evidence of the gathering storm on the far right. The racists and hate groups are getting organized under President Trump; they are bolder under his tacit protection. They are coming out. 

Now, it’s not a question of whether or not they’ll be a danger to society,  but how great a danger.  My impression is that they have got a good head of steam up, and the marches, confrontations, injuries, and deaths will continue and most likely increase.

What will stop them?  For sure, nothing will stop them entirely and forever. They–the enraged, self-righteous, and delusional extremists who cling to a fundamentalism that smears together religious, social, and political distortions and self-serving lies–will always be with us because society will never be strong enough, healthy enough, loving enough, to overcome the social problems that nurture and support them. 

But Pogo had it right. They are, of course, Us.  They and we together are parts of the same social fabric. “We,” the ones who oppose hating and demonizing minorities, who do not have delusions of White supremacy, and who support an inclusive rather than an exclusive social order, offer solutions that involve getting rid of “them,”  just like they do.  We practice reverse-demonization, and our own version of “my way or the highway,” And just like “them,” we will look for bigger clubs.

Sometimes bigger clubs have been the answer: our own  Revolutionary and Civil wars  were won by those who were most successful in killing their adversaries (who, after all,  were them.) Opinions vary on just how successful the winners were.  In both of these instances, what we did was the equivalent of amputating one of our own limbs: we were left with handicaps and scars that made the accomplishments of war harder to appreciate. 

If we had a strong, healthy, loving society, I believe we could resolve our White Nationalist/Hate Group problem without bloodshed. We could apprehend the wrongness of these groups and deny them audiences at their rallies and big headlines in our news outlets. We could screen politicians at every level of government and refuse to elect those who supported hate, divisiveness, and exclusion.  We could make our public school systems strong again, with real, accurate, American History, World History, civics, and ethics classes, and generous opportunities to participate in music, drama, and all the fine arts. We could, in short, re-weave the tears in our social fabric and make it strong.

But we are not a strong, healthy, loving, society. And under Trump, we are at risk for becoming a dictatorship, or worse. That is bad news. The good news is, the far right and the collective hate groups still represent a social minority. Despite all their bluster and rants, despite Trump’s thinly-disguised support, they lack the strength in numbers, the power and persuasiveness of ideology, to take charge of this country. 

The bad news is, it appears they are going to try, and since we are not good enough, healthy enough, or loving enough to fix things the right way, we will probably have to pick up clubs again and beat them/us down into some degree of submission. In the process, more of us/them will be injured or killed, just like in our Revolutionary War, our Civil War,  and the Southern Segregationist War of the 20th Century.  We/they will martyr some of their heroes, and they/we will martyr some of ours. Just like Abraham, Martin, and John.

Will we/they learn any more, this time around?  I don’t know. And Pogo is far away, poling a pirogue on a different swamp, one that is kinder, and less dysfunctional, than our own.  He may no longer be able to hear us, and we may not be able to get there from here.

 

It’s Not “Out There,” Is It?

Buffy died recently, and I miss her a lot. But then I still miss my old Coon Cat, Kittikitti, who died many years ago.  Now I am without a cat for the first time in decades. 

My first impulse, naturally, is to get another cat. I am looking in dozens of shelters and rescue facilities. I’m not so dumb as to try to replace Buffy. You can’t replace someone you’ve lost. What I’m looking for is a new friend. People in the shelters ALWAYS ask, “what kind of cat are you looking for?” I tell them I’ll know it when I see it. If the shelter worker seems generally interested, I add it’s a matter of chemistry: “you understand that,” I tell them, “you work around cats all day.” Most generally they say, yes, they do understand chemistry.

I have a list, partly conscious, but not totally, I’m sure, of the things I’m looking for in a cat: alert, people-aware, friendly, smart, etc etc etc.  Same thing as when you’re looking for a girl-friend or a wife, right: you have a list of desirable qualities you’re looking for.

But wait. How stupid is that? Lists of desirable things works if you’re buying a car or a house, but, a friend? You want a friend because you want someone to love. But you don’t love desirable qualities, you can’t, it doesn’t make sense. 

And if you’re concerned with unconditional love, which is the best kind (and which I am), then you don’t even love a cat: you just love. not something you attach to an external object; it’s not something you acquire a thing for and then expect to find it “out there,” or get it back. You just love.

So. I should be able to get any cat, and love it.  I should be able to get a kitten with mange, or an old scruffy cat about ready to croak, or a grumpy cat, or a three-legged cat, and love it equally. I know that. 

I understand that, but I can’t quite do it yet. I will probably be selective, and keep looking until I find a cat that’s easier for me to like. 

But Buffy was a calico, and I hated calicos. But I loved Buffy. That’s a start, I guess.

 

I

BUFFY

About 12 years ago this summer, I was working in my shop and heard funny noises. A persistent investigation revealed two tiny kittens in the weeds outside my shop. They eyes were not open yet, and they were about the size of a large cigar butt. After checking to see if they were abandoned I brought them in. I did not want them, and tried to get rid of them, but nobody wanted them so I bought a baby bottle and some kitten formula and fed them.

The Black one died, the calico lived. I named her Buffy, after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because of her martial and acrobatic prancings as a young kitten. I did not even like calicoes, but I had one now. 

One day, when she was about a year old, I found her frozen in a camel-back pose in the middle of the floor, in obvious pain. I called the after-hours doc and eventually got a diagnosis of Idiopathic Feline Megacolon. What that means is the colon expands for reasons nobody understands, normal peristalsis is compromised, and the cat can’t shit normally. Without meds and a special diet it usually dies. Meds and a special diet are expensive and most regular cat owners just have megacolon cats put down. 

I did not, and there followed a strange and often exasperating friendship. Since Buffy could not eliminate normally, she developed a habit of leaving butt streaks on the carpet which had to be cleaned up. Her food and medication ran close to $100 a month, and if I missed a couple doses she would develop an impaction which could be life-threatening.

Finally, I realized I could cut my cat-shit cleanup by 80% if I just made a partition to keep her off the carpeted areas of the house, which I did. She eventually adjusted to her night-time sequestering and would remind me about 10 pm if I hadn’t closed her in the kitchen. 

So there was almost 10 years of our routine: Wet cat food with Miralax twice a day, Latrine duty on the kitchen tile floors several times a week, shampooing carpet butt strips as necessary, and constant observation so the bad symptoms didn’t sneak up on her and require an emergency trip to the vet.

That’s all the bad news, of course. Buffy was a smart cat. She would come from the other room when I called her, and leave my lap when I asked her to get down. Eventually, I got to favoring calicoes.

Seven months ago she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I accepted this until my guilt got hold of me, and I took her to a fancy-assed specialty vet service in St Louis. They charged me $1200 to tell me she had inoperable cancer, but graciously offered to treat her for another $3000 or so. I am still angry at this clinic, and think they represent the worst, as well as the best of the Vet medicine profession. Their walls were covered with pictures of happy dogs and cats, no doubt their success stories, assembled for the comfort and reassurance of new clients. They did not post photos of the dead dogs, cats, ferrets,  guinea pigs, and boa constrictors that they could not save and I suspect they did not have enough wall space. I give them an “A” only for brass, in offering to take another $3000 of my money to treat Buffy’s inoperable tumor

For most of the time Buffy was alive she was not in great discomfort. Her appetite was good, she was active, she was alert. A casual observer would not have noticed she was sick. I knew she was sick because I watched her lose perhaps 1/2 of 1 % of her vitality every day; much more the last few weeks of her life. Her last few weeks were bad, sad, days of exhaustion and loss of vitality. Today, she tried to walk from the computer room from the living room, got half way, and laid down in the middle of the floor and took a nap. 

A few hours later, she was dead–a humane killing by the vet, the subject of euthanasia, or–if you need a really syrupy and disrespectful euphemism-she crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

I buried her in the cat cemetery in my back yard, wrapped in a magnificent and expensive tunic made for me by Mary, my deceased wife who died in 1996. Now I am sad, and lonely, but the stress of watching for months and months as Buffy lost her vitality is gone. 

I spent my whole life living with cats, I will have another one. It will probably outlive me. But somewhere, in a pet store or no-kill shelter, there is a cat that will look up when I walk past, and say, “It’s me. I’m the one you were looking for.” And we will go home.

 

 

 

The Vanishing Redneck

Recently, my oldest daughter Jennifer posted a thing on her Facebook page alleging that the town we lived in when she was growing up was the #5 Redneck Town in the state of Missouri.

Lots of people get Rednecks confused with Hillbillies, and that’s understandable. Both terms are stereotypes and who worries about splittin’ hairs when you’re using stereotypes.  

To understand the difference, you have to remember that regions Rednecks live in remain a feudal society.  The bankers, used car dealers, payday loan officers, and gun store owners are the Lords. Hillbillies are the Serfs. They farm the land, run the convenience stores, and otherwise do the essential labor needed to keep things going. The Rednecks are like the crops, which are harvested by the gun stores, payday loan offices, used car dealers, emergency waiting rooms, and so on. 

Another way to appreciate the difference between Rednecks and Hillbillies is that Hillbillies have understood and used core life technologies like hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Rednecks have problems with these things. They love guns, and are passionate about firing off bullets. But they have problems bringing game home for the table because their weapon of choice–the AK-47–turns a rabbit or deer into meat pudding, which is hard to transport unless you use 2 gallon Ziplock bags. Fishing is also a challenge for Rednecks. They usually quit early, because they eat the bait.

Unlike Hillbillies, who are retiring, Rednecks like attention. They like to get drunk, grab their girlfriends by the ass on the dance floor and stomp around until they bump into another Redneck. The two Rednecks then get into a bloody and protracted fistfight, and their girlfriends take whatever change is left on the table and the rest of the six-pack and leave. Often with a Hillbilly.

Hillbillies also enjoy drinking and dancing, but they usually do it at family gatherings, accompanied by skilled musicians on banjos, fiddles, and autoharps. Many of their dances can be traced back to those in vogue in Continental Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Clogging, for example, has its roots in the Minuet. Some say.

Hillbillies have a far richer and diverse lifestyle than most recognize. They are skilled at hunting, fishing, auto repair, and whittling, and they have their own version of Terducken, which is a coon, stuffed with a possum, stuffed with a squirrel.  

Tragically, the Redneck population in Arkansas and Southern Missouri is declining. The cause was a mystery for years. Then they hired a professor from Indiana University who came out and did an in-depth investigation. He discovered the principal cause of Redneck decline could be traced to an outdated highway regulation.

Many secondary and county roads in Southern Missouri and Arkansas are narrow; therefore, many bridges that span creeks and small streams are a single lane. These bridges are mandated by the State Departments of Transportation to be identified with a sign that says, “One Lane Bridge. Yield To Oncoming Traffic.”  Unfortunately, one of these signs is posted on each end of the bridge. When two Rednecks approached a bridge from opposite directions, both stop and wait for the other to pass.  Being stubborn, neither will go first. It is, in fact, a part of the Redneck Code that giving in and crossing a one-lane bridge first is a sign of weakness. Eventually, they become dehydrated and weak from lack of nourishment. County Road Crews make regular sweeps on back roads and collect the debilitated Rednecks, but sadly, for many it is too late. 

The Indiana University Professor who solved this tragic mystery made numerous recommendations to the State Highway Department, and pamphlets containing helpful information were distributed across the region in taverns, gun stores, and hospital emergency rooms. But the  Redneck population continues to decline, and it is estimated that by the year 2030, the culture may become extinct.

Ironically, Hillbillies would profit from the demise of the Redneck, since they could develop a variety of niche markets, such as whittling Redneck dolls, for sale in local tourist shops. Such dolls are destined to become pricey collector’s items, going for big bucks on Ebay. They will become a cherished conversation piece on many a  Yuppie’s wet bar,  but if you want to see a live Redneck you should probably visit Southern Missouri soon. You will need a good local Hillbilly guide, of course. My business number is 1-555-SEEBUBBA.

 

 

Sunday School Lesson

“This is Daniel, our new pupil,” said Mrs Klentch, “he is from Missouri and he tells me he has read the whole Bible, Old Testament and New.”

“If you know so much, then why don’t you tell us who God is,” Sally said, “Mrs Klentch doesn’t know. She says he’s a mystery.”

Mrs Klentch automatically reached for the ruler, but Daniel was too quick . “God is an elephant,” he said.

“You wicked little–” Mrs Klentch started, but Pastor Bob had just entered the room and he stopped her. “Go on, Daniel, how is God  an elephant.”

“All these different people come looking for God,” Daniel said, “and there he is, right in front of them, like a big elephant. And so the Muslims they grab a leg, and the Jews they grab the tail, and the Christians they grab the trunk. And then each one of them says they know who God is, and when the others disagree they get mad and argue about it.”

Mrs Klentch squirmed around on her chair, and tried to clear her throat. Pastor Bob nodded. “Does it matter which piece of the elephant they get hold of?” he asked.

“No, it don’t,” Daniel said, “if they really grab hold they catch the spirit of the elephant, and  there’s just as much elephant spirit in the tail or the ear as in the trunk.”

“But none of them know how big the elephant really is, do they?” said Pastor Bob, “and they don’t even know what a tiny piece they have ahold of.”

“Did I mention they’re all blind?” said Daniel?

“You did not,” said Pastor Bob, “but I figured that out. So the way you see it, it’s OK they don’t know how big the elephant is, so long as they hold on to their part of it?

“Yes,” Daniel said, “they just have hold on and they’ll be OK.”

“…and not get mad and argue,” he added as an afterthought, “they got to not fight about it.”

Don’t Overload Your Words, She Said

“What do you think?” the kid said.

“You’re getting better. You’re learning the language now,” the old lady said.

“Yeah?” said the kid.

“Well, you know, photography is like learning a foreign language, right? When you first learn a language, you communicate with words. You learn words, and the words contain the meaning you want to give someone else,” the old lady said. “And in photography, the words are individual images . You know: individual things, like dogs, or clouds, or flowers.”  

“Yeah.” said the kid.

“That’s right,” said the old lady, “and in the beginning, you try to find words for the things you want to talk about. The word is like the vehicle you use to move the meaning over to the other person. People learning a new language can find great words, lovely words, to get their meaning across. The problem is that individual words can only carry so much meaning and when you first learn the language you have a tendency to try to overload words with meaning.  Like when you say, ‘wow, that is a hugely, tremendously, awesome, flower.’ The big heavy words don’t get the huge, tremendous beauty of the flower across. ” 

“What if is is that kind of flower?” the kid asked.

“Then you get it clear in your head how and why it’s tremendously awesome and you create phrases or sentences that grasp the meaning.  That’s what it means to learn the language. Sentences and phrases can carry more meaning than individual words. ‘The Orchid caught the light coming in through the window, turned it an incandescent purple. The molten color flowed over the lip of the vase.’ Like that.”

“How do you make sentences in a photograph?” the kid said.

“In photography, individual images of things are like words,” the old lady said, “and when you organize them into a composition where several images strengthen or enhance each other, you have a visual sentence. Instead of just shooting the orchid, you move around until the light illuminates the petals, and the leaves of the plants around it create a kind of frame.”

“Yeah?” the kid said.

“Yeah,” the old lady said.