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Friends Bearing Books

Having been laid up recently, I’ve had some time to survey my nightstand: it’s really just a landing pad for books. It points to an inescapable conclusion: friends nourish friends – and what better way to do that, than by exchanging books?

Fresh insights, new experiences, and a few laughs keep friendships alive. This post honors those friends that have chosen just the right diversity of publication to keep the conversation interesting. An archaeological ‘dig’ of the strata of printed material on my nightstand yields the following:

  1. A bedrock layer of faith-based and philosophical insights. Lee has sent an unpretentious gem of a book, Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. I love this type of book which puts ideas in a larger context. Little did I know that the Judaic Tanakh and the Protestant Old Testament include the same material, just reordered – and that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic versions differ among themselves, as well as varying from the Tanakh and Protestant Old Testament.  Hamilton charts the process of how collections in the Bible were chosen to be in the canon: sources and timeline of the writings.

    Henri Nouwen was a world-class intellectual and steward of a Canadian institution for developmentally challenged adults. Dave provided me this slim volume, Our Greatest Gift, A Meditation on Dying and Caring. The book was written when Nouwen turned sixty and experienced the passing of several key individuals in his life. He decided to write on the theme of preparing for a ‘good death’ and introduced the idea of befriending death, rather avoiding or denying the subject. Written in his usual caring and transparent manner, Nouwen describes his journey of facing the dependency we will experience in old age – and the freedom that ‘letting go’ brings to a person of faith.

    Another Henry – my blog buddy – sent me The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. I love this book of daily meditations/exhortations! Various stoic philosophers present ideas to ponder. Marcus Aurelius is now my hero. The depth of character and insight this leader displays in his private diary are exemplary. On the other hand, I read Seneca with a little reservation, as he was Nero’s ethics teacher – it makes me wonder why Seneca’s lessons did not take root?
  2. Adventure and true crime still rules! Friend Brigitte passes along niche volumes associated with general interests in fly fishing and sailing. Two recent books have been The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson and A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols. The first story chronicles the theft of hundreds of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History. The thief is a Dutchess County resident – a classical musician and nationally noted trout and salmon fly-tier. The theft destroyed the historical record of certain rare birds simply to satisfy his obsession for using their feathers in tying traditional streamer fly lures for trout. A great read with an ending I would not have predicted. ‘Voyage’ recounts the 1968 inaugural Golden Globe sailing competition of nine individuals who compete to sail — single-handed and without stopping — around the world. Building and outfitting the sailboats is difficult but facing the loneliness and extreme weather in the “roaring forties” rounding Cape Horn proves to be a psychological crucible for these sailors.
  3. The odd and unusual. I’m so glad that Brigitte has an eclectic reading palette! Two recent deliveries I never would have picked are The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli and Today I Learned from the Willow Creek Press. Naturally, I will pass on the Sarcasm tome to George, along with its definition of Senile: “A word whose definition you will no longer be able to recall by the time it applies to you”. From Today I Learned, I learned that Allodoxaphobia is the fear of opinions… so I’ll refrain from providing one. I’ll simply close with thanks to my friends and a poem by Emily Dickinson:

There Is No Frigate Like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

The Evolution of a Home Library





I wish I could use the term evolution regarding my taste in books but that would suggest an ever-improving collection of literary works.  I learned to read with Dick and Jane, and Spot, too, but I missed all of second grade (long story), so I became a very slow reader!   My taste has definitely changed but I can’t really say it has evolved!  Growing up I read comics- sometimes Classic comics.  As a slow reader it was always tedious for me to finish a required book in a required time limit.  So I improvised!  In my early adulthood, fresh out of college with a major in Elementary Ed and a minor in Anthropology, I read every book I could find about human evolution, Lucy, indigenous peoples and their civilizations and migrations. I ate this stuff up. And for about 15 years I was on a steady diet of anthropological literature.  Then something happened.  Several teachers in my group and I got interested in this Whole Language idea where the curriculum was taught around literature.  Exhaustive work for a year before the program was to start  was needed for us to present it to our Board of Ed  I started reading every kids book that was published.  We were doing away with our traditional reading groups and basal series so we had to do research to see what reading skills were taught at the 5th and 6th grade levels in traditional reading programs,  We discovered that most basic skills had already been addressed and that at this level it was mostly inferences and more sophisticated skills  and finally presented to our superintendent.  We were given permission to proceed! It was so much fun. I began to realize how rich children’s literature is.  And it is rich without the sex and violence that so often is needed to hold adults’ interest.  We picked fiction books that coordinated with our Science and Social Studies curricula.  PEN, a writers organization heard about us and invited us to apply for a program they sponsored in elementary schools.  We applied and were approved and had a parade of children’s book authors coming in and working with our kids — not to name drop but we had Paula Danzinger, Gary Paulson, Ann M. Martin and several other big names in the industry back more than a few decades ago.  Anyway, the kids loved it.  I did a lot of reading to them.  I still hear from former students about how much they loved it when I read to them.  Of course every character in the book had a different voice including accents when necessary.  To tell you the truth, when I read for my own enjoyment I silently read in different voices and accents and also create visual images of what the characters look like. To this day I cannot read a book that I already saw in the movies because it destroys my imagination of what their voices and appearances were like.  I treasure my children’s book collection but I have moved on (better choice than evolved).

Today my reading selections are consistently fiction, choosing to live in the make-believe world than reality. Perhaps my all-time favorite book is by an author I vowed I would never read because I despised his horror stories, but I picked up Stephen King’s book, 11/22/63, and a week later I had read all 800 or so pages and was spell bound. Best book I have ever read.  Since then and after traveling several times to Italy I have been reading Italian detective stories by a woman writer, Donna Leon and her series called Commissario Guido  Brunetti Mysteries all taking place in the mysterious city of Venice which everyone should visit at some point. Then I began to hook onto a favorite fiction writer and read everything that was published by that author. Who knows what will be on my night stand next week but for now I have been pretty consistent!  And now you can see why I have no scholars or intellectuals to quote when I am trying to make a point!



The Power of Shared Reading

I always enjoyed a good comic book when reading for fun and fantasy.  Superman, Spiderman, and Daredevil were my favorite fallbacks in which to retreat and re-emerge as an offshoot of their powerful selves.  A firm believer in mind over matter and the idea that if we can conceive of it, it is possible, I always hoped to develop some – if not all- of the powers these heroes held.

In my junior year of high school, my English teacher would read to us throughout the second half of the period every Friday afternoon.  Her enthusiasm and love of the stories and their characters absorbed me and I became fully engaged and enchanted in the experience. 

Years later, like George, I would find myself reading to my fifth-grade classes a favorite children’s book at the time, David and the Phoenix, in which each character had a distinct voice that would vividly portray its character.  I remember going home each Friday afternoon with a sore throat from straining to reach deep gravely sounds and impossibly high screeches as I mimicked Sea Monster, the witch, griffins and, of course, the phoenix!  The original book sits on my shelf with partially laminated pages to keep them from falling into further decomposition and a plastic bag for good measure.  Most of the students were caught up in the story and the characters while others liked to watch the principal sit on the floor and act more like a child than a responsible adult.  You can imagine my dismay then, when I read the same book to my own children (and grandchildren) and they found none of those behaviors engaging and politely asked me if I knew of another book or story I could find the next time I offered to read to them.

Of course none of this speaks directly to Wal’s title and premise.  Most of my reading is on leadership and personal growth.  Early on it supported me in my work.  Later, it enhanced my work as a coach for those who guided schools and social service agencies.  I now realize how much these readings fueled my passion for bringing self-awareness, open-mindedness, and acceptance to all of my relationships.

For a period of ten years or so, I was fortunate to have two friends who shared the same reading interests.  We shared titles, read the material, and made time to get together regularly to discuss our interpretations in great depth.  At the beginning of each New Year, we would book a trip to a warm island location, agree on several worthy books to read, and meet for a week of beach, cocktails, and conversation.  The affirmations we gave and received as well as the disagreements we had were powerful connectors for our friendship.  I will always cherish those times.

More recently, I developed a close relationship with an educator who was and is a voracious reader.  I shared my library with him and he enriched and extended mine ten-fold.  Today we still send each other titles and summaries of what we found to be engaging and occasionally brainstorm possible venues and strategies for sharing these ideas with others.

“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

Mark Twain

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Lost

I seem to have lost something very important to me.  For decades, three quarters of a century, I had a patriotic pride in our country, drilled into me by a Marine father who served on Iwo Jima and two uncles, one Navy and one Army.  We marched in parades, put playing cards in our spokes held by a clothespin to ride in and out of the marching groups in every Memorial Day parade.  We were taught to take off our hats or place our right hand over our hearts as the American Flag passed by.  The flag was proudly displayed outside our house every national holiday, brought in at night if not illuminated from below!  And always folded, placed safely in its storage spot never ever touching the floor.  I continued this tradition until just recently.

That patriotic pride has been fading gradually but recently accelerating to the point of “why bother!” On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, I put it down and can’t find it!  I couldn’t see it through my crying jags, my disbelief, my head shaking and don’t know where to look for it anymore. My dad convinced my brother and I that we lived in the best country in the world.  He fought to make that true.  I loved the thought of that but somehow I can no longer accept that idea. How could a country that regularly shoots its own citizenry be the best country?  Let alone murders it’s own children.  19 second, third and fourth grade kids and two teachers murdered in their school! I’m a little sensitive having taught elementary school for 35 years and wondering what we would have done had it happened to us, to my friends and colleagues, and my students.  And I cried!  And at that point I realized I had lost that very precious thing- pride in my country.  We’ve been here too many times before and we do nothing to stop the carnage.  We could, but we choose not to, over and over again.

My pride has been slipping away more and more of late.  So many things are anathema to being the best country.  So many citizens are uninsured, great countries provide that for their citizens.  All makes and models of citizens are equally revered in great countries- all nationalities, races, genders, gays, straights all revered equally- that is what makes a country great.  Books aren’t banned and history isn’t erased due to discomfort in great countries!  Women control their own bodies in great countries, and words aren’t outlawed in states in an attempt to erase people who make others uncomfortable.  Laws aren’t passed to make it harder for certain parts of the citizenry to vote in great countries!  

Our thoughts and prayers are fine but won’t prevent the next shooting from occurring.  We have to take action. When I misplace my keys and just sit on the couch my praying to find them won’t help until I get up off my fat ass to look for them.  Praying that another school, church, mosque, synagogue, grocery store, concert won’t be shot up will do nothing if we don’t get our legislators to protect us first and their corporate sponsors after!  A good guy with a gun does not prevent a massacre, more guns in the population does not reduce the massacres.  We know what to do, we must convince our representatives to DO IT!  And do it NOW!!!

I hope I can find my lost patriotic pride.  But right now, with the history we have with literally avoiding doing anything to help, I am afraid pride is a lost art in America.  

Got Patriotism?

George has misplaced his patriotism, because America seems to be a disappointment. Yet he fondly recounts the patriotic tradition of his family as he grew up in the fifties and early sixties – a time that produced McCarthyism; a time when all abortion was illegal; a time when homosexuality was illegal; a time that where segregation and voter suppression were default conditions; a time where fewer people had health insurance; a time when there was no gay or interracial marriage. Honestly, I’m surprised that George looks back on this time as his incubator of patriotism. It was a time that highlighted the antithesis of George’s progressive goals. He was patriotic then, but not now?

Maybe it’s the word. I think patriotism is a loaded term. People use it to justify all sorts of opinions and actions. However, if meant in the simplest sense, it’s about loyalty to a society that provides safety to its citizens and allows opportunity for self-realization.

Clearly, the carnage in Uvalde showcases an inability to provide safety to our most vulnerable — all those sweet kids! In that sense, loyalty to a government that does not take the steps to effectively prevent such episodes does strain credulity.

But patriotism is a relationship and a commitment – a commitment to pursue continual improvement. You don’t just throw in the towel and walk away. Gun violence is a problem of our own making and we can fix it.

When George was a kid, he fell in love with the ideals that America stood for. Perhaps he didn’t read the fine print that it is a work in progress. But we’re all grown up now and realize that our compact depends upon putting in the work to achieve a more effective republic – that means listening to diverse voices and differing opinions, electing action-oriented representatives, and navigating solutions which do the greatest good for the greatest number. This is constructive patriotism – and I don’t think you have lost that feeling, George.

Patriotism by Segun Adekoya MMabogaje

A man of the heart you are!

A man that agreed with the earth,

With all his being,

To love, cherish and be,

Faithful to his home

The home that houses you

At the time of plenty,

And supports you during

The time of scarcity.

Reciprocal is the law,

For a citizen that gets;

All his rights from the,

Country he is a citizen of

By birth and other ways,

To be ready to be patriotic

Pay back in the same coin,

The dividend he has enjoyed,

The right enjoyed,

In form of duties

Inclusive Patriotism

George’s loss of faith and pride in our country is understandable.  Of the civilized countries in the world we are among the youngest, least experienced, and fastest developing.  And, as with newly forming collectives where growth exceeds measured practice, we will stumble and fall, move forward and backward, and seek to gain our footing while on unchartered ground.  We are in a time of instantaneous – worldwide information sharing.  There is little to no time to process and integrate what we hear and see into manageable bites that can then be tied to prior experience from which to make sense of it all.  We act and react often in ignorance, confusion, and with misinformation.  Remaining patriotic and maintaining a sense of pride amid such chaos is hard to achieve.  Unless we blindly follow others, it is hard to bring our authentic thinking to each and every event and know whether a decision or policy or behavior is patriotic or not.  

As Wal said, we are a work in progress.  We need to recognize that in order to move forward we sometimes must step back.  We need to understand that what is so clearly right and moral and best for our country appears so through our filtered eyes.  Other viewpoints don’t necessarily mean those that oppose don’t care.  Each opinion-holder has their own feeling about what is needed and important for the good of our nation and claim their beliefs and actions reflect true patriotism. Somehow, we must find ways to stop the divisive talk and begin to listen to each other with the intention of finding common ground.  Only then will we regain our footing and move, together, toward building the country each of us will be proud to call home.

“Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

Adlai Stevenson II

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Defensive Living

When I learned to drive I was taught to be a defensive driver.  My interpretation of that was to be on the lookout for unexpected events that could impede my safety.  Of course when I was sixteen I believed my lightning fast reflexes and gift of invulnerability were enough to keep me safe without much need for caution.  And now, at seventy-five, after almost sixty years of driving experience and with slightly less reflex time and visual acuity I must say that driving defensively has become more and more of a daily practice.  And lately, I realize that it also applies to my daily living.

I’m fortunate to have the gift of time.  I am no longer in a rush to fit an endless and overwhelming number of “must do’s” into my day.  I am able to make the time to get up and out of the house each morning with intention and calm.  Often I’m up before my 6:00 am alarm (usually because Duke’s automatic clock sends him to my bedside just before the buzzer.) This gives me sufficient time for my morning routines before we set out to my daughter’s house to help get the grandkids off to school.  By 8:30 I have the time to journal and workout before we head off to the dog park for more exercise.  All of this is to say that I can pay attention with less distraction.

Many years ago, when my daughter was first learning to drive, one of her former classmates was involved in a fatal car crash.  In this case, she was making a left turn from a stop sign.  She looked left and saw that the oncoming car’s right signal light was on so she pulled out in front of him.  Unfortunately, he had no intention of turning and had unknowingly left his blinker on from an earlier lane change.  A similar experience, (without incident) happened to me just the other day.  Fortunately, I left plenty of room and time to avoid a collision.  I was driving defensively.  I’ve noticed that the more I let go of what “should be” and simply be prepared for things to not necessarily go as planned, helps me in day to day activities as well.  Follow up reminders, double-checking times and numbers, and taking more responsibility for getting things done, leaves me less stressed and more productive.  Of course moving from an “it’s unfair!” and blame mentality to accepting what is without all the drama, is not an easy shift for me.  It’s takes daily reminders and practice to make progress. 

Another example of this acceptance of how things are without judging them to be wrong or bad happened to me in the supermarket last week.  I often have little tolerance for people who appear oblivious to other shoppers when they leave their cart in the middle of an isle or block a section of shelf while they chat away or text on their phones seemingly uncaring about those around them.  After all, what excuse could they possibly have, I surmised.  Well, I use my Anylist app on my phone when I shop.  It has all of the items I need to buy and all I need to do is glance at my phone for my list of groceries.  So here I was at the end of the dairy aisle, checking my app and realizing I hadn’t checked off the items I had already put in my cart.  I proceeded to update my list thinking how happy I was that I actually found all the things I needed and reviewing the menu for that night’s dinner.  What took seconds to write about this experience actually took a minute or so.  As I was about to finish I looked up and noticed I was completely blocking an entire section of cheeses and a man was quietly and politely waiting for me to move so he could continue his shopping.  For all he knew I was texting my blogging buddies about an epiphany I just had in the dairy section of the supermarket (it could happen…) but he simply smiled at me.  I apologized profusely and told him how I hated when others did that to me.  He waved it off and said it was not even an inconvenience compared to all the other things he could be upset about.  I was humbled.  From now on I will seek to rethink my first response to supermarket blockers, drivers who cut me off, and desk clerks who make billing errors on my invoices and consider what I need to do to move on with a minimum of upset or “poor me” attitude.

I’ve also found that this kind of defensive living is not the notion of expecting everything to go wrong and worrying about every action I take.  It’s more about acceptance of the way things are without fixing negative labels on others for mishaps and unwanted outcomes.  I find it easier to embrace this philosophy now as an older man than I did when I was younger.  Perhaps it’s another perk of the aging process!

Consequential

Hen writes of a discipline of practice: to approach the day without assigning a limited number of acceptable outcomes and to be present in the decisions that he makes. All of which argues for assessing the consequences of the actions that one takes. Both Hen and George remember the headlong rush that life can be when we were younger. I’m sure that each of us has particular cautionary tales.

What popped into my head was an incident that occurred when I was eight years old. A group of us were playing in a friend’s front yard with balsa airplanes. Do you remember those models where wings and stabilizers slipped into slots in the fuselage – and could be launched with a rubber band attached to a stick?

One of ours had a great flight but landed on the roof of David-Charles’ house. We weren’t sure how to retrieve it. Being kids, we thought ourselves ace problem solvers. I came up with a prudent plan that we all agreed would work. It went like this:

  • Find a heavy, round stone we could throw onto the roof.
  • The stone would roll down and bring the plane with it.
  • The stone would fall down, but the plane would glide away unharmed.

Now the quality of the stone was important. It needed to be round so it would roll off the roof. We did not want to leave flat stones on David-Charles’ roof. It had to be heavy – well, because it should be a consequential stone.

Okay, so the idea was that I would hold the heavy stone in two hands and run up to the pachysandra garden that was in front of the living room picture window and fling the stone with all my might onto the roof. 

We examined the plan and could find no flaw. Brilliant, right? What could possibly go wrong? 

That was the last time David-Charles and I were allowed to play together – I mean, after the tree fort ‘elevator’ disaster, requiring stitches for David-Charles, I could understand his mother’s point of view. And I accepted full responsibility for the consequential stone laying on the living room floor, surrounded by the glass shards of the picture window.

It seems to me that I’ve had a number of those plans through the years. They seemed based on well-grounded assumptions – at least, at the time. 

I read somewhere that the parts of the brain that marry action to consequence do not fully develop until the twenties. (Now this would certainly explain the college years). And even so I have always strived for a well-ordered life. But whether the fault is in our stars, morphology, or a few slippery peptides on the DNA chain, I have some reservations about my ability to apply a strong over wash of rationality to all my decisions. 

Jumping in the Shower

In my youth, i.e. up to ago 50, I did everything in a hurry.  In fact our language reflects this youthful energy and idiomatically reflects our hurry.  Each morning I would “jump in the shower.” Then I’d “grab something to eat,” probably “gobble it down,” and then “run to the store.”  Our culture encouraged us to speed up and our youthful energy matched the expressions we used to indicate our hurry. 

At 76 (I always round up my age in hopes someone who thinks I look like an old 75 might just say that he doesn’t look bad for 76!) But i digress!  I, as Henry suggested, have time now to digress, it allows me to plot my next move. Impulsivity is no longer my friend.  So at 76, I no longer jump in the shower but rather carefully raise my leg over the edge of the tub holding on to the secure towel rack while carefully testing for the slip factor of my foot on the porcelain surface of the tub.  No longer can I grab something to eat, it requires thoughtful concentration and review of whether or not it is healthy, or redundant (didn’t I have that yesterday?) or in need of intensive preparation!  And forget about running to the store- start the car, let it idle for a few, buckle my seatbelt, check my rear camera and thank the manufacturer for that gift, as turning my head far enough around to see out the rear window is no longer an option!

Defensive living today requires thought about most things.  I no longer carry my laundry basket down the cellar stairs cause I don’t want to wind up like that lady who fell down the stairs and can’t get up.  So I use a soft laundry bag and toss it down from the top of the stairs, hold the railing and proceed down the stairs carefully.  I had a friend who had just retired from teaching, was taking her laundry down to the basement, missed a step and hit her head on the cement floor and unfortunately passed away.  That had a profound effect on me. Having broken my foot twice in a year in the same place also causes me to do some defensive moves to prevent self-harm.  I am especially careful on frozen winter mornings where I place my feet on my carefully thought out and executed journey to the store!  

I guess I still do the same things I did in my youth but with consideration for aging moving parts that have become brittle over the years!  It isn’t so much worry as it is an awareness of what could go wrong with one careless move.  Cautious consideration of what I am about to undertake is always a good move.  I now avoid the poison Ivy growing in my shrubs that I am trimming rather than forge ahead full steam, consequences be damned. But I sure do miss the swashbuckling nature of jumping in the shower, grabbing a bite and running off into the sunset!  At least, as Henry suggested, I have the luxury of time to allow myself this privilege!

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MM/DD/YYYY

“I am very impressed”, said the surgeon – “about how much damage you’ve managed to do to your hip. “You need a full replacement, so let’s see how soon we get you scheduled”. Two thoughts occurred right on top of one another: a) boy, am I lucky to have an option to reduce the pain, b) wow, I am officially old.

I admit to being a surgery rookie – fortunate to have avoided hospitals since my tonsils were removed, so many years ago. So many years ago, that Robbie the Robot was the toy of the year. But now, I am joining the Society of Waiting Room Junkies, an exclusive club of seniors who inhabit a labyrinth of calendar conflicts almost totally devoted to medical service. I figured to be pretty good at this, as my working life taught me to wait productively in airports, but I have to admit that doctors’ waiting rooms have their own vibe. Mostly, older and infirm individuals emit auras of fading energy, but I have witnessed some full-on, call the cops outrage with the administrative process.

Problems tend to arise when patients do not understand insurance-speak or waiting room ethics… and some admins tend be unaware that folks may need to be ‘socialized’ into appreciating the specialized tasks assigned to various members of the medical team: front desk reception (‘what is your birthdate, please’), intake nurse (what is your birthdate, please’), medical history admin, phlebotomist, x-ray tech, surgery scheduler (‘what is your birthdate, please’), co-payment processor – oh, and the physician or PA.

Since western medical practice is a symptom-oriented approach, specialists exist for every symptom. Your medical team wants to know (in addition to your birthdate) the names of your urologist, cardiologist, nephrologist, neurologist, oncologist, physiatrist (yes, that’s a thing), psychiatrist, ophthalmologist, dermatologist, proctologist, and pharmacist. In addition, your team will be pleased to hook you up with an anesthesiologist. Look at all the new friends! We may have not found the cure for COVID, but we have certainly cured loneliness in our lifetime!

Obviously, I speak with tongue-in-cheek, observing a rite of passage that people of a certain age must cleave to, or not survive past that certain age. We are fortunate to have excellent healthcare, even if at times the process gets in the way of the service. How nice it is to encounter the upbeat nurse, the skilled practitioner, or the pleasant fellow traveler… they keep us keepin’ on!

Organ Recital

When I was in my forties I had a phone conversation with my colleague Jack.  He asked about our health insurance coverage to see if I had any knowledge of reimbursement for a procedure he had scheduled.  One thing led to another and soon we found ourselves immersed in a completely health-obsessed exchange of body parts, broken bones, previous illnesses, and surgeries.   He paused, chuckled, and then said we sounded like two old men who talked about little else than their medical conditions – he called it the Organ Recital!

Ever since that day I remain observant when I find myself pulled into such a conversation and seek to make it more about gathering information rather than enjoying it as a new mode for social entertainment.  And now Wal’s post reminds me that, in fact, I am an old man who will have more and more medical issues waiting for me on the horizon.  The question remains how much of the “concert” I choose to participate in and/or listen to.

As Wal points out the challenges that lie ahead include more than just the condition of eroding body parts; they include the endless stream of paperwork, administrative error or incompetence, and waiting rooms that bombard us with a myriad of conversations and germs!  I’m thinking that George’s approach from his previous post will likely serve him well; expect the worst and you’ll likely be surprised that it wasn’t as bad as you expected.  And, as Wal reports, sometimes these conditions can lend themselves to pleasant surprises when we might experience highly respectful and efficient check-in and follow-up services and the opportunity to make a positive connection or two.  I try to combine my optimism for the latter with preparedness for an experience that might require much patience and a Zen mind.  After all, if this is the new normal for “Old Guys” then it makes sense to adapt and accept it.

I think the part that I have control over is whether I make these medical interventions a symphony I play in regularly or an intermittent recital I can leave behind when the visit is over.  Perhaps if I choose to bring my playful and curious nature to this venue rather than become an organist playing and replaying the same old song, I might just continue to enjoy the music!

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

-George Bernard Shaw

Relatively Speaking…

Everything is relative! I just had a major revelation about everyone’s fixation about my glass being half empty all the time.  It just occurred to me to get a smaller glass and pour my concerns into it and magically my glass is FULL!  Not half full but all full (say it slowly and enunciate so it doesn’t sound like ‘awful’) See?  Relative!

In our youth our social life consisted of parties, big events and social gatherings!  Every weekend was filled and work took up our weekdays!  Life was busy and full (not half full), fun and laughter were the currency of those gatherings.  Life was good!  In our mid-life prior to the crisis, our social engagements quieted down slightly. Our social calendars were filled with weddings, christenings, work related parties, road clean ups.  Life was getting softer, quieter and cozier.  Life was comfortable if a little quieter.

The Golden Years, which sneaks up on you mercilessly, changes the nature of our social calendars.  The weddings and christenings are finished for the most part, gatherings become less frequent but the one commonality we all face at this stage is the maintenance of our physical bodies.  Life can become concerning.  They say in your mid-fifties your ‘check engine light’ comes on and predicts the ailments and medications soon to be arriving at an organ in you! The friends you maintained over the years are in the same boat and remain faithful at your side, sympatico to what you are going through.  Hence the conversations Henry refers to as organ recitals.  Now here’s where my new revelation about my glass kicks in.  You begin to see your week is filled with blood work, X-rays, appointments with specialists, Medicare physicals where you get extra credit if you remember the four special words in their right order! But as Wal pointed out, the new socializing opportunities are in the waiting rooms of all these new and exciting locations.  New friendships develop as you run into the same person you met at your general practitioner’s office pops up the following week at your cardiologist’s office! “How is your son doing with the divorce?” Or “Social Security thinks you died?  I have a friend that was declared dead by them and he had to be resurrected!”  Meeting new people is always fun and the conversations are so much more interesting than in our youth.  So you see, everything is relative!  Just a little digression.  Wal and I have the same general practitioner so I had to fill out that list of specialists as well, so after I listed my Cardiologist, Nephrologist, Dermatologist, Therapist, Orthopedist, in my snarkiest printing I added one that wasn’t on his list….I figured since they want to know everything about me I listed my Veterinarian too!  The doctor asked me if I was trying to be wise and I told him I didn’t have to try, it came with old age…

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Peter Pan is Alive and Well!

I love to play!  Always have and hopefully, always will.  Somewhere along my boy to adult years I acquired the nickname, Peter Pan.  I liked it and took it as a compliment.  Too many of my friends were too much in a rush to “grow up” and, whatever that meant, to me it clearly lacked the notion of play and fun and energetic satisfaction.

In my latter years, someone told me I was child-like.  Again, without hesitation, I embraced the intent.  Being playful is a part of who I am.  It’s the time when I feel I’m most alive and vibrant.  Immersed in play, I feel free and light and without care or worry.  It is as if I’m in a meditative state of being.  I’m so focused on whatever I’m playing, I think of little else.  I exist for the state of playing whatever the game may be.

Young children and pets inspire my playfulness and somehow, they sense that in me.  In my mid forties one of the 8 year-old boys in the neighborhood rang my doorbell and asked if I wanted to ride bikes!  As principal of the best ever elementary school, I would be sure to check (several times) if the sleigh riding was safe for the kids by trying out the sleds on the playground hill.  Once my “kid-at –heart high school principal colleague also joined me! (Go Susan!) Several weeks ago as I walked back from my grandson’s bus stop with a mom and her preschool age daughter, the child whispered into her mother’s ear and asked if she could invite me to their house for a play-date. It’s the same with dogs.  They seem to know I’m up for animated roughhousing and, somehow their owners (my sister in particular)  are certain I am to blame for getting the dogs to a state of noncompliance.  (Of course they’re(she’s) right but I think her dog actually started it!) 

I enjoy all sorts of play.  I love many sports and still would rather play them than watch them on TV.  I like many box/card games.  I still play hide and seek with my grandson and his friends.  Earlier this winter, after a sizable snowfall, I went over to his house to join the kids, ages 10 -15, in a snowball fight.  Of course last winter I was still rushing down my hill on my sled trying to beat anyone who would agree to race with me.  

Recently, I realized that my men’s poker group which met every other Thursday night for some 11 years, was really a gathering of grown up kids finding an excuse to tell jokes, act silly, and otherwise shirk off the cloak of responsible adultness for a couple of magical hours.  We laughed more than we frowned and found renewed energy in our play even though for most, it was the end of a long workday.

Since being playful comes naturally, I never really thought about the value it brings to my life.  And while some of my friends and family are tolerant but not especially fond of my childlike ways, I can’t help but wonder if they were to view play as a means of balancing the challenges of the day rather than the irresponsible actions of an adult, if they might consider embracing what they once felt as children.

Tonight I’ll raise my glass (perhaps a chocolate ice cream soda) in a toast to a sense of play, whatever age we may be!

Fun and Games

People say that growing up in the 50’s was a completely different experience than our current times. Perhaps that’s accurate. But I will say many of the stressors were similar: struggling to break into the middle class, gang violence (remember zip guns?) cold war tensions and fear of nuclear war. Despite this, my parents placed a high priority on family interaction, as well as personal freedom if I could be shown to keep my word.

And games – lots of games. 

Both my parents worked at least one job all the time. When my dad got home, my brother, he and I would play catch, wiffle ball, badminton, Pluto Patters (the original frisbee) and – you name it. While my parents were at work, I was responsible for my little brother, so we would play stoopball, flip baseball cards, and make up games using baseball cards and bottlecaps. Bottlecaps were a big thing, because once a year our local park sponsored an annual bottlecap carnival, where bottlecaps were the currency to play arcade games or enter foot races or other contests. Luckily, my aunt owned a candy store in Queens and saved all the caps that fell into the cavity of the opener embedded in the Coca Cola ice chest. We separated the bottlecaps based on the color of the foil inside the cap: silver foil were usually beer bottles, while white plastic and plain cork were sodas like Ni-Hi, Hires Root Beer, and Orange Crush. Battalions of caps would be assembled to recreate the Revolutionary war: the white caps were Americans, but silver caps were Hessian troops. We’d bang them together on the carpet – those that flipped over were designated KIA.

Evenings could find our family playing card games and board games: Chess, Risk, Game of Life, Monopoly, and Clue were favorites. We learned to play Gin Rummy, War, Blackjack, Canasta, Hearts, Spades, Poker, Cribbage – and even Bridge. 

In our spare time, Rich and I would head down to the local park for pick-up games of baseball or, stickball against the handball wall. In fact, I have spent most of my life with a ball and stick in some level of sport.

All of these ‘play’ activities developed a good sense of dealing with others, building trust and coalitions, as well as honing strategy and tactics. Seems like play is a bit of rehearsal of life skills with some humor, improvisation, and joint discovery thrown in. However, somewhere along the age spectrum, play morphs into industry as we begin to value counting coup more than the fun itself.

Simply put, industry can bring satisfaction, but play brings delight. So, I admire Hen’s ability to stay emotionally supple and value opportunities for play… Roll on, Pan! And although George bemoans his ability to have fun, I remember a guy who looked just like George who loved to dance during our college mixers. Hmmm, I also remember George look-alike at a particular marshmallow eating contest – and I remember George being the center of many social gatherings. Even today, his sense of wordplay is nonpareil (Ha! Look that one up, buddy!). Play is where you find it.

Fun Through the Ages

I met Wally and Henry in the spring of ’66 when we all rushed the same fraternity.  We became friends then and have remained friends throughout all of these years.  Henry and I were roommates for a while in Capen Hall.  I first remember meeting Henry coming out of the dorm which had a railing around the doorway and instead of walking out through the opening he would do this thing where he would hop over the waist tall railing and depart.  I always envied that and secretly tried to do it frequently when no one was looking to no success.  I even think I may have been the one who gave him the moniker of Peter Pan. He refused to grow up if growing up meant it would be against his dignity to climb a tree……I admired that childish energy. Growing up we all played.  I’d get home from school, change clothes and join the group already playing in the street.  We would run and yell and scream CAR CAR C-A-R when a car had the nerve to drive through our games.  We all knew that when the streetlights came on that was our signal to rush home.

As adulthood approached, and maturity (which is highly overrated) crept in I became an elementary schoolteacher which allowed me to play all day while hopefully the kids were learning.  I had license to regress and relate to them the way I used to with the kids on my block.  To get their attention I would write on the blackboard backwards, or upside down and they would start to giggle and quiet down. When teaching the three kinds of adverbs, manner, time and place, we would do the adverb congoline- Manner, Time and Place….UUUHHH as we danced bunny hop style around the classroom. It was fun, playful and made an impression on the classes.  Grammar didn’t have to be deadly.  Being a classroom teacher allowed me to have fun, I could read great children’s lit to the classes in different voices and with different accents and it was fun.  We did fun things but always with a learning purpose in mind.  And the fun continued til retirement (after 35 years) loomed.  But then I owned an Inn in Vermont and all my teaching stories would entertain our guests at breakfast and even though it was a different kind of fun it was still fun.

That went on for another 14 years or so and then real retirement happened and things were still fun.  I loved sharing lunch or an afternoon drink with former students and colleagues but then Covid struck and I pretty much forgot how to have fun.  Isolation for me isn’t fun and today I still haven’t gotten my fun quotient back to where it should be. I envy Henry and Wally cause they still know how to have fun. Both seem to have the admirable quality of having fun while alone and by themselves.  I can’t do that for some reason. and I realized that my entire life for something to be fun I had to share it with others.  I also came to the realization that right now, and probably always I got fun out of using my words to make people laugh- snarkasm and pun- ishment became enjoyable when shared with other sharp tongued individuals.  Puns are only as good as the  loudest groan accomplished after it is spoken!

Two years of inertia has taken its toll on my energy and stamina and it seems like too much effort is needed to get off the sofa.  But I am working at it and am looking forward to having fun again.  I promise, before my ride on this roller coaster is over, I will have fun again!

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The Art of Perception

The Art of Perception

”Where you sit determines what you see”. I was reminded of this nostrum during dinner with friends in mid-December of last year. I had presented Marc and Deleah with a Christmas ornament that I made – a hollowed and dyed maple ball with a wooden final.

Marc said ‘What is this?’

“A Christmas ornament”, I replied – “or just an ornament if you don’t celebrate Christmas”.

“No, it isn’t,” he said.

Now Marc was not playing word games. He is a man with serious chops as an artist, professor, and businessman in the world of artistic enterprise… so, I listened. I believed that he was making the point that my labeling of the object presented limitations, both on the work – and maybe in life as well. He viewed the object as a mini-sculpture.

Photo by Marc B.

As a follow-up to our conversation, Marc sent me two items: a) a picture showing the ‘ornament/sculpture’ in a different presentation and b) a discussion of one of Rene Magritte’s paintings. The painting was “The Treachery of Images”, which presented an object (a pipe) with the painted words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe”. In this work, Magritte was declaring that the image of the ‘pipe’ was not an actual pipe, nor the drawing of the words themselves, actual words. He is challenging the audience to make a distinction between representational art and the object itself. His piece is a philosophical argument.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein followed a similar line of thought: he believed that the object that a word stands for does not convey the meaning of the word (or, I assume, its image). He is famous for the line “If a lion could talk, we would not understand it.” Bottomline, our language and communication of ideas is very much dependent on context and use, not simply pointing to an object while saying its label. Therefore, Magritte says his painting is not a pipe. (I think Freud would agree, even though he felt that ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’).

There are lots of ways that context and/or use can be altered. It occurred to me that another method of underlining the difference between an object and its representation, is by varying the angle of view – or its scale. After all, art is essentially juxtaposition – allowing the viewer to see something in a different way. To that point, two sculptures highlight the same utilitarian object – a clothespin – in a vastly different context.

Claes Oldenberg’s Sculpture

Claes Oldenberg created his work in huge scale in urban Philadelphia – and it is certainly representational! It’s easy to see that this piece distinguishes itself in context from a run of the mill clothespin. Yet another take on the clothespin theme was completed by Mehmet Ali Uysal for a park in Belgium. Now this is also an installation of grand scale, yet I think we’d all agree it is more ‘clothespinny’, because it speculates a use in line with a conventional pincer. 

Mehmet Ali Uysal’s sculpture

So now we come full circle. Where you sit determines what you see. The labels we use are rooted in the context of our experience. Sometimes a simple challenge will cause you to change where you normally sit and realize a different field of view.

Note from an Impressionist

Perhaps because it was December when Wally presented his friend with his beautiful handmade gift, he assumed it would be perceived as a Christmas ornament.  In spite of Christmas carols playing on the radio, Wally’s intention to make it an ornament to decorate a tree was not enough to prevent his friend’s perception to wander.  Perhaps his friend was planning his summer vacation or planting his garden, Christmas just wasn’t on his mind. Because of the situation, location, time of year, what he had for breakfast, when he opened the gift his first impression was not that of a Christmas ornament.  I’m not sure of the shades of difference between impressions and perceptions, but first impressions are strong persuaders of how we react.  Impressions and perceptions can change over time.  Fortunately, time allows us to adjust first impressions based on additional information, change of mood, time of day and degree of hunger!

Having owned an antique store for a short time and having been an avid antique hunter for most of my life, I always looked for alternative purposes to the items I purchased.   What I perceived as an end table, with a little creative thought could be repurposed as a plant stand, an aquarium stand, a book shelf and whatever one’s creative mind perceived it as regardless of its original intended purpose.

Perception is a critical process we experience daily.  It is essential to life.  It deceives us, comforts us, endangers us, supports us, and the list goes on… We all perceive constantly.  When Wally approached the topic. my first impression was not about objects and how they are perceived but rather about people.  I am an impressionist!  First impressions are my life blood.  More often than not, that protects me from behavior I might regret while giving me time to adjust my impressions ’til I feel comfortable with my perception of the person.  I think most of us do that.  When I go to a new doctor that first impression dictates what I will share.  That reaction more than likely changes with subsequent visits.  What about that crazy driver in front of you who is driving at a snail’s pace?  I have two friends (who shall remain nameless) who perceive that person to be someone on the spectrum somewhere between common criminal and mass murderer (slight exaggeration here).  But perhaps over a beer or glass of wine could be fine company.

I guess my point is perception is everywhere- all the time- an essential life skill.  I wish I could quote some world-renowned expert in the field, but I mostly read fiction.  I trust my first impressions and adjust my perceptions as time passes and I get to know more about those people who impressed me!

The Power of Embracing Perspective

After reading Wal’s story about perception I was struck by his ability and willingness to be open to listening to his friend’s interpretation of the gift that was given.  Despite the fact (reality) that he intentionally crafted this wood-turned Christmas ornament, he was still able to accept that his friend perceived it differently.

I have often heard, and used the phrase, “perception is reality.”  However, as I spent more time thinking and reading about perception, I realized that perception is not reality.  In an article in Psychology Today, Jim Taylor, Ph.D. suggests that, by definition, perception (“The way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.”) and reality (“The world or the state of things as they actually exist… existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions.”) are not the same.  However, because our perceptions come from a myriad of personal experiences and influences and since these are often strong enough to create a sense of certainty within us, it is may be more accurate to say, perception can (and often does) become an individual person’s reality.  My “reality” isn’t reality.  It’s just a construct of what I believe, based on everything I’ve assimilated over these many years as fact and right and good.

Therefore, when one’s beliefs are challenged, ignored, or replaced with another’s opposing thought, it is understandable for the common response to dig in, defend, and spend time creating a convincing argument to help the other see the “error of their ways” and counter with the value of one’s initial viewpoint.  It is my belief that we are seeing this kind of behavior more than ever before.  And, more than ever before, there appears to be less trust, less compromise, and fewer examples of collaboration and community.

But there are a few exceptions! Case in point, Wal who reminds us that despite the inarguable fact that he intentionally made an ornament, he was willing to listen to another’s immediate challenge to his label (his reality) and substitute it with a term/realty of his own.  And, in doing so and by asking questions, Wal was able to understand his friend’s point of view.  Furthermore, he seized the opportunity to think more about art, perspective, and philosophy.  I would venture to say that he likely enhanced his relationship with this friend, as I know few greater needs than the need for people to feel heard.

Wal closes his piece with words worth repeating:

“So now we come full circle. Where you sit determines what you see. The labels we use are rooted in the context of our experience. Sometimes a simple challenge will cause you to change where you normally sit and realize a different field of view.” If we could learn to practice what these simple, but powerful words suggest we might be open enough to realize a different field of view, which in turn might allow us to better understand each other.  If we understand each other better and feel heard, then perhaps…  (I’ll let you finish this piece with your own perspective.)

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State of the Union

I have had to rewrite this several times because my purpose was not to push my political leanings but they somehow leaked out anyway.  In an effort to be more balanced I have attempted to compose my heightened feelings without my personal perceptions clogging or distracting from my ideas.  These last two years have been very difficult.  The isolation and the threat of disease has overshadowed our lives.  And, just as things seem to be easing up, a war starts. Hard to find a half full glass around now. I have been in a constant state of unhappiness if not depression for over 2 years, exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation demanded by a virus that spreads through social contact.-  the one thing that affords me enjoyment and purpose.  But there are signs of change and hope. A new administration that seemed to know how to handle not only the pandemic but also how to raise the civility and respect in a country suffering horribly from rudeness and lack of proper social behavior.  Yes, even I was feeling the weight lifting a little as restrictions eased and infection slowed.  I noticed a few more drops of water were added to that glass unexpectedly.  Things were looking up and hope was rising as the voracity of the disease was slowly ebbing.

And just as that ray of hope was entering our homes, the threat of war became more real as attacks on the Ukraine slowly began to tear apart the new found hope.  It was difficult to watch the destruction being committed on the civilians of Russia’s neighbors and see my glass being filled anymore. Yet, I held onto glimmers and was waiting to see what our next moves would be.  Our president was preparing for the State of the Union Address and I was anticipating it with less than exhilaration and more with same old same old blah blah blah platitudes and promises that usually don’t come to pass. The country is so divided that nothing is getting accomplished other than one side blaming the other.  The President is being accused of being senile due to his stuttering which occasionally makes his words a little difficult to understand.  I have known stutterers in my personal life and in my career and know that techniques they use to pronounce words sometimes elongates sounds or clips off words in an attempt to avoid the repetition associated with stuttering.  Stuttering itself in no way suggests feebleness or academic deficiency.  With all this running through my head, I sat down with a glass of wine and prepared to be less than awestruck.  I was sort of half listening and sipping my wine when I sensed the need to listen more closely, impressed by the manner in which he presented his intended information.  You could sense his integrity, and his empathy for a nation in pain. He was encouraging our nation to come together and addressed some of the issues that have separated us for the past 5 years.  His language was encouraging, comforting and yes, even hopeful.  He laid out what he wants to do for us average folk in America, things that everyone would benefit from.  Democrats and even Republicans were standing and applauding.  I hadn’t seen that recently, and for a few moments we were united in the common good for the United States.  My eyes teared up and suddenly I saw my glass filling up a little more with my tear drops, slowly perhaps but surely!  I was feeling good, I believed him, I trusted him, and I was reveling in the fact that the Republicans were not cat calling or booing but instead seemed to be in agreement with much of what he was proposing.  I heard shouted ridiculing of President Biden as he talked about his son’s cancer, but that didn’t bother me much because of the source.  That is sad and highly inappropriate.  I realized about 40 minutes into his address that not one discouraging word of ridicule or self promotion was articulated and that in itself was so refreshing because President Biden realizes his job is to promote what is good for us and it is not about him.  I smiled when he honored the little boy who was invited to attend the presentation and a few more drops were added to the glass.  

For a fifty or so minute presentation I felt good about us!  I felt we can work together and was thankful that he was the man in charge of dealing with the epidemic, a possible war and perhaps even pestilence as that seems to be the one thing missing in our experience so far.  I felt good……I felt positive……..I was energized and hopeful and am attempting to hold on to that positivity for as long as I can.

And then my glass tipped over a little and some spillage occurred as the days passed and the war intensified.  The images were horrifying. I watched bodies being thrown into unmarked graves just because the bodies had to be buried and families were separated all over the area.  I am in awe of the Ukrainian people and their commitment to protecting their land.  I am comforted by our reaction as well.  The world will be suffering consequences but the consequences of higher costs can’t compare to the terror these families have faced and continue to face.  Humanity has to return as a natural value of decent people.  More and more I think the world is rising to the challenge and is refusing to be bullied by a rogue nation that just wants MORE of everything for itself. That alone adds drops to my glass!  The faucet isn’t open yet but the degree of tragedy might just be enough to wake people up the dangers of dictatorships and bully authoritarians who want everything for themselves and their cronies and the rest of the people just don’t matter.  Mr Putin, WE DO!

*Ya Ye Ukrayinskyy

Fifty-nine years ago – almost two generations past — John F. Kennedy gave a monumental speech. It was during the depths of the cold war, at a time when the Soviet Union controlled the German Democratic Republic and built a wall to around East Berlin to prevent an exodus to West Berlin. In essence, West Berlin was a free island in the midst of a communist ocean. Addressing this situation, Kennedy proclaimed to an audience of 120,000 West Berliners:

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

The wall stood for 28 years – almost a generation.  It represented the prison mentality of a regime that detained its citizens, rather than winning their hearts and minds. In fact, the concrete and barbed wire barrier was officially named the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” by the GDR: a wall to keep out the fascists. 

In 28 years, it is estimated that only 5,000 people managed to escape East Berlin past the ‘death strip’ and over the concrete wall patrolled by the GDR. One of the folks who managed to escape East Germany is a close family friend. It took him two attempts. On the second try, he made his way to South America; then Canada; and finally to the US. A man of irrepressible humor, he’s had an interesting life – including the accomplishment of recreating the Columbus voyage to the Americas in his 38 ft. sailboat. He was recruited by the New York Cosmos soccer team, but decided to ply his craft building circular wooden staircases.  You would be hard pressed to find a person who was more proud to be an American citizen. He is a ‘Berliner’ in the sense of the Kennedy speech.

It is of note that Vladimir Putin was in East Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall – fluent in German and assigned as a KGB agent. As things came apart in the GDR, Putin was credited as saving the files of the Soviet Cultural Center in Dresden, which included KGB files. It has also been suggested, but not proved, that he liaised with the terrorist group, The Red Army Faction, during his assignment. 

One wonders how this early experience has affected his outlook and decision making. It certainly appears that the soviet siege paranoia hasn’t changed much in sixty years. The current Russian president seems willing to create a wall of rubble in Ukraine to act as another ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’. 

Ukraine is one of the poorest nations in Europe, yet it has battled mightily to maintain its sovereignty in the face of overwhelming blunt force. Their bravery and steadfast loyalty is rightly celebrated. Perhaps we have not yet missed an opportunity to update the sentiment of ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ with ‘Ya Ye Ukrayinskyy’ – I Am a Ukrainian. 

*With apologies for the phonic spelling!

On Hope

I appreciate George’s offer of hope in his most recent post.  His words convey the struggle he faces as he parses through the highs and lows of pandemic, war, extreme weather, disconnection and more.  And yet, despite how overwhelming the daily bombardment of discouraging news is, finding hope in and between the stories, keeps us going.

Oxford Languages defines hope as, “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”  George goes beyond the wishing stage and helps us see, through his eyes, where we can see evidence of hope.  He provides a path for us to steer through these tumultuous times by modeling a way through to address feelings of helplessness, sadness, and hopelessness.  

Hope speaks to the future, to what is optimistically, yet to be.  It doesn’t look back or flounder in the past.  Yes, it draws on our earlier experiences and what we learned from them.  But it then allows us to take that knowledge and wisdom and see what is in front of us from a broader perspective.  It allows us to see how people and countries have recovered after horrific events and came back better and even stronger as a result of their struggles.  I suspect we must look past the short term and hope the longer view will see the pendulum swing back toward more peace and calm and health and unity.  In the interim, how we face the present will determine how prepared we’ll be to recognize the telltale signs of change for the better.

Today I donated to the children of Ukraine.  Earlier this week I spoke with friends and family about various ways we could help and how we could maintain an awareness of the plight of those suffering the effects of war beyond the time spent watching and listening to the news.  And while it doesn’t help those in need that I remind myself to be thankful for all that I have and often take for granted, it does prompt me to feel gratitude and give greater value to how I spend my time each day.  I’m hopeful that more and more, people all over the world will make time to do what they can to make life more harmonic despite the challenges thrust upon us.

Sending warm hugs to all! 

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Slowing Down

When I wore a younger man’s clothes I noticed that older people slowed down.  As I reflect on that presumption it appears I was correct, but more often, for the wrong reason. 

Gray-haired folk drove more slowly, walked more slowly, spoke more slowly, did fewer things, and made decisions more slowly.  At the time, I believed it was for obvious reasons.  Essentially, they couldn’t move or act more quickly because well, they were old!  Their bodies and brains were no longer capable of executing physical actions and mental calculations at the rate of a younger person and they were lazy and lacked the energy to chase each and every adventure and challenge set before them.   I further reckoned that those who were the exceptions put in more effort to offset these limitations.  Of course, I promised, I would be one of the few who would “keep up the pace” despite my years.

However, today I doth protest the notion that slowing down is primarily a function of physical and cognitive decline.  I surmise that it is more often a purposeful result of recognizing the benefits of measured steps and reasoned choices and the oft-ignored limitations of filling every moment and doing so with speed!  Now, at the ripe young age of 75 you might be suspicious that I’m simply conjuring up some defensive rationalization that justifies my shift from rabbit speed to turtle pace…and perhaps there may be a part of me that began this thinking process to keep others from judging me now as I once judged those like me, years ago.  But I do believe that my story holds merit and thus, I’m sticking to it.

In an article entitled, “The Art of Slowing Down” by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, a psychologist and co-founder for the Center for Psychotherapy and Wellness, the author talks about her realization of the price of the everyday hurried life when she was granted a sabbatical and felt a dramatic shift in her pace and how it impacted her.  She mentioned the reaction of patients who, coming to see her for reasons of feeling overwhelmed by the fast pace of life, felt a huge sense of calm and release when they sit down on her sofa simply because they were given the chance to slow down and be present.  

The author’s commentary triggered two of my own experiences that were eye opening for me.  The first was when I was in the middle of my career as a school principal and trying to be as perfect as possible as I attempted to balance work and family.  And while I loved the energy I got from my work and relationships, I was shocked when I found myself in the dentist’s chair for some extensive work feeling an overwhelming sense of mental and emotional calm.  In the dentist chair!  With painful work going on in my mouth!  Afterwards, I realized that I was unable to deliberately allow myself any “time off” from thinking about work, etc. unless someone else (the dentist) forced me into a much-needed distraction.  (Interestingly, this also happened to one of my hard-working friends who shared a very similar dentist story.)

The second experience was at the end of my career.  Shortly after retirement, I came in contact with a group of my former staff members.  One of them asked what I found most different in my life now that I was not working full-time.  (I was then working as a consultant only when and with whom I wanted.)  What came to mind was that the previous day, a light bulb had gone out in one of the rooms of my house and I stopped what I was doing and changed it.  I told her that I now made time to change a light bulb when it went out, and didn’t need to plan it (or similar daily happenings) for some future time when I could squeeze it in to my impossibly hurried schedule.   I had just started learning about letting go of getting everything done that appeared before me and I could chose what and when I wanted to do it.  Yes, it is easier when working part time.  But I wonder if I had begun to deliberately slow down in the middle years, how it would have impacted my life.

As I continue to “slow down” I realize that doing so gives me more time to enjoy my active but less complicated life more fully and with less stress.  After all, I am one of the three “Old Guys” who made the time to write this post and who looks forward to Zooming time with my two seasoned colleagues as we nurture ideas of what has been and what may yet be.

Time Stamp

What is nice about sharing a blog with two other friends is that we have an opportunity to discuss different points of view – or the same point of view in different ways.  I usually look to Hen for an aspirational and analytic viewpoint and to George for connecting on a heart-to-heart basis. In this case, I subscribe to the thoughtfulness of both my friends regarding the need to slow down and sort through what is important and to ‘level’ our reactions to life’s issues by applying some mellow consideration.

My head supports this; my spirit is objecting. Perhaps you’ve seen the TV commercial where Ewan McGregor asks the question, that at the end of our lives, will we regret the things we didn’t buy, or rather the places we didn’t visit? While the commercial is sponsored by the travel industry, it is just as meaningful by substituting the “experiences we did not have”. In other words, when should we slow down our explorations?

Lately, I feel the urgency of the moment. So little time, so much to do. A good deal of the problem centers with the catch-up needed to settle affairs that have lain fallow for too long: such as house renovations and estate planning. A second set of tasks revolves around pledges of assistance given to family, friends, and organizations that need to be upheld. A third area of attention is personal physical and mental maintenance: sustaining the ability to function effectively. I view all of these as necessary responsibilities – time-consuming responsibilities all of us share… and responsibilities that should not be reneged.

But there is also a fourth imperative: exploring new ideas and experiences. No matter how old one becomes, no matter our increasing physical limitations, our spirits are built to grow. Whether you call it self-actualizing or being in the flow, there is no better feeling than following a calling. In my case, it is a strong need to be creative and to collaborate with my partner in that enterprise. The realization that each of us has an expiration date adds to the urgency.

Perhaps folks will disagree with my opinion: which is that responsibilities take precedence over exploration. The piper must be paid. But responsibilities get in the way of exploration. So, my spirit rebels – there simply is no time to slow down! 

Speed Dreaming

“Slow down you’re moving’ too fast” the song lyrics go! If you have to make the morning last the best way is to seal it away in your memory cause slowing down won’t do any good. I used to rush through everything I did. When I was young, you know early 60’s, if I was out walking in the winter and came upon a patch of black ice, I would accelerate my pace and slide across the ice!  That’s just how it was.  Stupid?  Sure but I never thought of that until finally in my 70’s I began getting daily notifications that perhaps things like that weren’t in my best interest.   Ice is slippery, your bones are more brittle,  you do the math!  After a couple of defiant experiences where I lost, it dawned on me… yeah-  slow down, you’re moving too fast!

That festered, and I constantly tried to dismiss the concept but the reminders were becoming too frequent and too medically damaging!  Several visits to ER’s for accidents, falls and stupid mishaps occurred.  Ok, I’m intelligent- what are these experiences trying to tell me?  Slowdown!  I kept rejecting that til I synonymized the concept and referred to my need as mellowing. Yeah, that’s it, I needed to mellow .  

Hmmm, how are they connected. My body didn’t know how to slow down.  Sure, body parts hurt when I moved the way I used to, but it is what it is!  Slowly, over time I began to realize that movement can pause until thoughtful arguments are resolved within my mind.  Hence… mellowing.  Example-  Oh look, black ice-  let me slide over it!  Mind- You jerk, fall on that now, break a hip, or a foot, or an arm. OR, carefully navigate your path across that ice and get to your destination without any distress!  Mellow…. Use your thought process to help you survive old age! 

Mellowing not only works for physicality! It also helps with judgment calls and decision making.  I used to make decisions by running at them and sliding over the ice to a decision.  Now with conscious mellowization, decisions and judgments occur, yes it is true, more slowly but less dangerously and with more support documentation behind them.  If I meet a person who kind of annoys me, I run it through my brain.  Why does this guy annoy me?  Yeah, he says crazy stuff that opposes everything I stand for… he can’t string words together into a sentence but I can understand what he is trying to say, which I really don’t agree with, but he just gave that homeless guy on the street $10 so obviously he has some humanity.  Maybe we share other things in common.  Definitely mellowing!

I still speed dream however, and that is ok cause I wake up with no broken bones and not in jail!

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Icing Penalty

I had another topic in mind for this post, but the recent ice storm is too present. Our neck of the woods was ambushed by a severe weather event – an ice storm – that seemed to put everything on hold. Forty-eight thousand of the fifty thousand people affected are in the county where I live. A quarter to a half-inch of ice coated branches until trees were too heavy to remain intact; massive self-pruning occurred on each property and roadside. White pines shed limbs accompanied by sounds like gunshots and the glaze of ice made walking hazardous.

And of course, electric power became something you remembered once upon a time. On the day following the storm, wires were down on every road I drove. Service connections were ripped off folks’ homes and it was clear that restoration would not be quick. Boy, I sure wished I had planned for a generator!

Time for an assessment of remaining assets: power- nope, water- nope (we have our own well, reliant on a submersible pump), toilet – nope, heat- nope, food- enough, but no refrigeration, internet or tv- nope, telephone – YES, thank goodness for cell service. How is the battery life? Good thing you got that car starting battery pack with the USB connections. Back to heat – how about the fireplace? Yep, but you never stacked a supply of fireplace wood, since you don’t use the fireplace. Okay, but there is the wood you saved for woodturning – lots of that!

Oy, this is like human sacrifice, choosing which of the fine-grained beauties will go up the chimney. I will draw the line at burning burl wood – that is an apostasy of the highest order. But that beautiful cherry, quilted maple, and figured walnut – oh dear! They could have been bowls or platters of distinction. Now they are warm memories (literally).

Once the immediate safety of the interior is determined, a review of the outside is undertaken. Large pine and maple limbs brush block the driveway on both entrances. The cherry and crab apple have lost half their mass.  Days of chainsaw work will be necessary. However, the electric service is still attached to the house. In that respect we fared better than my two sons, who both have live wires laying across their driveways.

Oh, and our restaurant has no power – a weekend without business is a huge hit these days. We all proceed to the restaurant with 5-gallon containers of water (luckily, my son is on municipal supply) to fill the 10-gallon sauce pots on the gas stove in order to keep the place from freezing. We’re already looking at food loss, as well as revenue we counted on. My son calls the lady who has the funeral party booked at our facility, in order to inform her that we cannot host the event. Surprisingly, she does not seem to understand the problem. My son explains that a restaurant cannot legally open without power; there is no heat; that there is a state of emergency and many of the connecting roads have been closed.  She says that the funeral director up the line has not called her – it is suggested that perhaps their phone service is out and a call to follow-up would be in order.

On the drive home from the restaurant, our mood is lightened. Without the distraction of tv, appliances, computers, and phones, you notice the beauty all around: sparkling trees and fields. We stop by our local version of buttermilk falls and water is rushing over the rocks. Everything is covered in ice. A willow tree presents its branches as a curtain of glass. The old corn fields look like a shining carpet. We remark how the sunsets have been spectacular lately. It’s great to be alive!

It really is a marvel how there is regeneration in disasters. I stop by my elder friend’s house – he just celebrated his 96th birthday this week. His neighbor has already shared his generator with a 200-foot extension, so that he can have heat-or-water-or-refrigeration (but not all at once!) Our jerry-can of water will allow him some flushing capability. Another friend provided a warm shirt and honey for him. Neighbors are helping neighbors all over. We have gotten offers of water and food, heaters and generators – a friend has dropped off fresh greens for salad and soup. Folks do what they can. It is too bad that it takes a real reversal of fate to showcase how connected we are as a community.

Of course, by day four, the adventure wanes. The daybed by the fireplace has rearranged our spines and hygiene has a whole different meaning. Yet, there are some aspects which strangely stand out: wearing a watch cap to bed, motion-activated battery lights in the hall, how well Doug Collum’s stick candles burned (look up his product – great product, great guy).

When power is finally restored on the evening of day four, it seems almost unbelievable. The crew parked in our driveway comes from Indiana. They are up and down the poles in the dark – day after day, surfing the power grid. Well, it’s twenty-five years and out for them, they tell us. We wish good things in their lives.

The last four days have seemed like two weeks. Everything is topsy-turvey. But the hot shower is calling!

Baby, It’s Cold INside!

The urge struck Friday morning around 2 AM.  Immediately upon opening my eyes I just had a sense something was wrong.  I have several nightlights around the house so there is always a low glow emanating from the hallway that was missing. A slight chill hit me as I threw the covers off and headed for the bathroom.I caught on real fast that the power was off.  No big deal, climbed back into bed, pulled the covers up over my head and figured by morning the power will be back!  except it wasn’t…….The chill in the house intensified.  Too cold to shower even though I still had hot water.  Could only eat a cookie for breakfast as there was no heating anything or making anything.  That was the moment the loneliness hit, realizing that there was nobody around to run suggestions by about what to do in this situation.  I ran it by the dog just to hear my own voice but he wasn’t much help.  Progressively the day got colder, the house got colder, I got colder. 

I piled layers of clothing on just to be comfortable in the house. and took my first look outside.  My trees were encased in ice, bowing down and touching the ground as if greeting royalty.  I may have said “at ease” but the trees didn’t chuckle .  The tree limbs were encased in a smooth layer of ice but at the end of each branch was a little ball of ice that would catch the sunlight and make it sparkle.  It was a fairy land and wherever I looked it was the same.  Many trees had broken with the weight, the street was eerily silent.

The day got lonelier and colder.  I didn’t know what to do with myself , FYI pacing is totally unproductive.  Luckily my cell phone had a partial charge and I called my daughter hoping she had power and the dog and I could head over there and warm up but no dice.Texting began and soon I realized the entire area/county was affected.  Now what. My fingers were freezing…..the CAR!  I used my remote start feature and let the car warm up for a few minutes before going out. When I finally slid to the car, my broken foot healing nicely, I was worried about rebreaking it from the crusty uneven ice covering the lawn and sidewalk.  My car was humming away, however, I was unable to get into it.  The handle was caked in ice and the remote lock wouldn’t work. I was beginning to see how the day was going to roll out.  Back in house, back to car, several attempts to get inside no luck.  Next attempt I brought a hammer and a chisel, cracked the ice off the lock, got in and cranked the heat up.  Headed over to daughter’s house, picked her up and went in search of an open diner.  When I got home later that afternoon, the house was cold.  Several more visits to the warm car with the dog and then way too early to bed- flannel sheets, comforter, 3 blankets, bed spread.  Add to that the heat of a canine body under those flannel sheets with me, covers over my head —it was actually cozy and warm.  Surely by tomorrow morning the power would be back on.  But it wasn’t!

That’s when all the insecurities came back to haunt me.  It was the first time since the power died that I felt fear.  Am I going to get through this?  The cold was encasing me, hindering my movement, even the dog was shivering. The car became our safe haven.  We drove around a little, grabbed some food and returned home…..back to bed!  Feeling slightly like a helpless child.  All kinds of insecurities surfaced…..I wanted it over.  Then I began to worry about what kind of damage had been done to my house- broken pipes, what about the yard and the trees.  even my electric toothbrush died- what next?

Honestly, I had trouble seeing the beauty.  I was in awe of Mother Nature but no way would I allow myself to be calmed by the beauty as my anger was growing proportionately to the drop in the temperature inside my house.  Surely by tomorrow morning the power would return………But it didn’t!

Struggles and Gratitude

Having recently relocated, I was untouched by the recent ice storm and resulting disruptions endured by my colleagues.  Several years ago, I found myself in a similar predicament.  Due to heavy snowfall and high winds my home was without power from the electric grid for four days.  Fortunately, I had a manual generator that needed to be wheeled out of the garage and was fueled by gas but once plugged in, provided me with all of the necessities and then some.  I happily housed a friend and his family until power was restored.

I remember some of the feelings Wal described.  The community around where I lived, came together to clear a fallen tree that blocked our road and had taken down power and phone lines.  We checked in with each other, offered firewood to those who were running low, and warm showers to those who sought to remain in their very cold houses.  Despite the hardships for some and inconveniences for others, it was a time of support and caring and selflessness.  It was also a time of beauty for the drifting snow created natural sculptures and had muffled the usual din of traffic, chainsaws and distant shouts of children playing to a soft, indistinct decibel hardly noticed above the quiet.

I’m glad my friends are safe and warm and showered!  This experience will no doubt be fodder for many stories and tales passed along to those who were not affected and to generations yet to come.  And I’m glad that Wal reminds us that in the struggle can be found beauty, community, and gratitude for what we do have that makes our lives so comfortable when the power is on. I can’t help but think that we have embraced technology so fully that we are dependent on it for not only comfort but also for survival. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to build in some back ups for when the systems can’t provide for us and we’re left to our own resources.  

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Bartender, Can I Have a Refill?

For the last two Covid years the isolation has caused me to do a lot of reflecting.  Most of it while waxing nostalgic.  I spent way too much time wishing things were back the way they “used to be!” If I were being honest the “used to be” wasn’t always that great but being deprived by a pandemic can make everything that came before it look rosier than it actually was.  Lately, I guess I have had enough of looking backward.  There’s nothing to be gained from it. Now I have to look forward to get out of this funk I have been in.   It isn’t as if I haven’t had to look toward a new future in the past.  I retired from teaching on a Thursday and on Friday my new life began owning and operating a bed and breakfast in Vermont. The difference being that I knew one phase of my life was coming to an end and had time to prepare for the next one, fully recognizing and acknowledging the accomplishments of the past and looking forward to a carefully planned out new experience.  Covid gave us no warning, neither to its arrival nor the end of our previous existence.  My half empty glass kicked in big time!  

Enough!  The last couple of weeks I have been trying to shake the negativity.  Every time I mourned the loss of my previous life I tried to look ahead. I needed to find things to look forward to. Which brought another dilemma in that I had to come up with ideas that brought me some joy. And honestly that was difficult. One crazy thing that stood out was that ever since I was a kid I have been collecting model railroad equipment.  At different points in my life I had layouts in my basement and with every move the boxes and boxes were moved as well.  I have decided that as soon as the weather permits I am going to build a layout in my oversized garage, which will not only necessitate cleaning it out but will have the added benefit of allowing me to park the car in one half and construct the layout in the other half.  Great.…That brought a smile to my face. But what else?   Part of the problem is trying to envision what the new normal will look like.  And then, will any of the things I loved about the past be part of this new era?  Will the skills that I had before and succeeded with be useful in a revised world?  

Probably the most significant thing missing for me today is the social interactions I used to have regularly with friends, former students and colleagues and the fear is that for two years we went into our shells, locked the doors and shuttered the windows.  It has become habit.  I hope there are a lot of other turtles out there who want to come out of their shells again and socialize but we are creatures of habit and I pray that habit hasn’t been broken for good!  I am learning slowly that the unknown can turn out for the better just as easily as it can go sour.  Not sure I fully believe that yet but Henry and Wally say it does!  At this point in my life, what used to protect me from disappointment as a young person doesn’t serve me well anymore, but the local community college doesn’t have a free course for senior citizens to teach them about positivity so I guess I have to try the hit and miss method.  I am slowly trying to fill that glass!  Where’s the bartender?

All Aboard!

Here you go, George – let me top off your half full glass! Your thoughts gave me a lift… it is good to see you expressing forward movement that will bring some satisfaction. People are tired of living under the shroud of COVID. It’s as though we have been living defensively for two years – well there’s no ‘as though’ about it, it’s been bunker-mentality. Time to move on.

I used to work for a psychotherapist who suggested that one treatment modality for a certain type of depression was for the therapist to act depressed. After a while, the client may try to find something positive to talk about and each instance would then be encouraged. I’m not so sure about this approach with really distressed individuals, but there is some truth in the thought that most folks can only stand to be ‘down’ for just so long. Sounds like you’ve reached that point, George!

The immediate future will certainly be different, but we are made to change and adapt. Handle future issues in the future and don’t let your worries cramp your creativity. I’ve got more HO-scale kits that I will happily donate to your effort! It makes me smile to think of you building the layout with plenty of room to be inventive. Let me know if you would like some company in building the structure that will hold the train set.

As Hen points out, anticipating the project is as much fun as doing it. It is nice to have something to move toward, whether it’s model railroading, planning a garden – or woodturning (my favorite)! I’m looking forward to exploring texture and surface embellishment in my next woodturning projects. In order to  prepare, I’m squeezing in You Tube videos to learn more about approaches that work with wood: knurling tools, chatter, sandblasting and pyrography. One excellent byproduct of the pandemic has been the proliferation of live remote demo’s by expert woodturners!  Here’s to the momentum of the human spirit!  Wonder what other projects folks are looking forward to doing? 

Glancing Back But Moving Forward

I like George’s approach to move forward, commit to a project for which you have a passion and loosen up with a libation or two.  He also reminds me that if we hold the right frame of mind, the unknown can turn out better just as easily as it can sour.  Good advice in the time of COVID.

Looking forward to something you want or like or care about can lift our sense of happiness or contentment as if we were actually there or more!  According to a 2010 psychological study about the connection between anticipation and happiness that was published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, “ just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it.”  

George also talks about being fed up with looking back.  He realizes that in these almost two years of altered (normal) reality we likely remember the past more positively that it actually was and that pining for what we had (or think we had) isn’t doing us any favors.  I think he’s onto something!  In a related study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2007, it was found that people are happier during the planning stages of a vacation than they were after taking one. In other words, we just might delight in looking forward to trips more than reminiscing about them.  It also goes on to say that if we actively plan our trips or projects over time, we more readily smooth over the unforeseen bumps we will encounter that if we didn’t prepare and will have a more positive experience.

Of course the trick is to not only recognize what George has brought to our attention but to act on it.  I hesitate to look at the happiness studies of people who planned to do things and then never did. L  I recently read that it’s easy to think (believe), harder to act, and hardest to act on what you think (believe).  

For me, I’d love to saddle up to the bar at a local pub with close friends and continue this conversation over a couple of drinks.  Of course, I’ll have to wait until COVID takes a back seat.  In the meantime, there’s always my laptop, MS Word, and tomorrow morning’s Zoom call with Wal and George.

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Do You Have Everything You Need…for Now?

Recently I was at a rather busy outdoor restaurant with friends waiting to place our order.  The waiter came over to our table, poured some water, and asked if we wanted any drinks.  When he returned with our beverages he took our food order and asked if there was anything else we needed for now.  Likewise, when he returned with our meals, he asked, if there was anything we needed for now.  And, throughout the meal, dessert, and check deliveries, he always ended with, “Is there anything else you need for now?”

Several days later, unrelated to the meal or our waiter, I watched the Netflix movie, “Don’t Look Up.”  In it there is a scene where family and friends are sitting at the dinner table together and one remarks, “We really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”

Both of these experiences got me to thinking about the quest for more of or a better something to make me happy or content.  And the more I thought about it, the more I recognize that, for now, for this very moment, I have what I need to do what I’m doing, to be content, and to just be.  And perhaps, if I can agree that in just about every moment, when I ask myself if there is anything else I need and I can answer, no, or not really, then in each of those moments, I can be a little more focused, a little more content, and a little more in the moment.  Many years ago, a friend gave me a rather far out book to read that espoused that life would be so much easier and less stressful if I could simply change my expectations to preferences.  So, yes, I still would like to get new things and improve my living conditions and relationships when I can but if I no longer feel I need to and if I can recognize that, for the moment, I already have what I need, perhaps, just perhaps, life will be even more fulfilling.

When I moved to Delaware in August, I stayed with my daughter and her family for about 5 weeks.  During that time, I had only the clothes that could fit in my suitcase and nothing more.  As the weeks passed I realized that I didn’t miss any of my “stuff” that surrounded me for the 21 years I lived in my former home.  I had all I needed.

It is said that change cannot occur without first having awareness.  These recent episodes in my life remind me that I don’t need very much at all.  This doesn’t mean that I will remain in my small apartment or that I won’t continue to seek new adventures and friends.  Perhaps the change that will occur is knowing that I don’t need any of those things…for now.

Bask

Hen chose a great topic and described it well: recognizing contentment ‘for now’. It’s those last two words that make the difference.

My kneejerk response to Hen’s piece, was ‘maybe we were not here to be content’. A darker part of myself actually was saying ‘Are you kidding? We’re clearly not here to be content – what’s this “maybe” stuff?’ We’re here to try hard, miss the mark, scramble to recover, and hopefully survive to move on. Contentment is code for ‘sitting duck’.

Contentment — but, what’s in a word? Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion cold talk, you wouldn’t understand what it said. He felt that words make the reality we experience – simply put: you might understand the logic of the sentence, but not appreciate the individual meaning assigned to the lion’s words.

Okay, in my lexicography, ‘contentment’ is different from serenity. Serenity is a feeling you have while in the flow of doing a task; contentment is the feeling you have when the task is finished. Contentment is the temporary rest stop while enroute to a summit. If you stay there too long, you won’t finish the climb. That’s why the leavening words: “for now”, make all the difference. It recognizes the deep breath you take before setting off again. It is the opportunity to take stock of where you are and say “how beautiful”, knowing you’ll soon be in motion. Walt Whitman has a pertinent poem Song at Sunset, which in part says:

Good in All,

In the satisfaction and aplomb of animals,

In the annual return of the seasons,

In the hilarity of youth,

In the strength and flush of manhood,

In the grandeur and exquisiteness of old age,

In the superb vistas of Death.

Wonderful to depart;

Wonderful to be here!

I used to work with a mechanical engineer whose favorite line was “Bask!” It was a reminder to take a moment to appreciate the progress a team had made on a project. It was always a good reset before resuming the journey – he was a wise person. So Hen, I agree: Bask – for now!

Two Little Words

Two little words, six little letters…..FOR NOW!  This diminutive statement carries the weight of the world on those two- 3 letter words’ shoulders! How is that possible?  I have been ruminating on this idea since Henry brought it up.   What is implied?  For Now implies change, usually forward change since the the last Now is gone. For Now questions it’s own life span- when is this Now over and the next Now begins?  If NOW is static like with a pandemic or something NOW could last a very long time.  How do we know when this NOW is over and the next NOW is arriving?  The optimist looks forward to the next NOW assuming improvement or betterment. The pessimist fears the next NOW cause history has told him things can get much worse.  Not to mention all the factors involved in creating NOW.  Factors such as current events, weather factors, one’s own humanity and outlook. Do all those things change at the end of one NOW into the next?  And how many of those factors have to change to label the quality of the next NOW?

Now throw in the concept of “contentment.”  Contentment is one of those emotions that fits somewhere on the Ladder of Happiness.  I suspect it is a high rung of that ladder right below joy and peace.  Lower rungs include comfort, amusement, ease, pleasure, higher up come satisfaction, with happiness and possibly euphoria just below the ultimate rung of peace and serenity-the absolute top! 

We all strive for those top rungs. Some of the rungs are phantomlike.  A feeling lasting only short moments in NOW. They are like the bouquets of flowers in a beautiful garden on a beautiful day.  They boost the spirit and make the Now special but rarely last long.  Happiness is one of those feelings.  We experience moments of true happiness and it enriches us beyond belief but seldom lasts for great lengths of time like peace and serenity do.  And euphoria is just a short sharp blast of bliss too soon gone to even remember how it felt….. but peace and serenity …… they last from this Now to the next and help us get through the subsequent Nows that lay ahead.

My final point right now is that For Now I am truly struggling.  Struggling with the loneliness, the worry for friends’ and family’s health and the fear of normal never returning.  Throw in a little anger for those who have decided their right to do what they want with their bodies supersedes our expectations for this pandemic to end.  So for now, my For Now is strangling me.  Sure glad the waiter didn’t ask me!  

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Begin as You End

Irresolution

I am done with the convolutions

I know I’m too old for the revolutions

I am still seeking some solutions

And know I still need absolutions.

I am personally done with evolutions

I have no need for retributions

I’ve lost faith in most institutions

Yet, I continue to make contributions

So, from this simple elocution

I am declaring a conclusion

To each and every illusion

Of my keeping any resolution.

-Tom O’Brien

A New Year! A fresh start, perhaps? Have you made a resolution or two? Like Tom, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions – often my wish exceeds my grasp. But I do believe that how you end the year is emblematic of how you will be in the New Year: history is the best predictor of the future.

So on the last day of the year, I try to sample some behaviors I hope to be doing all year. My list of New Year’s Eve day activities includes:

  1. Being civil. Often I’m impatient to start or finish tasks and my impatience is obvious. While I probably won’t change that condition, I can limit the sphere of toxic Type A behavior.
  2. Prioritizing family time. We’re fortunate to have children and grandchildren close at hand. We will share a dinner this New Year’s Eve and keep the grandkids overnight.
  3. Doing what you love. I will use an hour or two in my shop, finishing a present for one of my sons. Being creative is energizing and carries over to other parts of my life.
  4. Checking in with at least a couple of folks who have had a tough year. We don’t go it alone. I firmly believe that each of us needs to strengthen the ties that bind.
  5. Exercise. I don’t always make time, but miss it when not active. My regimen is to complete a short workout on free weights daily. In a way, it’s a test – a litmus to mark when my body can no longer keep up. (I set the bar very low – no pun intended!)
  6. Mental Acuity: I play solitaire for keeping track of cards and picking order of play. It’s not sudoku or chess, but it’s quick and instructive as a meditation).

Okay that’s mine… what do you do to welcome 2022?

I’m Giving Up Brussels Sprouts

I’m not good at resolutions!  As a kid I would resolve to do something I was already doing to guarantee success.  It was sort of  like what I would give up for Lent.  I would give up brussels sprouts or liver, something I hated so that the task would be easy.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to do such a thing!  The purpose of these activities is to improve your being, to make you a better person.  So failing at such a self imposed task is overwhelmingly a failure of character.  I already am good at beating up on myself so I don’t need any catastrophic defeat to emphasize it.  
So bring on 2022 with no promises or self imposed demands!  In fact, if anything has to make resolutions, it is our society.  It needs to resolve to come together,  to accept people for who they are, to care about the well being of our fellow citizens, to address the real needs of our nation and our world…Too much?  Probably! Maybe the country will slip into my old habits and not make any demanding resolutions!  Status quo!  Maybe Covid will stick around and we’ll do nothing to end the damn thing. Maybe we’ll just let our kids get shot in school,  Maybe we’ll keep burning those fossil fuels and continue to burn acres and acres of forests and villages! Hell, it is much easier to do nothing than to actually take a course of action that might improve us.   Don’t let those strangers who look different or worship differently come into our perfect country!  
On second thought,  maybe a resolution or two isn’t bad.  Give it the old college try and if I succeed DAMN I’ll feel good and it just might improve my family, my neighborhood!  And if I fail? Nothing ventured nothing gained!  Maybe if we all made one resolution and tried to work it, we will be in a better place! Maybe 2022 will be the year for trying, resolving and acting to make it a better year than the last!  We can’t do much worse.  What do I have to lose?

Moving Forward

Wal invites us to reset and/or confirm our focus for how we wish to welcome the New Year.  I agree that while we can do this anytime, there is an emotional and perhaps psychological bonus when we do so at the outset of something new or, as Wal does, set our intentions just before the beginning.

Since I’m writing this after the ball dropped in Time Square, I can tell you what I did do on the last day of 2021 and what I’d like to continue.

I spent the day with friends.  We played, laughed, listened to music, enjoyed good food, exchanged thoughtful gifts, and engaged in hours and hours of physical activity.  Although I was so exhausted, I didn’t stay awake until midnight, I felt energized, fulfilled, and happy.  I ended my year full out, used up, and thrilled to be able to feel so alive.

  1. Spending time with family and friends and people who make me laugh and think and who challenge me is something I will seek to include in my life as much as possible.
  2. Eating healthy foods that I enjoy (even those that take time to prepare) will be more on my mind and on my shopping list.
  3. Giving to others with a full heart and often will be a practice I will increase.
  4. Hiking, biking, Pickle Ball, and other forms of exercise multiple times per week will be written into my daily journal.

I’m thankful to Wal for helping me see the last day of last year as an excellent reminder of how I want to live my life more fully and with intention. 

Forward!

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Reflection

Institutions often set calendar benchmarks for reflection and evaluation.  Workers and/or programs are reviewed annually or semi-annually ostensibly to improve performance or productivity.  While setting arbitrary anniversaries for such reflections may be more efficient, I wonder if they would be more effective if we measured the time for such experiences based on changes in feelings about the work or an observable indicator from regular monitoring.  Such is the case, for me, to review my purpose and performance of these blog posts.

Our first post was on May 21, 2019.  Now, 66 posts and some 30+ months later, I’m feeling a need to check in with myself as I recognize that what was once stimulating has become more of a responsibility.  I am aware that what works at one point in time may not in another.  And while some might say, “ If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” I don’t want to wait until it’s broken before I make the necessary adjustments to keep it healthy.  Factor in my recent move and challenging transition to relocating and it feels like the right time to take stock of where I am with my writing, where I want to go, and how to reclaim the energy and vitality I initially had.  Of course I am only one third of what makes this all work.  I also owe it to my two very patient and supportive blog-mates to check in with myself.

For the last ten years or so I’ve felt a need to pass along my thoughts, feelings, and what I understand to be wisdom to my children.  Sparked by a lively conversation sometime in August of 2018 with Wal and George in a bar we once frequented many years before, the idea of sharing written thoughts and opinions about chosen topics was kindled.   And so we began this journey, fueled by anticipation of the unknown, a powerful reconnection with former classmates, and the excitement of creating something new from our shared experiences.  As I looked back at our early notes, emails, and outlines I found some possible causes for the change in how I bring myself to my writing.

I read less than I did when we began.  In the early days there was a flurry of articles shared among us as well as references to books and authors that we discussed and debated.  Today I rarely contribute to this process. There are some apparent and some not so obvious reasons for this.  However, this is something I can certainly do more of in the coming months.

For a while, I was journaling on an irregular basis but often enough to keep my writing and ideas and experiences fresh and connected.  This all but stopped as I began the process of selling my house.  Now that I have begun to establish new routines, I have the option of scheduling regular journal entries.  I imagine this would not only contribute to my writing but will serve to help me adapt to my current life style.

Being outdoors and getting abundant exercise and fresh air has always been a major source of energy for me.  Since my move, this has changed dramatically.  Finding ways to do both on a regular basis will take far more effort than in my former setting but I know the benefit will far outweigh the effort.

I am also aware that, for me, new beginnings are easier than sustaining middle ground in any of the projects I’ve undertaken.  The struggle has been how to sustain the energy, momentum, and excitement of the work over time.  Going back to our beginnings has helped me rediscover my original purpose as well as to recognize the important behaviors that helped propel my work.  And while I can and will recommit to some of them starting now, I wonder if there is something else that needs to shift as we close in on three years of posting our blogs.  Perhaps so, but for now, I look forward to putting first, the things that helped me in the past.  Then, after a short period, I’ll look back to today to see what, if any progress has been made and what I can do differently, moving forward. 

Blogolution

Hen’s piece asks us to reflect on writing this blog after 66 posts. Have we strayed from our original goal and have we maintained the same level of enthusiasm?

I guess the answer for me is yes to both questions.

Sure, anything done repetitively can wear thin over time, but I’ve felt that this blog is an evolving enterprise. My original goal was to share advice with my grandkids in mind. After writing a few entries, it seemed to me that my advice is not so cogent – or sufficiently clear — as to spare them the same mistakes I’ve made over time. In addition, it is a slim probability that my skills as a writer will rise to a high level of sophistication. So now what?

Well, there are several aspects of this ongoing conversation which I continue to enjoy:

  1. It is an opportunity to sharpen ideas. One of us writes on a subject and the others weigh in with some counterpoint. How else does a person grow in one’s perspective? It’s pure dialectic. Of course, it would also be constructive if readers at large commented with their views as well.
  2. The above only works if folks with different points of view can find common ground — and the respect to actually listen – genuinely participate: that’s what friends do. We started with the premise that each of we three old guys had a distinctly different style and set of life experiences. I believe that we realized pretty quickly that we were more alike than different. In a season characterized by identity politics and differentiation, we are harmoniously diverse. I find the opportunity for relationship building is more satisfying than mining and exploiting differences.
  3. We laugh a lot. We old guys zoom every week to explore ideas and check in on one another. It’s an easy and spontaneous conversation. We start with a plan and invariably devolve into good natured banter. God only knows where our conversation will lead at any given time.

It’s pretty clear that my goals have changed over time. I think that honing ideas will help me express something of significance to my wonderful grandkids… but I’m not in a hurry, because even as I age, my points of view also marinate. Point of view is, after all, a time-slice of opinion.

There are times when I have no clue as to what to write. Yet, words still find their way to the page, mainly guided by references to writers with greater insight and intellect. The motivation to research and synthesize information from these folks fuels my enthusiasm to connect to this blog.  

So, yep – I strayed from our original goal, but remain pretty satisfied with where our conversations have taken us three old guys.

Journalicious

I journaled my whole life.  Mostly recording places I visited or events that occurred.  Early on I used calendar books just to jot down a daily reminder of what occurred.  Recently I gave a collection of those books to my daughter so she could read what we were going through in the process of adopting her 50 years ago and how we fell in love with her the moment we were first introduced to her at the Ulster County Office Building, more affectionately known, in the early 70’s, as the Glass Menagerie.  Health issues arose and the release papers were withdrawn and we went through an agonizing period for about 7 months when we weren’t sure if she would be released.  I wanted her to know how much she was wanted!

Then I moved on to composition books.  I loved the way a page looked when I was finished, always writing carefully and always using a favorite fountain pen to do the writing.  I just always loved to write!  So, when we three old fraternity brothers met at our 50th reunion and the idea was presented I loved it.  We had a combined life experience of over 220 years’ worth of life experience.  Not having any grandchildren my audience is different than Henry’s and Wally’s.  I had gone through some traumatic medical procedures and wanted to share that with folks our age so they wouldn’t have to go into these situations without some encouragement and advice from someone who experienced this kind of stuff.   So many scary, new experiences face seniors and it is helpful to maybe hear how someone else made it through! 

We certainly each have our own writing styles.  Henry and  Wally write much more scholarly than I do, quoting experts in many different fields whose books they have read.  I read mostly fiction, and quoting Forrest Gump or Holden Caulfield doesn’t carry the same weight as a person with half the alphabet following their names, so my pieces are based only on my own feelings and experiences. 

These other 2 old guys helped me survive Covid.  They gave me a purpose and the knowledge that every week I’ll get to have human contact either in person or video-ickly just to validate there are still other humans around.  Our discussions range from all kinds of things and are always encouraging and thought provoking!  Our process has evolved over the course of our 66 publications, and that’s a good thing!  Things have to evolve because our thinking evolves and that is good also. Let us know what you think!  Share with us your thoughts, disagree with us, yell at us. That’s how we develop and improve. But keep reading us!

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The Tyranny of Small Things

Okay, where do you stand on the sliding scale of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” to “The Devil’s in the Details”? Lately, I’m beginning to be aware of the tiny bits that portend larger problems; the marginal items that can trip you up. High School English drummed into our heads the notion of Macbeth’s dilemma: ‘we carry the seeds of our own destruction’. Now I’m wondering what’s in my seed library?

Recently, an older friend decided to step on a cricket. Not a great strategy when you walk with a cane – actually, not a great strategy in general. However, the cricket strolled onto my friend’s living room carpet with a small ‘Squish Me’ sign stuck to its back, so my friend complied. Of course he missed – that was just never going to happen. It ‘sproinged’ and he did a prattfall – and laid there for an hour trying to get up. Small thing, big problem. Was that need to squash a cricket one of the seeds of his own destruction?

We’ve heard the sayings ‘for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost’ (James Baldwin, The Horseshoe Nails) and ‘little things mean a lot’ (eponymous song by Lindeman and Stutz). Well they are true! Mama Cass was undone by a chicken bone; Napoleon was unhorsed by a severe case of hemorrhoids at Waterloo. George got up from his chair and broke his foot – who’s next??

Recently, I crammed too much into my morning schedule and was in a rush to get to indoor tennis. Even so, I arrived early – too early to enter the facility. So, I thought, okay: I’ll quick stop at Staples and pick up some office supplies for the business. But wait – I forgot my wallet! Alright, well then I’ll change into my tennis sneaks and walk for a bit until it’s time to play. Yikes! I also forgot my sneakers! There’s not enough time to return home and back to the tennis club. Now what? If I play barefoot, I’ll aggravate the Achilles injury… and the doctor that treated that injury plays on the next court – hmmm… dilemmas, dilemmas. (The “solution” was a pair of a half-size too short sneakers in ‘lost and found’). Is hastiness going to be my downfall – or is it crunched feet?

Engineers have a term for all of this: geometric intolerance. That describes the situation where parts that are each slightly off spec, result in much larger failures when combined over multiple connections.  Perhaps that’s how it ends: one off-spec cell, one ill-timed decision, one turn left, when you should have juked right. Like Colin Powell used to say, “Check small things”.

Yet the enormity of possibilities and the inability to cover them all is just too consuming. I started this piece with my needle sliding toward ‘devil/details’, but it is now swinging back to ‘not sweat/small stuff’, simply due to inadequate energy and lack of attention span. So I’ve concluded that the best course of action is to let the needle oscillate back and forth on this gauge, somewhere between complacency and craziness.

Now, that may sound weird and perhaps it is. I just don’t think the needle ought to stay in one position on that spectrum. Being simultaneously nimble and meticulous is a tough assignment. Can you actually do both? I’ve seen people who claim it’s simply a matter of balance get consistently stuck in one mode of approach. I’m interested to read what others have to say…

Balance is Askew

I like Wal’s reflective query about where we stand on paying attention to details and how we feel about allowing small things to happen without giving them the diligence they often solicit from us.  And while I can see how this can be interpreted as opposing sides of a continuum, I lean more toward seeing them as not so much.  Perhaps this comes from how we define “small stuff.”  As I think about the issues many of us stress over and talk about daily, by week’s end they are replaced by totally different concerns and challenges.  If they can be replaced so quickly, weren’t they “small stuff” to begin with? As we create a passionate story around it to tell our friends and family we deceive ourselves into believing it is significant and until the next bump we encounter it remains in our minds, “big stuff.” until the next bump comes along.  However, if I notice that something that signals a potential danger to my health or home (George’s oil burner maintenance for example) I can pay attention to the details of addressing it.  To me, this isn’t necessarily small stuff.  And, even if it were, I can still take steps to correct it without perseverating and worrying (sweating) about it.  What I’m trying to say is, it is possible to not sweat the small stuff and still pay attention to the details of potentially important stuff to prevent them from becoming big stuff.

At the end of his piece, Wal talks about those seeking the balance of being nimble and meticulous as often getting stuck in one mode of approach.  I agree.  Unlike a level see saw where both sides are of equal weight or one has scooted up or back on the seat to create static equilibrium, I see balance as a range of behaviors that is sometimes a +1 over the midpoint and sometimes a +3.  Similarly, the opposing side also fluctuates between a -1 and a -3 to counterbalance.  Our lives are complicated enough without us trying to remain in a perfect stasis of “middledom.”  To put it another way, imagine the more rigid definition of balance as someone holding out both arms such that they are completely level and in line with each other.  Now picture someone holding one arm slightly higher (+1 to +3) and the other arm slightly lower (-1 to -3).   Is not this relative balance easier to sustain or aspire to?  And isn’t it that we often find ourselves a bit more up or down but still being in balance enough to be productive and even happy?  I have accepted this state of being as a guide to living out my days with less stress and more comfort.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

My life has followed Wally’s essential proverbs with one minor exception.  Definitely, I prescribe to the “don’t sweat the small stuff,” however, instead of the devil quote, I prefer, “Keep it Simple Stupid.”  My dad always said to not sweat the small stuff and lived by it.  Unfortunately, he took it literally and ignored the small stuff ‘til it became large. Why service the oil burner?  It is working fine……until it isn’t!

Small stuff are the seedlings of BIG stuff!  And if addressed as small stuff often the stuff disappears.  But that would be too simple! The half full glass people might ignore  small annoyances because always anticipating the good in each situation it could deceive and lead to bigger problems…. Just sayin’.  Whereas the half empty glass folks, expecting the worst, might conceivably take care of things sooner!  Apparently, I fit in the ‘where the hell is the glass?’ people.  

My entire life was spent looking for problems, expecting them, and usually finding them, but instead of getting right on it, I procrastinated and ignored to the best of my ability.  If you accidentally push it aside it doesn’t exist.  Guess I learned that from Dad, too. The difference being that eventually he would deal with the issue with grace and precision as opposed the hysteria it produced in me.  

This applied to all realms of my life. Mechanical things being the worst yet emotional and relationship issues a strong second.  My emotional knee jerk reactions can be excused by the Italian influence of my DNA, which I tend to take exceptional pride in!   However, with age. All processes tend to slow down, not by choice but due to days on earth and wear and tear on parts. Fortunately for me, it appears to make me look reflective, thoughtful and perhaps even mature.  I like that.  As for the Keep it Simple part, I aspire to that but have yet to obtain the required tools to utilize the concept.

All in all, these neurotic tendencies I exhibit have not interfered in a surprisingly successful life, two outstanding careers, many exciting experiences and wonderful memories.  Sure, maybe the adoption of these beliefs would have amplified the positive results.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda!  Maybe someday I’ll catch on.

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Heart to Heart

Fairy tales can come true
It can happen to you…
If you’re young at heart….
For as rich as you are it’s much better by far…..To be young at heart!
And if you should survive to a hundred and five…
Think of all you derive out of being alive…
And here is the best part, you have a head start .. if you are among the very young at heart!!!!*  To which I say……Balderdash!  Everybody says you should be young at heart! Why? What does it even mean? If you are under 50 it is fine to be young at heart.  But after the half-century mark and beyond, being young at heart doesn’t serve us as well. When I was young at heart I had no patience, no empathy, was always in a rush, Life was relatively easy with few heavy life situations.  Decisions were easy because we didn’t think much about them and we were resilient.  Resiliency allowed us the ability to compensate for a hasty decision. Coronary youthfulness served us all well.  But beyond that, we started dealing with situations that require much more than youth can save.   The body starts to respond to the length of time on Earth and so should the heart. Physical resilience slowly dissipates. Patience is necessary to deal with the new adventures and tribulations we are faced with.   My young heart was impulsive, impetuous, and spontaneous. Sure it was attractive back then. But today, in the 70 plus-year-old body spontaneity doesn’t always serve us well.  Impulsivity can actually get a senior in trouble. 

At a time in our lives when our world is tending to shrink, rushing in to resolve an issue may be fool hearty!  Downsizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Humans tend to clutter their lives with needless stuff – all kinds of things and then we need to get bigger things to hold all our things.  My kids look at my stuff and shake their heads while they collect their own stuff.  This causes us to look at our lives and contemplate how to sort and decide the best method of downsizing.  The young at heart would rent a dumpster, throw everything in and there, all done, only to miss things later, things perhaps even needed. And it isn’t just about objects.  Our lives are being reduced by loss of family and friends and we are even selectively separating from people who never treated us well but we never took the time to evaluate those relationships.

The mature at heart (euphemism for old at heart) contemplates, considers, and fusses over decisions.  And, why not?  The body is sending signals, important decisions have to be made, friends and family are facing these same situations and experiences.   Our world is shrinking, sadness and heaviness enters our lives far more often than we want, causing additional decisions to be made based on careful consideration and consequences, something the young at heart rarely do!  So, the mature at heart face a quandary. A balance must be reached between how we spend the rest of our lives. Each one of us is different, reacts differently, grieves differently but we share the fact that time continues to pass and experiences change in consequence and nature.  We must learn to adjust, acknowledge, think through and then respond.  My youthful
heart would respond first, regret or rejoice afterwards depending on how things turned out.  I get no joy anymore out of regret and try to act accordingly!  I practice and rejoice in being mature at heart for perhaps, practice does make perfect! Or, as near to perfect as an old curmudgeon can get!

*(Songwriter – Ron Heindorf)

Old Age is Not for the Young

Ursula K. LeQuin chimed in with a similar sentiment in her essay Old Age Is Not for Sissies. She wrote this piece when she was 80 and railed against platitudes like ‘you are old as you think you are’ and being ‘young at heart’. She called them placebos.

However, she saved the worst of her ire for a popular poster which showed two buff 70-somethings with the caption ‘Old Age is not for Sissies’. Her point was that old age is for anyone lucky enough to survive to that point, including sissies. Being buff is no defense against the vagaries of physical decline. As a confirmed ‘sissy’, she believes that kidding yourself about the reality of growing old is dangerous. Ursula would change that poster to show several seniors in meaningful conversation with the caption “Old Age Is Not for the Young”.

While I respect George’s (and Ursula’s) point of view, I see it differently. I do agree that with experience, a person is more likely to weigh the consequences of one’s actions – to consider the effects of a decision and determine the means to carry out a plan. That certainly speaks to being less impulsive. On the other hand, have you noticed the decreasing social control demonstrated by many oldsters? Demanding attention, interrupting, or needing to tell their story NOW, whether or not the time is appropriate.  On balance, I think consideration and prudence are learned and not simply inherited with old age.

In addition, being ‘young at heart’ for me means approaching life with a sense of wonder. In order to do that, we have to cultivate a supple and malleable mindset, even as our sinews shrink and our joints hurt. I picture the Dali Lama when seeing the phrase ‘being young at heart’. It’s the gift of juxtaposition and humor that lets us keep a light touch on the serious business of growing old. 

Peter Pan

While I was certainly not feeling young at heart when I wrote my last post, I am feeling much better physically and emotionally.  The time spent in recent weeks has been filled with family and loving friends and has allowed me to return to a more balanced and positive place.

My colleagues present interesting takes on the way we look at being young at heart.  If it means thinking and acting like young people it can, like most things, be a beneficial asset or a dooming liability.  One of the outcomes of my aging has been an increased awareness seeing not only both sides of a statement or argument but blended interpretations as well.  My thoughts on George’s topic are many but most lean toward the joy of being eternally child-like.

Wal talks about the wonder of things.  The child who sees, understands, and/or feels something new for the first time energizes me.  I love their physical reactions and their request for more.  It propels me to move beyond the knowledge I’ve acquired with age to the quest for something new that will surprise me or cause me to want to learn more.  

I like playful people, regardless of age.  Playing games, sports, or hide and seek keeps me laughing, competitive, and active.  And while we attribute these activities to youth, I find I can adapt them to my diminished abilities and still enjoy their benefits.  Most of the time, I can count on my wiser self to choose cautiously before leaping into a match with my athletic grandchildren.  However, this is not always the case.  This morning I climbed a tree and realized it was easier going up than finding my way down!  (The nickname of Peter Pan has lasted from my college years and still rings true as I just hit the three-quarter century mark.)

I agree that we need to curb our impulsivity to make measured and cautious decisions, and to call upon our years of experience to keep us safe and secure.  I also don’t want to save the special candles for another day only to have my children find them boxed and unused or to keep saving my money out of habit when I could have used it to enjoy a special experience with family or friends.  It’s all about balance, my mother used to say.

I realize I’m growing older and closer to the day when the management of my mental and physical abilities will be relegated to others.  But while I have the ability to choose how to think about my current status, I choose to blend my maturity and wisdom with child-like behaviors and thoughts and to keep an attitude of playfulness for as long as I can.

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On Change

I spend very little time with things that trigger pain, upset, anger, or loss.  I often measure it against how much better off I am than most of the people in the world and I move on.  Friends and family will confirm my discomfort with negative talk, self-pity, and complaints about things that are, in my mind, relatively insignificant in the scheme of what’s really important in life.  As I enter the winter season of my life, this has become even more emblematic of my social interactions.  And, for the most part, this has worked for me.  I am surrounded with mostly happy, up beat, positive friends and I spend most of my waking days feeling grateful and happy.

However, I am slowly learning that while this is who I am and how I wish to be, there are trade-offs to my pattern.  There are subtle side-affects that can impact me in not so subtle ways.  I have often been told by those close to me that in my eagerness to be happy and positive, I rush through significant life events in a rather controlling and biased process and without the time necessary to actually feel, adequately address, and meaningfully absorb the experience.  As a result, there are likely unfinished, incomplete, and festering emotions lying just below my consciousness and doing its thing without my awareness.  While I understood this was something that could be accurately applied to others and possibly to me I was convinced my positivity was so strong and helpful that I was least likely to be included in this logic…that is, until now.

Moving is big change.  Depending on which source you use for the top 3 to 5 stressors in life, moving comes up more often than not.  Tether that to an injury or illness and your body is subject to all of the ill effects caused by stress.

So it was for me as I finally sold my home, moved to one place for a few days, then my daughter’s home for 5 weeks, then to an apartment with only my bed for two weeks before receiving the rest of my furniture.  In the interim, a simple tooth extraction turned into severe complications that required two weeks of multiple antibiotics that cured/prevented infection but messed with the rest of my body.  Of course, I argued, it’s all just temporary and temporary doesn’t need to affect how I feel.

Well, I have felt like shit for the last few weeks and it ain’t over yet!  And while I know, the physical pain and discomfort from my dental surgery is a factor, and the lasting side-affects of the antibiotics have been significant, I believe the loss of my connection to my home and the land and friends I so loved has been the largest contributor.  

As usual, when I made up my mind to sell and move, I convinced myself that it was all for the better and being closer to family was more than enough to bring me the joy and happiness I was leaving behind.  With nary a thought or look over the shoulder I focused on the tasks at hand, pushed through the cleaning out of much of what I had accumulated over the years at Brookside, and jumped full throttle into the unknown.  When friends would ask how I felt about leaving, I smiled and assured them I had enjoyed my home for 21 years and that the hiking trails, the peace and quiet of the front porch, and the unending beauty of the landscape had provided all that I needed during good times and bad and that it was time to move on.  And while all of that was true, I didn’t stop to really ask myself how I felt.  I didn’t allow myself to spend time or words alone or with friends, acknowledging the depth of the connection I had with this place I called home.  I didn’t make the time to mourn the loss that I’m convinced I now feel.  

Today I sit looking out of my newly built apartment 4 hours from Brookside.  Duke and I are on the top floor of a three-story complex across the street from a self-storage company and around the corner from a 24-hour, 7 day a week, trucking company.  Noise abounds and is in harsh contrast to the consistent peace and quiet of my former home.  Save for the migrating geese, there is no familiar wildlife to see, and my morning cup of coffee on the porch with Duke curled up next to me on my wicker couch is now on my 100 square foot balcony overlooking commercial buildings, road ways, and apartments.  I now live among large numbers of people and their pets and though they remind me of the friends I’ve left behind my new neighbors seem too busy to pause and connect.  And while I am basically healthy, have ample resources, have more amenities than I had before, and am thrilled to be close to my children, I need to make the time to recognize that this comes at a cost.  I need to spend more time than I am comfortable with to honor my loss.

I look daily for my future home and know that, in time, I will find the right house and property and friends.  And, in time, it will fill my needs in ways that Brookside couldn’t.  But it will never be Brookside.  Yes, Brookside was unique because of its water features, rolling hills, and diverse ecosystems, but it was made all the more special because of the friends who brought their energy and love with each visit. And I know now, that is a loss that can’t be replaced.

Paradise Lost

For some reason, “Paradise Lost” was the first association I had when reading Hen’s piece about leaving his former home. If you have visited Hen’s Brookside, you’d agree that it has been a perfect match of a person and a place. Hen and Duke were in daily communion the land and its trails. He knew this plat like Aldo Leopold (Sand County Almanac) and Wendell Berry (The Way of Ignorance) knew their territories. Leaving Brookside is a bit like the process of disconnecting we wrote about in the last blog piece.

Mix in dental pain and a distinctly new and changing living regime and it seems like the triple witching hour. So let’s hope it abates after Halloween!

It seems to me that Hen’s discomfort contains a little bit of mourning for the loss of a comfortable symbiosis of hearth and home. Mourning needs to be recognized and honored. Consider it an injury that needs as much healing as the dental issues and reaction to medication. Mourning a loss is a prerequisite for dealing with change. In fact, Hen reported that he might have titled his piece ‘On Loss’ as easily as “On Change’.

We each have a bit of paradise lost in our lives. For George, it may have been the Woodstock Inn. I don’t really miss any of my previous abodes, but after living in one place for almost 50 years, I certainly would dread the project of moving! If there were one place whose loss I would mourn, it would be the loss of our camp in the Adirondacks, which has been so restorative.

In any event, given Hen’s positive approach to life, there’s no doubt that he will reconcile the part of change that is loss and embrace the part of change that is opportunity. As Ecclesiastes says: there is a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to uproot and a time to plant. Here’s to happy planting!

Lost and Found

I read somewhere that the average person lives in 12 homes in a lifetime.  Not counting my dorm at college and a half year in an apartment after I retired, I am on home number 8.  Each one of those homes left a distinct impression on me with fond memories.  As a kid it provided cherished crevices to hide in and surprise my brother from an attack with a pillow or something less cushioned.  The main house I grew up in in NYC had this great radiator in the kitchen for the maid to keep food warm before serving it through the pantry to the dining room table.  It was a regular hot water radiator but instead of vertical ribs that heated it had 4 horizontal shelves stacked upon each other to keep trays of food warm.  We obviously didn’t have maid service but I used to climb to the top shelf while my dad cooked. My head could touch the tin ceiling and I could be toasty warm in my jammies!  But leaving that house wasn’t traumatic cause I was heading off to college the year they sold to developers who tore down block after block of old Victorian homes and built attached two families up and down the streets. 

Flash forward, married – into first house as an adult.  Lived there two years and then moved into the big city of Kingston, NY. We bought a beautiful old Sears Roebuck kit house with chestnut woodwork. There for 13 years. Started our family there and had great memories. When we moved from there to Woodstock, NY I felt no separation anxiety. However for a period of 4 months we did own two houses which was pretty scary.  The anxiety would come later as I aged, and the spirit of adventure ebbed slightly. Another 18 years in Woodstock, NY and with retirement facing me I decided to buy a Bed and Breakfast in Vermont.  Was I nuts?  Probably, but that is the home I lived in for 13 years and today after having sold it 6 years ago still pulls my heart strings and has a hold over me that at times still aches.  The 1830 Farmhouse held all kinds of secrets, especially a mischievous old ghostly presence of a previous owner. The farm had been in his family for 155 years and he just wasn’t ready to leave it.  Oddly after only 13 years I wasn’t either! That house came alive like no other I ever owned.  Being an innkeeper is a lifestyle not a job. It is hard work and constant but soooo rewarding.  We got into a good routine, worked out the division of labor- my partner did the cooking and bookkeeping and I served breakfast and cleaned the rooms.  We both shared the schmoozing part willingly and lovingly.  The inn was constantly breathing, new guests arriving, others departing, greeting them at the front door after they returned from dinner, telling stories at breakfast, laughing, sharing a bottle of wine by the fireside at night, laughing, meeting people from all over our country and from all over the over the world. Did I mention laughing?   And finding how alike people are from wherever they came!  The excitement was addictive and palpable.   And we were good at all of it! 

Like Henry felt in the outdoors, I felt it at the inn among the guests and making them comfortable and relaxed.  I liked arranging details for visitors’ stays with us.  And we were part of the lodging community which at that time in Woodstock, Vermont was a special group of innkeepers from about 15 inns.   That abruptly changed with the inception of Air BnB.  Our business began to drop, tensions increased and the relationship came to an end. Running an inn by yourself for a couple seasons became a chore and after a stressful 2 years on the market it sold!  Talk about stress! I returned to where my kids lived just like a Henry did.  I found a great little house that I love but I miss the inn.  I miss the sound of laughter as guests became acquainted.  I missed the stories at breakfast, the laughter, the constant breathing of the inn. I even missed talking to my ghostly friend who helped me clean rooms each morning.  And then in a year or two Covid struck and just added a layer of silence and loneliness.   I tried to fill if with activity- my dog was a savior, but it amplified just how much I missed being a productive person with a purpose.   I am still struggling with that.  After all I worked for almost 50 years straight and then abruptly it was over!  Time to redefine myself.  And Henry will do the same in his new home.  He has the advantage over me because his glass is always half full and mine…….well at least I still have the glass!  Did I mention how much I miss the laughter? 

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Decathexis

“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello” –The Beatles

I took a week off and lost a friend.

When I last talked with Steve, he was home in bed, waiting for an acquaintance to pick up the remainder of Rousey’s things. Rousey has been Steve’s dog and boon companion. Arranging for a good home for Rousey was Steve’s paramount reason for staying alive. With that task completed, I knew that only a few pages remained in his book of life.

Linda and I had worked almost continuously at our younger son’s restaurant leading up to my last visit with Steve. I told him of our plans to leave shortly for the Adirondacks with our older son’s family. We talked about the adventures we had shared in the ADK’s: kayaking across Racquette Lake to the Marion River, where a pocket of mica sand turned the water gold in our paddle wake. Or the time we drifted down the middle branch of the Moose River, watching a bear swim across to a farther shore. Steve and I hiked Bald Mountain with his Irish setter mix Beckett and enjoyed quiet twilights listening to loons with another of his canine companions (Jonesy — my favorite).

We met while trying to arrange funding for various rail trail projects. Eventually, this work led to the establishment of a county-wide advisory committee on rail trail development: Steve and I were each in turn designated as chair for that group, so our collaboration continued. Primarily, Steve was an artist who worked in ceramics and egg tempera painting. He taught me how to incorporate graphite and iron oxide into my wood finishes. His day jobs included gigs as artist-in-residence at Mohonk Mountain House and the Williams Proctor Munson Art Institute– as well as a stint as curator of the local Trolley Museum. He was an author and an amateur kayak builder; he established a political party (Red Dog Party – named after Beckett) and ran for mayor. He did large scale fabric art installations on local bridges. Steve was a contradiction in terms: a free spirit with an engineer’s discipline.

While we were on vacation, I called twice, but my calls went directly to voicemail (“This is Steve and Rousey…”). Upon returning home, I went to Steve’s loft and found a suitcase on the curb and the doors open. The suitcase belonged to the Hospice worker; Shelley and Mitch (sister and brother-in-law) were inside talking with two of Steve’s friends. Shelley motioned me aside and said I should say a final farewell: Steve was not conscious and had barely made it through the night. I looked at my friend and saw the ravages of cancer – I bid him an easy passage. He died later that day.

Now, in the days leading up to Steve’s rapid decline, I noticed a new behavior – a tendency to distance himself from mutual friends. He would speak very dispassionately about a person – almost dismissively – as if delivering a bored final assessment. This was very much out of character for a guy who was engaged and loyal to a fault. Kubler-Ross has named this pattern of behavior ‘decathexis’. The term derives from a Freudian view of withdrawing libidinous attachment to an object or person. Essentially, it’s a form of disengagement as energy ebbs toward the end of life.

The process of decathexis seems to me to be an indicator of ‘fading to black’ as systems shut down and energy is diverted to essential life support. From Steve’s vantage point, I imagine that things, people, and ideas he once cared about seemed to recede in the distance, layer upon layer as his battery ran down.

I’ve reached that point in life where there are many opportunities to say goodbye. Steve tried to do that in the months leading to his death, before the cancer sapped his life-strength. That’s a lesson learned – say your goodbyes before decathexis.

After Steve passed, about 25 of us sat in a loose circle in the courtyard behind Steve’s reconditioned warehouse and shared stories at his memorial. As Linda pointed out, Steve’s network of friends, was – in a word: diverse. Present were childhood friends from Brooklyn, fellow artists, college buddies, dog-walking companions, civic activists, trolley enthusiasts, and of course, dogs. Many of us did not know one another. I struck up conversations with an ex-professional boxer, a retired communications executive, and a trolley museum volunteer. People around the circle took turns sharing a memory — many laughs and a few tears. It was a bit reminiscent of The Big Chill in that the various facets of Steve’s life were revealed like new discoveries – and that the folks assembled realized that they had reason to like each other as well as their departed friend. I guess that is the secret of living: to balance your goodbyes with new hellos. 

Disconnecting – Moving Forward

After reading Wal’s piece on disconnection I thought about what it has meant in my life.

Like most things in life, I believe there are varying degrees about what disconnection means. At first thought it implied to me, that you’re either in or you’re out —we are friends or not, we either care or don’t care at all. Over the years, black and white thinking has given way to an array of gray tones and the seduction of a simplicity in choosing one way or another gives rise to the reality of just how complex life can be.

Years ago, an aging, close friend and practitioner of black-and-white theory ended our relationship. Previously we had a bump, a disagreement, but unlike all the other times when connection meant more than any issues we might have had between us, he withdrew and then called to say it was over. It was as abrupt and painful outcome but, as I reflect on it, inevitable.

Beyond our individual tipping points, could it be that age, experience, and wisdom contributes to the courage to disconnect from things we did more for others than for ourselves — from people we tolerated for reasons that no longer hold power over us?  Perhaps we are saying “no” more frequently and with less guilt to the things and people who occupy our time in ways that prevent us from spending it in a more meaningful way.

In one of our earlier posts, we shared ideas about relationships and how there seemed to be those that were more situational, those that served a purpose or need during a particular time in our lives, and those that weathered the years and endured. Everything is ever-changing and so are our connections to others.  Sometimes in parallel, sometimes not.  In the ebb and flow of life, it seems to me that how I spend my energy becomes more of a conscious decision-making behavior that faces me each and every day,  As I measure the guesstimate of how I spend my remaining time I realize it no longer appears to provide the luxury of “time to spare.”  It is replaced with, “if not now, when?” As a result, people and things I still care about may no longer fit into my more measured and deliberate schedule.

So, if I appear to be less willing to spend time and energy with someone, it may be less a function of liking them less but more about focusing my time with things that matter more in my limited remaining days.  It also seems to me that while I may be shifting from my previous behaviors, I can seek to do this as kindly and transparently as possible.  In some cases this may already be too late but perhaps I’ll get better at it over time. As I try to write these thoughts I realize they are not clear and succinct but they give me food for thought and opportunities to test them out with others as I travel this life journey.

The Winter of Our Lives

Wally really got me thinking.  The kind of thinking that hangs heavy on your mind.  I recently read a poem about the winter of our lives. Having just reached the 3/4 of a century mark, the snow has begun to fall metaphorically. I have looked around my house and realized what is going to happen to all my STUFF?  The paintings I have collected, the knick knacks and trinkets I had to have, my model railroad equipment, not to mention the family heirlooms I want to pass down to my kids. Unfortunately, much of which they are not interested in. So I have thought perhaps I should start methodically to disengage dispassionately from my stuff. Perhaps, we have to do the same with the people we have collected in our lives.  The relatives, colleagues and friends we had to have during those same years.  Perhaps, like Wally’s friend did, we have to dispassionately, as much as possible, begin to separate from them, simply because holding too tightly would make the separation too impossible to bare as the season ebbs.

I have had two discussions in my life with close friends who were dying. A close friend and colleague who was diagnosed with a deadly stage 4 cancer told me in one of our last discussions very matter of factly, that at least he knew what he was going to die from which is more than most people can say.   My immediate instinct was to minimize the heaviness and deny him that fact because it made me feel better.  The last discussion was over lunch 2 months ago with a friend in his mid eighties who spent the last year running to NYC for chemo and radiation which after a year did not improve his condition. Over a pleasant lunch he told me that he told his doctors that he was done.  He told me he was just going to wait to die now. Again I wanted to assure him it was a long way away because it made me feel better.  He passed away two weeks later. 

I was 12 when my grandmother was dying, my aunts called my dad to come quickly.  It was after midnight and my mom was at work so Dad woke me and we raced over to their apartment.  It was as if she waited for my dad to get there.  When we arrived we bent over her for her to kiss us and she took my dad’s hand. A moment later she passed and I witnessed the most intimate tender thing my father ever did as he gently, lovingly closed her eyes and kissed her. 50 years later, I got a call at the inn from my Aunt Edna that Aunt Eleanor was dying and I needed to be there.  I was 5 hours away but drove like crazy to get to the same apartment my grandma died in.  When I arrived they were preparing her to go in an ambulance to the hospital but she saw me and  whispered my name.  I took her hand and hugged her good bye.  She passed before they left the apartment at the ripe old age of 99.  Both she and my grandmother waited for us before they let go.  I pray for that kind of courage when it is my turn and I’ll want all my friends to know that any distancing I was doing was because it was so hard to say the final good bye to those I loved during my life.

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

I don’t often wax nostalgic about my early childhood.  It doesn’t often pop into my mind.  I imagine it was a pretty average childhood for a kid growing up in one of the lesser urban boroughs of NYC.  We played in the streets, walked to school in groups, played Chinese handball at playground time at school, typical stuff!  But every now and then I will be bombarded by one of my senses that will take me back to a specific time, place and who I was with that will warm those cockles of my heart! Not sure what they are but hey, it is a word I can remember when a lot of words are migrating away from my alleged mind!

Many times my sense of smell will take me right back somewhere.  When I visited my grandfather’s hometown in Italy someone was making sauce in the hotel kitchen and that smell wafting past me brought me right back to my dad’s kitchen, and brought a tear to my eye. When we were looking to buy an inn, we entered one in Vermont and I immediately noticed the same sweet/medicinal smell of my grandfather’s house in Pennsylvania which had been used by my uncle as a tonsillectomy hospital, and we wound up buying it.  Visual memories are easy and frequent but, with the exception of music, which is probably THE strongest memory arouser, sounds don’t often do it.
Which brings me to the point of this rambling walk down memory lane.  Several weeks ago I was walking in my neighborhood, mind not focused on anything in particular, and POW…. It happened.  A loud screeching kind of noise repeated two or three times in quick succession snapped me right back in time.  I recognized the sound immediately and I could smell and see it as if it were right in front of me.  The screeching sound was the sound of my mom hanging a pair of wet pants on the clothesline and pushing the rope out so there was room for the next piece of wet clothing. Mom was there leaning over the railing where the little metal reel was attached to the back of our house.  I was handing her clothespins for her the attach to the cuffs of the pants so that it would dry more easily, then a shirt and I handed her two more pins until the line was full of wet clothes.  And in between each article hanging there was the screech of her sending the wet garment on its way to be dried.  Another way we recycled instead of using more energy! There was a little dirty canvas bag hanging on the line where all the clothespins were stored.  I remember that sound and the feel of the wood clothespins and the sound of mom’s voice as she mused whether the clothes would dry before the rain came! 

I luxuriated in that memory for a while as the screeching continued for a few more minutes as I walked past.   My mind moved to other comforting sounds from my childhood that to this day still bring comforting coziness to my life.  One of the biggest comforters is in the middle of the night when I hear the CSX engines blow their horns as they cross the frighteningly rickety trestle over the Rondout Creek and as it gets closer you actually can hear the wheels of the train on the tracks until the 150 or so cars pass out of ear sound.  It always reminds me of my brother, dad and I setting up the Christmas village with our Lionel trains each year. And there was a particular metallic sound of my back screen door closing as the metal spring did its job to bring that sucker back into position.  I knew my dad was home safely then.  I could go on and on about these memory enhancers like the thunder of a good storm which would scare the living daylights out of me at the time or the milkman closing the lid of our box at 5 AM, but I know you have your own sound memories that I would love to hear about. Please share them with us!

Bird Note

Sound and smell unlock doors to memory – long ago experiences can seem as though they are in the next room. Perhaps you listen to BirdNote on PBS? It’s a two minute program that explores facts about a specific species in each short segment. Here are my three bird notes that bring strong memories:

1. Mourning Doves: I grew up in a house very much like the one I live in now – a one-and-a half storey cape cod. My bedroom had two windows; one facing east overlooking our backyard and one facing south looking down at the small cement patio behind our attached garage. At a regular time each spring, I’d awake to the sound of doves cooing and sunlight filling my room from the eastern window. It was so soothing. The dove calls were clearly magnified by the courtyard formed by the intersection of the garage and the longer wall of the house. The doves must have been happy in their business pecking around the cement patio and calling their mates. But it also made me happy as well: a gentle alarm clock to begin another sunny day.

2. Eastern Thrush: Hands-down my favorite birdcall and most important memory. At twenty-one, I’m in a parking lot, leaning against my Triumph TR4. I’m shaken to my core. The parking lot is adjacent to a doctor’s office – and I’ve stepped outside to get some air and clear my head. In a minute, I’ll go back in to see Linda. It’s an obstetrician’s office: Linda and I have found out that she is pregnant. So many things are going through my head – we’ve no money and the odds are high that the draft will drag me to Viet Nam. It’s overwhelming… but then the trilling sound of a thrush cuts through the morning air. It is so riveting that it could be just the thrush and I alone in the world at that moment. At once, I’m calm. I realize that this is the most significant act a person can perform: to participate in bringing a new life into this world. My life won’t be the same, but my life is not the most important issue anymore. Caring for Linda and our baby is the imperative. Somehow we’ll find a way. I grew into an adult that morning.

Fast forward to the present… our first-born son lives in a wooded area. From his back deck I can enjoy the trees and regularly listen to the thrush in the edge of the nearby forest. My son has no idea of the memories that invokes.

3. Rufous-sided Towhee: Hiking the Shawangunk ridge brings beautiful views and tired feet. We’re on the way to Lake Awosting. Following the Castle Point carriage trail, a high, dry smell of penny royal is prevalent among the small pitch pines. The pines are deceiving – although small, many are over 150 years old. All along the trail, we are accompanied by a towhee, which flits from tree to tree singing its characteristic “drink your tea!”  We imagine that this friendly bird is welcoming us to this beautiful landscape. And we agree with the towhee’s advice to drink our mint tea around the Svea stove later that evening. When I hear this call, it brings those backpacking days back to life!

Sound and Smells of Yesteryear

My childhood memories of sights, sounds, and smells come from living in a newly built suburban neighborhood with lots of open spaces surrounded by acres of untouched woodlands.  We played outdoors at every opportunity and were free to move about between houses and the woods.  The childhood sound that I no longer hear but remember fondly was the ringing of the large brass bell on my back porch when it was time to come home.  It generally carried farther than my mom’s voice and when it rang around 6:00 pm it became a signal for many to hightail it home for supper. It was also a time when the neighbors seemed to collaborate and act as one large parent body.  So, it wasn’t unlikely for an adult to forward the bell ringing message if they saw us so entrenched in our play that we didn’t react accordingly.  So much for “Sorry mom, I’m late because I couldn’t hear the bell!”

The sounds and smell of fresh perked coffee wafted through our house each and every morning.  First came the sound of water just starting to boil in the percolator.  As it increased in speed and volume it brought the water through the tube up into the glass dome in a muted popping sound.  Before long it perked in a regular rhythm obstructed only by the vibration of the entire metal coffee pot gently twitching on the gas burner.  I never enjoyed the taste of coffee until I was in my 40’s but the aroma that greeted us each morning was as pleasing and comforting to me as the satisfaction it gave to those who drank it.  I never realized how the smell permeated my clothing until the morning my friend’s dad, who occasionally drove us to school, asked if my mom brewed fresh coffee each morning.  He could tell, he said, from the aroma each time I climbed into his car.  Several years ago I began making fresh coffee in the same way.  After sipping my coffee on the porch, I’d take Duke out for a walk and was always struck by the flavorful smell as soon as we re-entered the house.

My favorite sound/smell association comes every fall when I listen to the rustle of fallen leaves and the scent they exude after they begin to accumulate in layers.  As a child I had extreme allergic reactions to ragweed.  My hay fever began in mid August and usually lasted until the first frost.  During that time, I was relegated to the indoors as breathing was difficult, sneezing incessant, and my runny noise a dead give away.  When I was finally able to go outdoors fall was upon us and I would spend hours amid the leaves, enjoying their crunching sounds and strong smells without my histamines running amuck.  Delicious memories that continue to this day.

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A Reminder to Self

I have always felt compassion and responsibility for the environment.  As a young teacher, I shared my enthusiasm for our planet and her resources with my students.  The books and chalkboards and overhead projector were often obscured by large and unruly plants, an enormous saltwater fish tank, blooming avocado pits suspended above water cups with multicolored toothpicks, guinea pigs, chicken eggs in incubators, and whatever living things my students brought to school.

Mother Earth was always there for me during challenging times.  A walk in the woods soothed my body and my mind.  The wind, sun, shade, rain, sights, sounds, and smells offered all that I needed to feel nature’s healing presence.  I always recognized the difference she made in my life.

In the early 80’s when we braved long lines for rationed gas, I followed the daily reports of the consequences and impact of our dependence on the remaining finite amount of fossil fuels we readily consumed.  I remember looking for ways to regularly conserve, protect, and respect mother earth.  I also engaged, passionately, in conversation and debate with friends and colleagues who seemed to tolerate my concern but not share it.  Somehow it always seemed to be the responsibility of the oil companies, or big business, or the government to do something about environmental issues.  After all, they would say, if they put things in place for us to be better able to recycle, reduce carbon emissions, and heal the planet, we would!  

But over time, in the hectic pace of life, I too slipped in my efforts and became complacent.  Sure, I recycled when I could and followed standard environmental practices.  But I stopped making the effort to do my best.  It became much easier to take the convenient route and to allow myself to forget that my actions (or inactions) mattered.

 I do hope we get to a place where environmental care is the norm and factored into everything we do.  But in the meantime, rather than blaming, I’ve realized that waiting is no longer an option. 

 I have recommitted to making the health of mother earth front and center as I go through my daily chores and to share the intention of my decisions with friends and family.  Somehow, it feels like I am making a difference when I catch myself throwing a piece of recyclable paper in the trash and take the extra steps to the recycling bin and when I remind myself that it’s a minor inconvenience to raise the temperature one degree above my air conditioning preference.  I can only hope it’s not too late.

This is a reminder to me to do my share and to hopefully be a positive influence to those around me.  At some point, every individual effort will become a contributing factor to that one moment in time when we reach the tipping point and spend more time healing, rather than harming, the only home we have.

Stewardship

Hen’s piece is well written and a good reminder to think in terms of Gaia. It’s easy to forget — or ignore — our dependence on a pretty narrow set of parameters for existing on this planet. Cultural anthropologists will tell us that we have been adapting to our technologies — rather than to our environment — for centuries. 

Once, many years ago, I had an epiphany sitting around a campfire with friends. In the midst of pleasant conversation it seemed so obvious that we all were proportionally large in our own minds, but so small in relation to our surroundings. We exist on a thin layer of the Earth’s crust — roads and macadam are simply skinny ribbons running on the surface of the beating heart of the planet. Not exactly breakthough thinking, but the impact of the thought/feeling remains remarkably fresh after all this time. We are fortunate to be alive, in this special place, in this special part of the galaxy, where we can see so many stars (if Earth were situated on another plane of the Milky Way, our sky would look impoverished).

Clearly we need to mind our own patch and personally conserve what we can. This is an ethical mandate. However, I think that our biggest contribution as individuals is to create an appetite for environmental stewardship. Hen’s friends who are waiting for public policy to supply answers are not wrong — we need multipliers to lever the large solutions necessary to maintain balance.

I have been a skeptic in regard to electricity as the answer to fossil fuel solutions, even as my workshop contains more and more 220 volt powered tools and battery powered options. After all, what power plants supply the energy — and how about the lithium-ion mining and production — and what do we do with the billions of batteries in landfills?

However, I’m pretty encouraged about the technology that is adapting to the environment. Three areas seem pretty interesting:

Organic battery technology: I’ve been reading about the “Methuselah quinone”, an approach to separating the electrolytic solution from the electrodes to be able to keep greater amounts of potential energy in storage. Cheaper and safer than lithium-ion, the ‘flow’ battery could also extend battery life significantly.

Residential energy storage and conservation: It has been said that 20% of the world’s carbon footprint comes from residential heating. Recycling EV batteries for home energy storage sounds eminently practical. A new Dutch program offers a re-cladding solution for insulating existing houses. This economical approach uses lasers to model the home in 3D CAD rendering for walls, windows, and doors to produce engineered panels which can be installed in a day. The system is integrated with heat pump and solar panels to literally bring energy costs to zero.

Energy Provider Improvements: It’s difficult to trust monolithic utilities, but In New York State, some progress is being made. Energy derived from coal decreased from 16% in 2001 to less than 1% by 2019.  New York actually consumes less energy per capita than any other state, except New Hampshire according to the US Energy Information Administration. Deregulation has separated Utilities providers from energy generation sources, such that they can pick and choose suppliers. Our local energy provider uses almost no suppliers that depend upon fossil fuel (9%). The state as a whole still delivers a significant amount of electrical power originating from fossil fuel (39%), but objectives are in place to reduce such dependence. These objectives can be met with some improvements in both supply capability and transmission line improvements.

My point is that we each need to examine the data to lend our voice to support new programs which can become everyday solutions. Stewardship is both personal and collective.  

Responsibility and Common Sense

Growing up in the 50’s, we didn’t know the word ”recycle.”  It wasn’t that we weren’t concerned about our planet but we lived more practically and used common sense more regularly.  For example, when the polio scare came, we all got vaccinated, stopped going to public swimming pools at the time, and  listened to the medical advice for how to stay safe. Moms immediately cut off our attendance at the public city swimming pools and schools simply required you to get the shot.  There was no great debate, we understood what polio was and didn’t want it to happen to our families so we responded responsibly and did what good citizens should do to prevent its spread!  Common sense and responsibility were words that people understood and tried to live their lives by.   I’m not saying it always worked but it was an underlying principle of our lives. My cousins in Pennsylvania were doing the same thing.

 Recycling was not a word on anyone’s vocabulary list at the time.  But living with what we had back then, practicality was a mainstay of life.  Our parents had come through the depression where rationing was a common practice. Gasoline for your cars was rationed, food stamps were distributed so that there was enough food to go around for our service men, home heating oil and even candles were rationed to guarantee everyone had a fair share. Practicality and responsibility and our primary concern was to do what was good for our country.  We had other serious problems back then but fortunately the war and polio were ended thanks to the hard work of American families chipping in and doing what was needed.

 In actuality we were recycling and didn’t know it.  There was no real awareness as to why we were doing things but we did them because they were for the common good.  My family never bought milk at the store.  It was delivered to a little metal box next to our front door every morning.  Milk, cream, eggs sometimes two quarts were right there on the front porch waiting for our breakfast needs.  And then when we ran out, Mom would leave a note for the milkman for 2 quarts of milk and a dozen eggs.  She’d put the note in the neck of the glass bottle he had delivered the day before, along with the other empty glass bottles and egg cases he had delivered before. That was the original recycling, we just never thought about it. Our soda bottles went back to the store for the 2 cent refund. All the bottles were glass and were cleaned and reused.

 A trip to the grocery store usually entailed a few blocks‘ walk to the nearest grocery store, usually A&P or Bohacks, pulling a grocery cart behind you so you didn’t have to carry everything home.  After we had collected our groceries we’d pick the check out that had the best packer.  The brown paper bags were made a certain size purposely to fit the cereal boxes and detergent boxes so that a minimum of bags were needed. A good packer would always fit everything in neatly saving the need for unnecessary bags. Upon arriving home and putting the groceries away, we neatly folded the bags carefully and stored them away until they were needed to cover the kids’ school books or other necessary purposes always to be reused. Recycling again!

 I’m not sure when the evil plastic bag came into use or the plastic beverage bottles that began to choke our oceans and landfills but  at time they were hailed as the newest modern conveniences that were easy to dispose of.   We kind of forgot our practical ways and our earth unfortunately is now suffering from our waste and disregard for the planet.  Now recycling has had to be a major movement for everyone to do his or her part. Not unlike the vaccine disputes raging, some people disregard the seriousness of caring for the earth.  A little more practicality and responsibility would be a good thing today!

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Thoughts after The All-Star Break

We’ve just had the all-star break in baseball – and if you are a Yankees’ fan, there’s not much to cheer about. The irony of Aroldis Chapman representing the Yankees is hard to fathom. Oh well. Yet, the spirit of the all-star game is meant to recognize the players who have achieved significant results through a good portion of the season. It’s meant to showcase their talents and say ‘steady on!’

It’s got me to thinking that we ought to take the time to celebrate people in other walks of life who have attempted and achieved noteworthy results through this season. Time to pause and give a tip of the cap to everyday people who face hard decisions and have put it on the line.

Who Are Your All-Stars?

So, I’m choosing seven all-stars who have faced tough circumstances with grace. Further, I will try to focus on one quality that each has displayed that is exceptional in my view. They are listed in no particular order: it’s a mix of shortstops and pitchers, outfielders and catchers:

1. George: Bravery is a term that could apply to all my selections, but sums up a feeling that I have about George. Now, I’ve been friends with George for 50 years – and for most of that time I did not realize that he was gay. Clearly, I am tone-deaf – and just as clearly, George is a person who has learned not to show all of his cards. Yet, some years ago, he made a decision to show those cards and come out to all of his family, friends, and colleagues. This takes courage. There was a bit of broken glass and he’s endeavored to repair those shards in the ensuing years.

However, that’s not my main point. We all have proclivities – and I believe we are greater than the sum of all those proclivities. But sometimes, they do set us apart and make life a bit more complicated. I celebrate George for having the gumption to make connections and continue to care about the people in his life during this pandemic. He is a social being who likely had the worst time during our isolation. Through it all, George navigated a long distance relationship and even started (and closed) a business in another state. He keeps bouncing back and I say that takes pluck, even res*l*ence – a word so overused lately that I am ashamed to type it out. Go George!

2. Hen: Fidelity. I like this word! It speaks to ‘ringing true’ and having a clear, bell-shaped tone. It’s better than reliability, regularity or loyalty – it’s about striking a pure note. Hen makes a decision and carries through. In the past year, he’s made a tough decision to relocate. For most people this would be stressful, but after all, it’s just a change of bricks and mortar – right? But rarely do you meet a person who is in such symbiosis with his land as Hen. He has often said that he would have liked to have been a forest ranger. His 23 acres allows him to live that dream, maintaining trails, lean-to’s, and bridges, with Duke tramping along at his side. Leaving this bit of territory is a big deal – I wonder if people realize just how difficult a choice it has been. However, true to form, Hen has weighed his options and concluded that he will continue his life journey in closer proximity to his children. It’s a big jump, but Hen is aimed at seeking the “great perhaps” – and he will make the most of it.

3. OB: Honesty.  In the past year, OB has experienced the kind of grief that most of us would not care to face. Through it all, he has been totally transparent about his feelings and coping with loss. Always the poet laureate of our group, OB has continued to write about strongly held beliefs, always displaying the passion and buoyancy that has been his hallmark – OB leads with his heart. He too, has moved to a new home and started afresh.  I applaud OB for continuing to reach out for new experiences – and sharing with us what he discovers.

4. Jim: Authenticity. Jimmy spent a career restoring historic sites for New York State. Now retired, he devotes his fulltime effort to bringing his 1700’s house to period condition. It’d not enough that he makes his molding plane profiles to match existing trim, the material has to be historic wood, so that the growth rings mimic the 300 year old forest encountered by the original builders. Even the paint is analyzed to recreate vintage formulas. This painstaking labor of love is years from completion – even Jim admits he will likely not live long enough to complete the work. But it is his mission and he does not compromise. He keeps his lifestyle simple: fishing for trout and foraging for mushrooms. Extravagances are few, but he haunts auction sites for Dutch colonial paintings and accoutrements for the house. His discipline is enviable.

The next two individuals have been at the same crossroads, but will likely proceed down different paths.

5. Don: Endurance. A stand-out collegiate wrestler, Don had instant success in the pharmaceutical industry. Way too early in his journey, he got up-close and personal with cancer. As his condition worsened, Don sought out new treatment trials. An experimental trial proved to be a godsend. Not an easy path, however – and others in his cohort did not survive. Don fought hard to maintain a level of health and quiet positivity: he never complains. After two years, he is about to be declared well. All thanks to a new treatment approach and a young donor from Germany. When I last talked with Don, he was about to learn the name of his donor – can you imagine that connection?

6. Steve: Acceptance. Steve also was diagnosed with cancer – a metastasized form of prostate cancer. He progressed through radiation and chemotherapy until his quality of life began to suffer. Steve is an accomplished artist and inveterate hiker. He has cared for three rescue dogs who became VIP’s in his life and the lives of his friends. Steve has often said that these dogs rescued him, not the other way around. Many an adventure have we had with Beckett, Jonesy, and Rousey. In fact, I have a portrait of Beckett done by Steve hanging in our Adirondack camp. Steve has made it clear that life is worth living only if there is the possibility of living fully. Chemo was a half-life for him, so he has decided to forego additional treatment. He is at peace with what will come.

7. Stephanos: Gratitude. His name is really Steve, but his birth father is Greek Cypriot. He has had an unusual life and made some questionable choices early on… choices which presented options of prison or drug rehabilitation. Steve rebounded in rehab and became a certified counselor. Now he spends time daily in meditation and exploring new philosophies of living. I met Steve while working in our restaurant and have been taken by his desire to choose gratitude for his life. While some may talk the talk, Steve walks the walk, even in difficult situations. Constantly singing and joking, his good cheer is catching. He would say (quoting the Dalai Lama) “ Be kind whenever possible —  and it’s always possible”. Steve reminds me that all of us search for the same state of being, but follow many different paths to that destination. Walk on! A paragraph or two does not do justice to the many all-stars in our network of friends and acquaintances. However, I’m not skilled enough to tell their stories. But I am thankful to know such individuals – and more – who deserve appreciation. Perhaps you have more nominees!

All Stars

When Wally wrote his All Stars I was speechless to have been on his list and incredibly flattered and humbled!  I realized that I had  equal admiration for Wally and Henry. We’d known each other for 50 plus years . During those years our lives would collide every now and  then as Wally and I lived in the same town and Henry was farther away. But not to make this response an admiration society I’ll state from the “get go” I have admired both of them for as long as I’ve known them. Wally was to me the abject professional, an upstanding adult.  Henry, bordering on Peter Pan in the most positive sense was always independent and there was nothing he couldn’t do. Their qualities were characteristics I wish I possessed but fell far short!

So who are my All Stars?  I came up with a few celebrities who I admired and then that night around 3AM it dawned on me that the real All Stars are your average men and women who you deal with day in and day out. I wound up with a rather large list and as the night wore on sleeplessly, I honed my list down to 3.

I taught school for 35 years!  As much as I hope I had a positive effect on my students I realized several of them had quite an effect on me.  

All Star #1 is a girl who was in my class for 2 years.  She was a wonderful kid whose parents were going through a divorce and she was struggling. Her desk was right in front of mine and she would crawl under her desk and then tie my shoe laces together. I always knew when she was doing it but I would act surprised when I got up.  I will always remember that. Her mom told me how much she appreciated the time and attention I gave her at a difficult time in her life.  This young woman went on to college, became a teacher, did graduate work and became a principal and got her PhD.   All of this after becoming a hot air balloon pilot. How she balanced all this is miraculous. She is the living definition of adventurous.  I so admire that in her.   A few years back, she and her brother spent a month on a freighter in the Antarctic.  She even swam in the frigid waters.  That is pretty amazing in my book.  I followed her Antarctic journey as well as her weekend hot air balloon flights on Facebook.  Yes, at times I lived vicariously! Shortly I believe she leaves for Iceland. Oh, for an ounce of that adventurous confidence.  I owe her a drink and hope to see her soon.

All Star #2 is my Aunt Eleanor. She was a month away from her 99th birthday when she passed and did it with dignity and grace even though signs of dementia were creeping in.  Her outstanding trait was her devotion to her religion.  She was a devout Catholic, in the true sense of the word.  She didn’t proselytize, or condemn but relied on it for her serenity and comfort.  For 70 years she would hit up all the family to make a donation to an orphanage that she had visited in Pompei when she was a child.   She believed that it was our responsibility to help.  I envied her for that compassion and determination. As she coped with life her rosary was her tool to calm herself.  She had many funny stories about places she worked.  Her first job was as a tatter in a sweat shop in the garment district and later in life she worked in the offices of Horn and Hardart.  They had a Christmas party one year and everyone brought a dish.  She brought her beloved Ricotta Cheese cake and  the next day Mr Hardart came to her and wanted to buy the recipe! No amount of pleading or coercing could get her to give it up!  She was also famous for having a Manhattan after dinner so she would be too “light headed” to do the dishes at Sunday meals! I was fortunate to have three aunts all of whom were my unconditional love sources!

All Star #3 is a friend I made about 25 years ago.  We actually met on line and began a friendship that has lasted all these years.  His name isn’t well known but his All Star trait is. He invented a new language for an award winning movie that  is soon to have sequels in the theaters.   I was in awe of his intelligence.  He majored in mathematics in school and taught at the college level but had an aptitude for foreign languages. He speaks 6, I think plus the one he invented.  How the hell fo you invent an entire language, I once asked, my mouth hanging open in amazement.  I figured you could develop a vocabulary but he explained it was much more than vocabulary.  Not only did he invent the spoken language but the written language as well. Idioms, expressions, parts of speech, grammatical features. Now he communicates with people all over the world who communicate solely through this made for tv(movie) language because it is the only language they all share.  He is incredibly intelligent, funny, not full of himself, and an all around nice guy!  We have become good friends and communicate regularly in English.  I loved the movie but never learned the language.  I speak English and Pig Latin and athay Isay Itay!

Our Public All Stars

It’s just like Wal to put others first and to celebrate the qualities he sees in those of us who have the pleasure and honor of knowing him.  He is a man of faith dedicated to service.  Part Polymath and part Renaissance man, Wal sees his mission as helping others, period.  He enriches my life not only with his ability to fix things, but also with his compassion and insight.

And George, my former roommate, reminds me over and over again why we were so close in college.  He is kind and gentle.  He has the gift of storytelling and can dig deep into his collection to find just the right one that fits into nearly every conversation.  He is a man who brings humor to any situation and smiles to the faces of those whom he embraces. 

I appreciate these men and the conversations we share more than I can say.

I also want to shout out to those who make everyday encounters a joyful event. 

Cheers to the check out woman at Adams supermarket who always has a smile, a moment to listen, the dedication to find or direct me to what I couldn’t find, and the ability to send me on my way feeling lighter, connected, and appreciative.

Bravo to the two women at Town Hall who cheerfully pulled up my property survey, shared my options for getting copies, and all with laughter and good will.  They did this for me despite my walking into their office minutes before closing, with no appointment, and before I even completed the appropriate paperwork.  I left feeling gratitude for the respect and kindness they showed me when they had every reason to ask me to come back another day.

Hats off to the owner of my local sandwich shop who goes out of his way to say hello to me regardless of how long it’s been since I stopped in.  He is always cheerful and genuinely wants to know how I’m doing.  He cares about his food and his customer’s satisfaction and makes his daily work a joyful, social experience.   I always leave feeling nourished by his sandwiches and his smile.

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Too Soon Oldt

I’m sitting here on a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon. Old age has given me the right to review my life, and look back on it trying to honestly evaluate it and how successful I was inside of it! My mom, a native Pennsylvanian, always used to quote an old Pennsylvania Dutch expression that has stayed in my mind all these years, “We grow too soon oldt, and too late smart!”  These old world sayings carry a lot of truth in them.  People were more basic back then and didn’t mince words, just told it like it is. Perhaps now, a month before the big 75, I earned my degree. That’s my life degree not my scholastic degree.  The day’s topic is LOVE!  There are different kinds of love.  It starts with your love for your parents and siblings, although sibling Iove is a rough and rugged road! We love some of our toys, and as we age those toys just get bigger and more expensive.  BUT that Is easy love cause they aren’t expected to love you back.  The tricky part is loving someone who chooses to love you in return.  We can’t omit the love of our pets.  Probably the truest form of love, given to you purely because you feed them and are kind to them!  Then of course is the love for your own progeny. They adjust to your quirks and learn to love you in spite of them. But on this hot steamy Sunday my reflection has wandered to romantic love- a whole other ballgame!


Unconditional love


I knew I was different at a very young age-just didn’t know what to call it. Jr High gym classes where we changed in locker rooms helped me clarify my difference.  All through high school and college I pretended.  I didn’t know anyone else was like me.  But I knew what was expected of me and I learned to suppress the longings and urges I was experiencing.  And I fell in love with a wonderful woman and for quite a while had a very loving relationship. Many years passed and life was getting in the way.  My older brother came out to the family and that was a very emotional and motivating moment for me. Our marriage was struggling by then and we separated. I came out everywhere- to my kids, to my school, friends, everywhere and over time met another person to love. I retired and moved out of state to fulfill his dream.  And so it goes.  Now at the 3/4 Century mark do I have the right to experience the courtship, love, excitement, and yes, arousal that such activity brings?  Can I really go through dating again at this point?  At this age what do I have to offer other than arms to cuddle, ears to listen and comfort another with.  And with all the baggage I drag around with me is it even reasonable to ask another to share the rough road ahead? Am I willing to soothe, comfort and console his future through difficult times ahead?   I think I am, to experience one more time the excitement of getting to know a person, explore his body, laugh and cry at appropriate times and just know someone is on your side.  It is a gamble but I guess I am willing to risk it one last time. God willing, I’m ready to chance it.

All Wool and a Yard Wide

Okay – two anecdotes before I get to the point of my rejoinder:

  1. Two nonagenarians are currently building a 10,000 sq. ft. retreat near where we vacation in the Adirondacks. The structure is being built in British Columbia of Sitka spruce, deconstructed and shipped to its new location. It will require oversized trailers to ship the pieces. The trucks and trailer are too big to turn around, so they need to be backed down two miles of a narrow dirt road. The inside completion involves many contractors and the specifications call for a great deal of custom work. Will these folks live to see the completion of this project?
  2. A 95 year-old friend needs a new vehicle. His 22 year old truck has rusted out, such that the structural integrity is in jeopardy. He wants to buy a new truck and won’t consider either a used or leased vehicle. Is this a good business plan?

Both of these stories underscore the life’s buoyancy. Why should these folks settle for something that will disappoint, even if there is a strong probability of limited use? There’s an old saying (since George is into that) “All Wool and a yard wide”. It’s meant to indicate something of high quality. Why shouldn’t life be ‘all wool and a yard wide’? I submit that our need to search for joy does not diminish with age, even if what brings joy might change over time.

And what brings more joy than intimacy? What is more life affirming than expressing or receiving love – whether physical or otherwise? So, I say to George and Hen – Go for It!

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

George raises some fundamental questions as he/we face our final years.  Have we lived successful lives? Do we have the right, desire, or inclination to love anew or perhaps, rekindle former love?  As with all things in life, there are only the answers we chose for ourselves.

As for the former question, I feel good about how I’ve lived my life and seek to continue to do so with renewed vigor.

And then there’s the question of love at 75!  How fortunate we are to even be able to entertain the question.  To find myself relatively fit and healthy, not having to worry about the basic necessities, and with a multitude of ways to meet and be with others, it is a gift to be able to focus on such a musing.

When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I remember thinking of single people in their 70’s as incapable of romantic interests and focused happily on remaining friends and family as enough to fulfill their need for love.  What was I thinking???

Today I’m in the midst of packing up my home and moving closer to my children and grandchildren.  The love I’ve always had for them and felt from them is compelling enough for me to want to spend the rest of my days in closer contact with them and their friends.  Of that I’m clear.  I look forward to creating new memories, embarking on new adventures, and enjoying more in person time with those who were once part of my daily life.

Of course the need for a more intimate companionship and romantic feelings is not dead.  And while I recently set them aside and redirected my focus from finding the person to fill these needs to accepting the role of single Pop Pop integrating into his children’s families, the desire remained.  There is an old saying, “Good things come to those who wait.” As has happened in my life many times, when I stop trying so hard to make something work and move on with something else, what I once sought seems to find it’s way to me.  Sometimes, it comes directly at me, in just the way I had originally expected.  Other times, I needed to rewrite my story and put aside former ways of thinking about what I wanted in order for it to become a reality.  And, in this time of great change in my life, so it was that I have rethought how I might enjoy the gifts and joys of a new kind of relationship with my former partner by creating a way to live more fully in the present and use the wisdom of older age to speak, as George puts it, more basically without mincing words.  Time will tell if this new construct works for us as we each prepare to move to more distant and separate locations.  Perhaps, as we seek ways to reclaim what was once good and reframe how we look at what appeared to be unsolvable challenges, more in our lives can be resurrected that bring us joy and connection, and love.  As a rampant optimist, I am looking forward to our journey.  

As Francois Rabelais once said, “I go to seek a great perhaps!”

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A Letter to My 85 Year Old Self

Good Morning, Hen!

Happy 85!  Remember when you were 74 and you were beginning to recognize the benefits and limitations of aging?  Remember being home in the Hudson Valley for more than a year during the great pandemic?  Remember coming to the conclusion that enough had changed in your life that it was time to make a major shift and sell your house and property and move close enough to the children and grandchildren?  I’m betting that now, in retrospect, it was the right move.  I’m guessing that not only were you able to spend more time with your family but that you were able to be helpful to them in more ways than you even imagined.

Remember when you were worried that letting go of all those hiking trails and all the physical work that your property required would limit your access to, and motivation for, movement and exercise?  Well, I’ll bet you were surprised by how well you adapted.  Maybe now that you’re 85 you’re thinking that being a couch potato is not such a bad idea.  But up until now, I’m sure you’re still giving those young whippersnappers a run…um, fast walk for their money!  Way to go!

And, in the off chance that you’re not as mobile as I thought you’d still be, I know you likely found a way to counter that with lots of other ways to generate good energy, laughter, and happiness.

Remember, 85 is just a number.  Perhaps today you’d like to write to your 95 year old self and wonder, on paper, or computer, or whatever new technology that will exist then, what it might be like for him.

Cheers!

Hen

P.S.  Remember, you’re as young as you’ll ever be and as old as you’ve ever been!

Winter is Coming

Hey old Wal,

Hope you are having a wonderful day… it’s good to be alive and experience the joy of simple pleasures that each day brings. Celebrate, because you have exceeded expectations! Who knew we’d live this long?

For the longest time you and I operated on a plateau of reasonable health and function. This last dozen years have brought accelerating challenges. You have experienced diminishment and loss that causes Current Wal a great deal of anxiety and heartbreak to consider. You have lived through difficult periods in the lives of those who you love so much. And yet you have found the strength in that which remains.

If the flames of youth are gone, well, the glowing coals still provide steady warmth to you and the circle of friends and family that gather close. That’s your mission: bring cheer to those you love – and more! Cherish the love of your life. Heart is more important than brain, but keep that sharp as well! Don’t stand still – keep exploring, keep creating. I know you will.

I am jealous of the interesting new discoveries that you have found – and the knowledge of how our grandkids and kids have developed their life stories. I’ll bet you could share some fine news – so be sure to write back to me!

We’ll never figure out whether this dance of energy, frequency, and matter is transitional or has some timeless component, but act as if we have faith in the outcome. We both know winter is coming — let’s show the world how a good man meets his end of days.

Dear Old Curmudgeon

Henry’s topic gave me pause to contemplate some serious issues.  A letter to me 10 years from now left me wondering would there be anyone there to read it!  Perhaps “address unknown” or “return to sender“ might apply.  Not sure there is a post office in the options available.  It made me ponder some scary but rational concepts.  How many more Christmas trees do I have left to decorate?  How many birthday candles, mine or others, are left to blow out?  Will I have the breath to blow them out?  Will I be mobile enough to get around? Will my care worker secretly beat me when no one is looking? How many more car registrations can I arrange? How many presidential elections? How many friends are left to talk to and laugh with and cry with? How many dog licks left?  Well you get my drift and probably can come up with other significant how many mores! But let’s suppose I make it to my 85th birthday.  My letter might be something like this…

 Dear You old Curmudgeon, You,

 Surprised this letter reached you, huh? You did it, you son of a gun!  I know you like to say whatever is on your mind regardless how it may come out!
That glass should be pretty full by now though for most of your life you saw a lot of glass cause it protected you from disappointment!  Political correctness is old news now. You’ve got the scars that allow you to speak whatever is on your mind!  I bet secretly, you are thanking whatever force has helped you through the last ten years. And look, you are still upright, your license has not expired and I think I saw you doing the lindy with the bathroom door knob as your partner! Ok, yes I have been known to do the lindy with various doors when the oldies play.

 I hear your prayers at night and the appreciation comes through loud are clear.  Your appreciation of two careers that you loved, the love of your kids that you experienced, and the world you created with you, your friends and loved ones shared is quite admirable!  It is ok to feel proud of what you accomplished. Former students acknowledged your impact on their lives.  Your humor made people laugh, your sensitivity and empathy for others less fortunate than you have been comfort to others. And remember all that silly stuff you used to worry about- what a waste of time and effort that all was but in retrospect, maybe that was what made you the compassionate, caring person you became.  You love yourself now, don’t you, you old softee? You finally got it!  The world, or at least the part that you occupied over the years,  is a better place because you were in it!  You didn’t hear your friends when they told you that but now, at 85 you can take it in and acknowledge it.  Hey, I love you.

Sincerely,
 You

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Drive

Recently, I made a trip to say goodbye to a close friend – he is moving south. It’s likely the last time we’ll visit face-to-face, so it was a bittersweet episode. But as the time approached to traverse the 85 miles to his house, I found myself becoming apprehensive in a manner that had no connection to our farewell visit. In fact, it felt like the day of a high school or collegiate wrestling match, where I’d turn inward to steel myself for the upcoming contest. Why?

It was the anticipation of the drive. This is peculiar, because my friend’s house is on the route I used to follow for my work commute. I have literally logged over two hundred thousand miles along this track and can recite every facet of the trip – from the blinding sun at mile 6 on Bulls Head Road to the inevitable traffic pile-up at Golden’s Bridge. My commuting trips usually started at 5AM and brought me sightings of coyotes and bobcat that I never would have otherwise seen. There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets and plenty of flowering trees in season.

But, there also is the high speed choreography of flocks of commuting cars and trucks. In good weather I choose the Taconic Parkway, just to break the monotony, starting in an easygoing manner with a clear road ahead. Smooth sailing to Baird Park. However, cars start to pass me and I find myself pressing the accelerator a bit harder, while watching the abrupt merging opportunities from side streets. The shoulders are minimal and road banking is nonexistent, so focus heightens. The truth is, I have avoided rush hour commuting for two decades and a good part of my apprehension is loss of confidence.

By the time I reach the former gas station in the center island ten miles from route 84, I’m driving faster than I’d like, but not as fast as I will be traveling on route 84. The exit from the Taconic to route 84 merges at the bottom of a long hill. This is not traffic genius, because trucks have built up rolling speed and usually stick to the right hand lane in preparation for the steep uphill climb after the merge. In short, you need to time your merge and punch the gas to avoid the behemoths bearing down on you.

By the top of the next rise, everyone is doing at least 75mph at close quarters. My adrenaline is pumping and I’m looking for a bit of breathing room in the crowded field. I’m beginning to get an idea of how sockeye salmon feel on the upstream journey. All of a sudden, the whole experience becomes automatic, plugged in. I’m gliding in and out of clusters of commuters piloted by my autonomic nervous system. “See, I can still do this”, my left brain says. “But, do I want to?” my right brain replies.

The turn south on rt. 684 brings me in sight of the old Pepsi Cola headquarters with its I.M Pei glass pyramids floating on top of its bricks and mortar. Once upon a time, long after Pepsi departed, I had an office on the 4th floor overlooking the southbound traffic on 684. I would have been in my office by 7:30AM, so I say hello to imaginary me watching real-time me speed past. I never was turned on by a “need for speed”, but did respond to a “need to succeed”. Those were the days when my prime focus was work and I was an absentee family member. This drive brings back the guilt I feel for missing so much relationship time.

As usual, Golden’s Bridge slows the rolling hordes down to 10mph and I pass three cars in the median, the product of vehicular Darwinism. There’s no visible damage, so I assume a three car fender bender has taken place. One guy standing by his van is on the phone, no doubt explaining why he will be late to his job. I’m convinced that most accidents on rt. 684 (and maybe most highways?) do not occur at speed, but from inattention during stop-and go intervals. I exit at rt. 35 and breathe a sigh of relief – ‘what was I worried about, anyway?’ True, I’ve experienced worse on the LIE, Chicago, and Atlanta, not to mention California. Yet, none of those drives has the repeated history of travel as does this route. Sometimes I feel like I’ve played the odds too long and a reckoning is nigh. However, now, in the stolid company of landscaper trucks fanning out to Pound Ridge and New Canaan – usually with no sense of hurry – I can relax and coast the rest of the way. A curious fact, I never see any people in their manicured, spacious grounds and large homes – just landscapers. My fantasy circuit kicks in and I wonder if the residents are being held hostage by their groundskeepers – or maybe the groundskeepers now live in the mansions, the elder rich people having passed away unnoticed? Probably, that’s just survivor endorphins talking – it won’t last: I have to think about the return drive.

The Rush!

I just read Wal’s piece about the feelings evoked as he retraced his car tracks along his former commuting route.  The timing of this couldn’t be more perfect as I just finished three days of work in Rye, NY and, during commuting hours, covered many of the roads Wal referenced. 

I left early for my appointment, feeling good about the amount of extra time I allotted for any delays that I might encounter during the predicted one hour and thirty-two minute drive.  This was not normally the case when I was working full time and entering the daily commuter race with hopes and prayers and a belief that I deserved clear sailing and to be at work on time!  This time I was relaxed, and was prepared to stay so throughout my ride.  However, as soon as I entered the Taconic Parkway I soon realized that going 5 miles above the speed limit in the right lane would put me well behind the flow and would make me an obstacle for others to either swerve to avoid or tailgate in hopes I would go faster.  Eckhart Tolle once told a story about his stay in Manhattan.  He awoke and decided to go for a leisurely stroll down some of the many famous avenues.  Much to his surprise, almost everyone was walking at a fast or frenzied clip and walking slowly became a chore rather than a soothing way to spend the morning.  So, rather than quit or bemoan the fact that his plan wasn’t working, he simply picked up the pace and joined the wave of people traveling at a New York City tempo.  And so did I.  Rather than fixate on what I couldn’t do, I matched speed with the flow and continued.  And while it admittedly raised the intensity of my attention as well as my concern to sustain the pace safely it was less stressful and I eventually arrived without incident.

This experience was not unique in my traveling during commuter hours as a senior citizen.  A couple of years ago I was caught up in a similar scenario and I was surprised by the zigzagging and frenetic maneuvers of the cars around me.  I commented to my daughter on the phone one evening about how bad this was and while I couldn’t see her gentle smile, she paused and reminded me of how I used to navigate the daily commute when I was a younger pup.  Gulp!  She was right.  I was just like the people I was now criticizing.  I had forgotten how easy it was to get caught up in “the rush” never making the time to see how I might have looked to a retired senior or someone who had mastered their inner calm.  And while this reminder didn’t make the act of driving during rush hour any easier, it allowed me to better accept it.

Driving Me Crazy

I didn’t get my driver’s license til late.  Growing up in the suburbs of NYC no one had his license before graduation and the public high schools didn’t offer Driver’s Ed or anything like that.  I didn’t get my license til I student taught when I was 21.  Now as a senior citizen I can’t help but think about the day when I have to surrender that license and my mobility and independence comes to an abrupt end.

5 years ago I had a scare. Rushed to Albany by ambulance and 2 stents placed in clogged arteries. I was out of the hospital the next day, sent home, scared to death and my confidence in normal everyday living shot to hell.  But time passed, my life normalized thanks to the care of my daughter, but the confidence needed to drive anywhere longer than a ten minute trip to the grocery store didn’t return so easily.  It was a year before I could even get up the nerve to drive to Albany for a checkup. But it happened and I slowly regained my confidence.   Then, for two years just before Covid struck, I began running back and forth to Vermont every weekend- a two and a half hour trip to my antique store.  It was an easy trip because there was no traffic if I left at the right time.   Part of it was thruway driving and the rest a heavily traveled Rt 4.  In addition to the concerns of an old man losing his mobility, there are other issues that enter the picture.   I would break my journey down into laps.  The first lap was from Ulster County to exit 24 on the NY State Thruway. Like Wally I would experience a dread, well more of an anxiety, about the journey ahead. I would leave at just the right moment to avoid the traffic jam at the end of lap 2- the stretch of outlet stores in Glens Falls just off exit 20 of the Northway.  The logic behind the definition of the laps was each lap ended right near a public restroom. Another age related blow to one’s confidence. The final lap was relatively easy across the state border on Rt 4 into Vermont.  In the last lap the speed was controlled and slower, the intensity of driving was diminished and the road was curvy and hilly so I had to be attentive but even so I was more relaxed. The first two laps I set my cruise control to assure my heavy foot didn’t over step the legal limit.  I always felt a sigh of relief when the second lap was complete and I was no longer on a 4 or 6 lane highway traveling well over 70.  The thruway is 2 lanes in each direction, full of tractor trailers and speeding sedans, and once you’re on the Northway those four lanes expand to 6, with lower speed limits and fewer people following them.  I could just feel the tenseness in my shoulders release as I passed The Log Jam restaurant at the beginning of Rt 149.  It was soothing from there on in to Vermont.  Rolling hills and pasture lands, garage sales and mom and pop restaurants. As soon as I got to Vermont and shut the car off I took a breath, closed my eyes and reaffirmed to myself that I was capable of doing this.  The return trip had to be later in the day to avoid the traffic at the outlet stores, the only place where backups and traffic jams occur.  Timing was everything.  But the anxiety of the trip still loomed ahead of me. God forbid there was snow. That would be enough to drive me crazy!  Covid ended all that.  I didn’t have to buy gas for weeks, and my oil changes became few and far between.  Life has definitely changed!  That anxiety I felt every time I began the Vermont sojourn I no longer experience.  It will probably return as life becomes more and more normal again.

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Manana is Good Enough for Me – NOT

Since Covid, no-since childhood, I have procrastinated. I put things off til the last possible minute.  If something had to be done by Monday morning, I did it Sunday night. That has been the story of my life.  My dad called me lazy when he would get exasperated with me cause I needed his help at the last minute.  All through my life I was guilty of such practices. As a young father I have Often felt like a hypocrite when I would chide my kids about waiting til the last minute to do things. They were smart enough to know I should practice what I preach but they never threw it up in my face!  In spite of this I had two very successful careers. Perhaps I had fine tuned my skills enough that they prevented my discovery as a fraud.  Every day in my classroom I expected the principal to come in and say, 

“Aha!   You are not a teacher!”  I always felt deficient!

That’s another story for another blog.  But I digress!  Since Covid, I have been doing a lot of introspection.  I have also been doing a lot of buying stuff on line. I needed a printer/copier and ordered a great wireless one through Amazon.  It sits in the box on my living room floor. I needed a light over my bed so I could read at night and found a nice sconce to hang on my wall. It sits in the box next to my bed. Through Wayfair I ordered a Mid Century TV stand.  It sits in its box in front of my tv.  Then, of course, there is my office, desk piled high, bills begging, pleading to be filed neatly away in their respective folders, tabletops piled high with mail and hearing aid proposals and return address labels from every organization I ever donated to(never end a sentence with a preposition!)  So what is the point of all this?  I said that I have been doing a lot of self reflection.

I sat in my house one day and saw all the boxes, saw the pile of stuff in my office and scratched my head.  What the hell is wrong with me?  Those boxes have been there for months, the office has been this way since the fall. Enough, tomorrow I will get to work on these projects.  But I didn’t expect to be up half the night trying to figure out why I do this.  After running it silently through my head a million times the pattern and the motive became clear.  I wasn’t lazy or afraid of doing the work.  I was afraid of starting the project.  But why?  And suddenly, like the flashing neon lights from the motel across the street, came the reason –  loud and clear.  I was afraid I wouldn’t succeed.  I feared I couldn’t do what had to be done.  I am not mechanically inclined, don’t know how to use all but the basic tools!  By putting it off, I am avoiding the truth about myself as I know it! My confidence is shot!  Actually, I never had confidence in the “manly” world of building things. Put me in a social setting and I have no hesitation to succeed. The realization was miraculous, and it only took 60 plus years to identify what has me frozen.  I am  proud to say I have a beautiful new tv stand, a light over my bed and an office that smells of lemon wax and cleanliness. There are still a few jobs left but I can put those off til tomorrow!

Fear of Fixing

Well, George could have been writing about me – end of (as the British say)! Well maybe not actually end of story, because I have a hypothesis: procrastination = learned helplessness. Yes, I think it’s learned.

When I was a kid, I idolized my Dad – he could do anything! I watched him cut a perfect archway in a blank plaster wall, armed only with a handsaw. Now c’mon, if I tried that it would be an episode of Polyhedrons Gone Bad. I watched him bring a listing brick chimney back in line with the house. There didn’t seem anything he was afraid to tackle by himself.

He had time to teach me baseball, boxing, archery, golf, chess, and all kinds of card games; there was lots of praise and lots of shared laughter during those activities. But repair was a different story – it was dead serious and not an instructable. I was the kid who always handed him the wrong wrench and shone the flashlight in the wrong place. Repair always seemed like an out of body experience for me. My younger brother initially felt the same way – but more about that in a second.

My Dad grew up without a father and worked from an early age. He had no paternal guide, but also no one told him he couldn’t do something, so he fearlessly jumped in. I think that’s important.

Back to my brother. Rich found a group of friends that liked to revamp bicycles and build model rockets. He became a hands-on guy. Somehow that street cred worked for Dad and they both had their heads under cars every weekend. I looked on and just gave up the possibility of being initiated into these mysteries. Truthfully, I did not miss it.

However, the net result was that for years I’d shy away from tasks I did not think I could do well. This was unfortunate, because my father set the example of doing everything himself, so I also felt the failure of not being up to the task. Faced with the choice of attempting something I ought to do, but did not have the confidence to do – or hiring a skilled person to do that task – I would do neither. Lots of procrastination. What was it that Henry Ford said: “If you think you can do a thing or think that you can’t, you are right?” Interestingly, because I didn’t put a high expectation for “fixing” on my kids, both turned out to be amazingly capable of fixing anything. Just like my father!

It took years for me to realize the methods for breaking down a task into bite-size elements – I nudge things to death — that’s my approach these days. Plus, there’s a YouTube for every problem. I’ve also relaxed the standards by which I judge my work. All of that seems to lower the barriers to moving forward with projects.  And the bonus is that I can also call my wizard kids for advice!  

Putting Things Off

Yup!  Guilty!

In my work, as in my life, I learned the value of doing what needs to be done in a timely fashion.  In addition, addressing those things that are most difficult and challenging should take precedence over those that are easier.  However, understanding these important principles and consistently acting on them are not necessarily synonymous: at least in my personal experience.

For me, motivation plays a big role in whether I address and complete things in a manner that allows for interruptions, accidents, or unanticipated obstacles.  If I need to get my house ready for an upcoming home inspection I’m good at planning ahead, targeting a completion date days before it’s needed, and then addressing all those things I didn’t account for in the extra time allotted.  And, I’m getting better at making those difficult phone calls sooner rather than later or never.  But, rest assured, I don’t often identify such things as “important” enough to take care of them when I should.  Take this blog entry, for example.  I am fortunate to be working with two of the most supportive and understanding men I know.  Consistently being the last one to submit my blog original or blog rejoinder, I know they will sincerely accept my delay without question.  But why do I put off my writing?  Sure, I’m going through the process of selling my house and looking for a new primary residence.  But each of them is also, at any given time, going through challenging times and yet continue to provide their entries on or closer to our target dates.  

I’m not sure I understand my procrastination.  Yes, reading their pieces before I respond often inspires me.  Yes, I know they will not pressure me or say anything to cause me to feel guilty.  Yes, I do feel this is not only important but one of the few things over the last few years that has offered me a sense of community, a sense of value, and a source of learning.  And yet, I continue to take a laid back approach to getting my piece done in an equitable and timely fashion.

This is one example of many for me.  And, since I don’t feel particularly good about putting off those things that matter, it’s time to do something about it.  Stephen Covey wrote, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” 

Perhaps it’s time to change up some thinking and some poor habits.  Of course this necessitates starting immediately rather than after the sale of my house or after I get some rest or …you know the drill.

George and Wal, get ready for Hen’s new and improved, on-time blog delivery system!

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To Give or Not to Give

One of the constants in my life has been the request of others for me to donate money.  An endless list of charities find their way to my email box asking for me to donate to a cause.  Usually, via some internet magic, the requesting agencies are in line with my interests, beliefs, and passions.  More recently, political entities ask for me to support candidates who promise to further the causes I believe in.  Sometimes, I pass people who appear to be either homeless or hungry and ask me directly for a handout. Today, one television commercial showed me starving, mistreated dogs and another, the plight of elephants with babies in tow.  Their messages tugged at my heart and my purse strings.

The quest for financial resources is endless but, since I don’t have an endless supply of “extra” cash, making decisions about what to give is a dilemma.  Even after I develop a process and or guideline for who to give and how much, the question of trust arises.  How do I know if these requests are legitimate and how do I know if the funds are going to the intended recipients and if they are, what percentage may be going for administrative costs? 

Over the years, I’ve asked friends how they make decisions about donating.  As you might guess, it varies from person to person but none have an absolute, clear-cut formula with one exception.  In this case, if he’s asked, he gives. If he encounters a person who is sitting or walking on the street and they make a request for cash, he gives with no exception.  He has chosen to completely accept that if they are asking, they are needy and he gives them money unconditionally.  If they chose to spend it on liquor or drugs or food or clothing, he contends that is their choice.  He is only responsible for responding to the act of one human asking for help, not to bother himself in the affairs of how the individual choses to use the help given.  It reminds me of our conversation about labels and judgments.  I might find it irresponsible to enable someone who is intoxicated to use my money to buy more alcohol so I would likely not give them money. Of course, in that case, I’ll never know whether this was a moment when this person may have chosen to use my contribution in another way to help themselves; all because I speculated that I knew better.  Who is to say?  In the end, if giving this person money that I didn’t need, money that wouldn’t negatively impact my life, might the feeling of giving with the hope of helping, add value to my life?

I enjoy helping others but still hesitate to give out my “hard-earned” money to strangers who may not have “worked hard” and who are “deserving” of charity.  But as I grow older, I am re-examining those old beliefs and am reconsidering the idea of unconditional giving.  I look forward to seeing my own reaction the next time I pass a person who asks me for money.

Giving is a Function of Trust

I’d argue that giving money or donations to others is the same as the decision to place love or trust in a relationship. In a perfect world, the opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ would be limitless. In practice, there is always a part of me that wishes to hold something back — whether it’s trust or donations, is immaterial — but that’s my quirk.

However, one thing is clear to me: I won’t donate without some level of trust having been established. Hen raises the point that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the recipient uses the gift in a manner in which you approve. After all, ‘help’ is defined by the receiver. And yet… remember a few years ago, when the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, the Children’s Cancer Fund of America, and the Breast Cancer Society were accused of diverting $187 million dollars to lavish salaries, trips, and perks? In fact it was alleged that only 3% of the donations actually made its way toward cancer research. (NB: these groups are not affiliated with the American Cancer Society). Even in respected charities, the CEO may earn penthouse-level compensation. Charities are big business – and somehow this seems like an oxymoron to me. Ah, there’s me being distrustful! 

We all feel better when we give of our resources. Sharing is an essential part of living with others. It is a recognition of another’s need and our ability to nurture those in need. However, many of us also give as an antidote to guilt. The paid advertisements Hen described certainly appeal to that motivation. Such appeals feel like manipulation and I won’t have it.

My giving formula boils down to this: I will give generously to those I know and love, even if they do not use the resources as I would. I will give regularly to community institutions that are local and I have seen their good works. I will take a chance on giving to an individual I don’t know, if a connection is made that doesn’t tingle my distrust. I will not give to a suspected liar – or to most national fundraising organizations. In other words, I mind my patch and invest in my community, trusting that the investment will help others. 

The Act of Giving

Lately, I have been generously giving contributions to people on the street who ask.  I figure I can afford to donate a ten-dollar bill to someone down on his or her luck.  I know it could be a total
sham but I figure if by chance it is legitimate I could contribute to someone’s getting a meal or paying a bill and that would make their day and mine as well. Of course you just never know.  When I was going to Vermont every weekend I used to see the guys with signs in the entrance to the shopping malls.  The signs usually indicated the guy was an out of work veteran who was hungry, many times small children were holding the guy’s pant leg or something for an additional emotional tug.  The Rutland Journal did a report and followed one guy and found out that he raised over $100,000 in a year’s time.  When you think about it, it is hard work and probably won’t get you a pass at the Pearly Gates!  Sometimes I think I often give to people out of guilt.  How come I had the wherewithal to have spare cash while others can barely make it day to day?

A year ago Christmas I was especially tender for many reasons and watched the shivering puppies chained to an old fence and became a monthly “Guardian” with the SPCA.  I can’t stand to see animals suffering because of human cruelty!  And the next commercial was of St Jude’s Children Hospital and became a “Guardian” there as well.  I chose to believe that most of my monthly contribution goes to helping animals and children but I just have to have naive faith about that!  Don’t burst my bubble please.

But donating money was never a problem for me.  Both my kids worked in restaurants and taught me to give hefty tips as well. However, my shortcoming is giving of my time.  I have never contributed a few minutes to talk to the guy begging on the street or actually going with him and buying him a meal.  The nursing homes are full of lonely people abandoned who would love to have a conversation or a hug.  I realized that this year as the isolation overwhelmed me. People in these facilities live like that from year to year and not because of Covid.  Perhaps it is the sadness factor that stops me. My tears come much more easily now and I’m not sure I can deal with the sadness I would see around me.  I actually feel terrible admitting to this but it has always been a shortcoming of mine.   I should know better, I was that outcast kid in school for several years and knew how it felt.  I need to be as generous with my time as I am with money.  Maybe then the Pearly Gates will open for me!

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Russell’s Teapot

Maundy Thursday is a profoundly sad day. It reminds me of our unfailing default behavior of cruelty and self-service. It doesn’t take much to see how that behavior is still present in our DNA. Perhaps it is a collateral requirement for survival that we can justify any action which assuages our fears.

This is a day when I confront my beliefs about faith. After all, faith is about hope – hope that there is a better version of myself and all of us; something timeless and clear, synchronized to a cosmic truth. That’s why I’m thinking of Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

If you missed it, Bertrand Russell stated his reluctance to believe in God and placed the onus on religion to prove that God existed. He put forward an analogy: what if he stated as a firm belief that there was an undetectable celestial teapot traveling in an elliptical orbit in space? Who could prove him wrong? Russell’s argument is that the burden of proof does not fall upon the skeptics, but rather the proponents.

Rare Sighting of Russell’s Teapot

At first glimpse, this seems like a reasonable assertion. It is always a good idea to examine the basis for your own assumptions; what you cannot prove should be placed in that Box of Uncertainties. And yet… that box of uncertainties is pretty large. Sometimes, planks in that box are needed to bridge gaps in understanding how the world works – or how you should work within the world. As you construct your personal bridge, some of the planks are less than solid. So, do you stop your journey, turnaround, or continue on?

I’m reminded of that 1970’s bestseller Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. This was the first in series of books which chronicled the socialization of an anthropologist into the world of a Native American shaman. Don Juan recalibrated the perception of the young anthropologist to identify strong forces at work in the world; how to use that power; and how to identify ‘witches’. Objective proof: doubtful. By the end of the books – which were the basis of the anthropologist’s doctoral dissertation – Carlos Castenada had absorbed the shaman’s worldview to reflect a philosophy which was compelling enough to attract a number of fans. Could it be possible that today’s mysticism is tomorrow’s science?

Every journey requires some degree of faith in assumptions that cannot be proven. The need for proponents to prove their case is only necessary if they attempt to press their assumptions onto others – and I accept that this is pretty common in day-to-day life. Yet, the tyranny of Russell’s teapot argument is that it precludes ‘possibilities’.

If I were to counsel my grandchildren, it would be to rename the uncertainty box as the ‘Box of Possibilities’ and use some of those planks in their bridge construction. I think it’s better to be open to a broad vision when facts don’t connect the dots.

Not A Religious Man

I was never religious.  I always questioned it and asked for proof which I never got.  I considered myself spiritual.  I was raised Catholic, my mom was Congregational, but I went to Mass every Sunday with my dad. That lasted until they dropped the Latin and started saying Mass in English.  My dad stopped going because he said now that he understood what was being said he couldn’t sleep through it!   We still did the no meat on Friday thing, always having macaroni or spaghetti (I never heard the word PASTA til I was married). On Good Friday my brother and I couldn’t play outside or watch TV between noon and 3.  It seemed more like superstition than religion.  My Aunt Eleanor was the only one who was really into Catholicism. She said the rosary every day of her life until her death at 99.  It gave her comfort and serenity and I wanted that for myself but couldn’t find it through religion.

I guess I always believed in God but didn’t subscribe to the rigors and routines of Catholicism.   As my sexuality developed it estranged me even more from organized religion but I didn’t want to give up the promise that a spiritual life provided and I kept questioning and praying that the “All Mighty” would show me, give evidence to me that it truly existed.  Then I kind of gave up the search.  Life was busy and exciting and I stopped questioning and searching. College, marriage, family, buying houses all got in the way and there was no space for my search. 

When all that calmed down I began experiencing things that I couldn’t explain.   My wife and I divorced and she moved out. I think it was the first night I slept alone.  I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, scared, and crying.   I felt as if I was cradled in someone’s arms and it soothed me.  I heard inside my head a voice that said, “It is going to be okay, everything is going to be ok!”  I woke up in the morning feeling secure, knowing something had happened that I could not explain.  It was years before I ever told anyone about that, even admitting I thought it was Jesus who rocked me. Many years later, after retiring, I experienced two other events that helped me answer my questioning.  My partner and I were traveling through England visiting friends we had met in Italy.  They wanted to take us to the place where paganism and Christianity was supposed to have met.  It was a little island they referred to as Holy Island, but is named Lindesfarne.  We traveled to Northumberland in northern England.  You can only reach the Island at low tide so you have to know in order to get off the island before the tide comes back in.  On that island is the ruin of an old Cathedral where they ancient saints, Saint Cuthbert and St Aidan tried to convert the pagans.  Upon entering that sacred space, every hair on my arms and back stood straight up and a cold rush went through my body. My partner was Jewish and he experienced the same thing.  We prayed at what was left of the altar and escaped the island just before the tide returned.  It was spiritual, eerie and freaky.  I had never experienced anything like that before and never expected to again!  Wrong! Several years later on a trip to Italy, promising my aunts to go to Assisi, we stopped there and visited the churches of St Clara and St Francis only to be disappointed by the touristy nature of the city. We spoke to a local shop keeper who told us if we really wanted to experience St Francis we should go to a little mountain town named LaVerna not far away.  The next day we drove up the mountain and parked outside the little town with the Franciscan monastery.  We discovered that St Francis slept there in the caves and that was where he experienced the stigmata.  I didn’t even know what that meant but it was explained that it was where he bled from his wrists and feet from where the nails held Jesus to the cross. We headed into the caves and without realizing what cave we were in, once again I experienced that sensation of cold rushing through me as all the hair on my arms and back stood on end.  My partner also was experiencing it as well. The guide told us that it was on that rock in front of us St Francis experienced the stigmata. It was a very special experience that I hope to experience once again.  I sure could use that voice telling me everything will be all right once again!

Beliefs Re-examined

Wal begins his piece by confronting his beliefs.  I love the notion that while we can accept who we are, it can be healthy and helpful to challenge what we have learned to believe.  For me, time can lull me into complacency about viewpoints that I’ve adapted and practiced.  As I tell my stories, I inevitably reinforce those perceptions and they become a baseline or context from which I live my life.  But, as Wal mentions in his post, he questions his beliefs in hopes that he can become a better person.  As I think about some of the things I “knew” to be true when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I realize that my thinking wasn’t as broad or open as it is today and some of those beliefs have given way to very different notions.

As I examine and re-examine long held ideas I find I am becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.  Years ago I needed to know.  The answer was important.  Right and wrong were clear-cut and necessary.  Today, like my hair, I find life is much more grey than black and white.  I more often understand multiple sides to an issue or belief and recognize how often I missed opportunities for connection by holding fast to one side or another. 

There is also value in strong beliefs.  To feel passionate about faith, religion, or some form of source energy gives us a foundation from which to make decisions and guidelines for how to live and what to teach our children.  However, even within this commitment to our faith, I believe there is added value to re-examine and question what we hear, read, and practice.  This self-reflection can help us confirm, adjust, or re-align what matters and prevent us from blindly following the wrong path just because it is so well worn.

As I grow older and recognize that each day matters more to me now than it did when I was younger and invulnerable, I look forward to attempting conversations with my grandchildren about what we believe and what we assume, and what limitless possibilities exist for them as they make choices and the importance for them to continue to challenge those choices.

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The Family I Never Met

I recently received a package from the executor of my brother’s partner’s will.  In the envelope were letters that my dad wrote to my mom during the war when he was stationed on Iwo Jima.  The picture is a photograph of my mom, my dad, and big brother.  It was taken sometime in 1941 or 1942 in my mom’s parents’ house in Pennsylvania.  My dad enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and because of his age, being 32 at that point, he had to get a Congressional appointment because he was officially too old to be called up.  My mom’s uncle, Uncle Ivor, was a sitting Congressman in the voting district they lived in and he wrote the letter for my dad.  I am assuming shortly after this photo was taken Dad left for boot camp.

I spent one entire evening reading through letter after letter that my dad wrote to my mom during the war.  Needless to say , it was a night of tears and questions.  The tears flowed easily and it was a good cry.  The questions flowed equally but there were no answers and no one who could answer them as I am the solitary living person of my family with the exception of my two kids.  I must have stared at that photo for an hour, talking to it as if it was going to answer me.  I looked at their faces, one by one, and didn’t recognize them.  I was more than 4 years away from existence and I was staring at these three strangers.  These were not the people who raised me!  Sure, I recognized the features but the expressions were so different from what I remember.  I look at my mom in that picture and I see a woman at peace, a strong woman who defied her dad and left home to go to the big city and train to be a nurse against her dad’s will.  I see my dad’s picture and I see a young man with confidence and a devilish, mischievous smile on his face.  And then there is my brother, what a cutie!  I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t intensely overweight.  This was his family, mine was different!

I read each letter in chronological order, from boot camp to shipping overseas, to fighting on Iwo Jima to the bombing of Hiroshima. It was like a personalized history of our lives, our country, our world as it existed at war in the 40’s.  The last letter my dad sent to my mom in October of 1945 was written right after his ship docked in California after crossing the Pacific.  All his letters referred to my mom as “Honey” or “Dearest Mary” and all kinds of affectionate terms for my brother.  His last letter ended with a thought I am sure many service men had as they were returning from combat.  He ended it with, “I bet Little Jerry would love to have a baby sister!  We’ll talk about it when I get home!”  I arrived about 10 months after he returned but to their surprise I was not the sister they apparently wanted.

I was born in Bellevue Hospital in NYC where my mom got her RN degree and worked.  We lived in a railroad flat on East 23rd St and 2nd Ave just blocks away from my Italian grandparents.  Several years later we moved out to Queens and my brother would tell me stories about how he had a different dad than the one we have.  He told me that the difference was significant from pre war Dad to post war Dad.  I listened to that for years as my dad developed a drinking problem and mom worked herself nearly to death.  The serenity on Mom’s face was gone and the happy, mischievous smile was gone from my dad’s face.  My brother gained a large amount of weight and the daily grind became arguments over money every night at the dinner table.  They didn’t know a lot about PTSD back then, in fact I think it was referred to as shell shock.  Dad never told stories about the war and rarely shared any feelings he had about going to war.  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew my parents loved me and my mom was the most loving, understanding mother a kid could have.  My dad did things to make my life and my brother’s life better but the affectionate terms they had for each other were gone.  Our extended family members were always telling us how proud my dad was of us but he could never tell us that- we always had to hear it from others.  So when I saw that photo this week a real sense of sadness came over me.  I wished I had known those people in the picture.  I would give anything to see mom’s face light up with happiness or dad’s mischievous smile come over his face.  Life became hard for them, for us!  I can’t help but wonder if the faces would have remained more like the picture if Little Jerry had gotten the baby sister they wanted…….

B4ME

I enjoyed reading George’s story of his parents through the lens of his father’s letters. What a fabulous insight into a time of mass upheaval! It’s easy to understand the fascination with the time before your birth to get a clue about the antecedent conditions. It’s sort of “You – the Prequel”.

I’m imagining that George’s Dad was changed by the war, but also returned to a different environment. Women had joined the workforce in huge numbers and no doubt enjoyed the freedom of choice and self-confidence gained through achievement at work. The post war world integrated returning service men into the workplace, but change was already in play. Perhaps that accounted for some of the differences that George described?

I can share my family’s story in part – with some similarity to George in that it seems hard to form an accurate impression of their hopes and dreams. My mother was raised in a warm, but scrappy Italian family – the youngest of five. My father was also the youngest of five in a single parent family of emigrated Londoners.

Both parents were pre-teen during the Great Depression and grew up with a strong understanding of being without – whether that was food, or simply money. Mom lived in a family enclave a block from Rockaway Beach – her fond memories included the “League of Nations” diversity of her summer friends at the beach. She won the art medal at her High School graduation and hoped to attend tuition free Cooper Union – but that was not to be. Her yearbook comments suggested she was friendly and upbeat – -with the nickname Sunny. She took a job at a Grumman Aircraft and was a literal Rosie the Riveter.

My Dad struggled in a dirt poor environment. He experienced abandonment by his father and the deportation of his older brother to Australia. At thirteen, he was shoveling coal in the school boiler, while his mother worked in the school cafeteria. His high school yearbook comments indicated that he was a science whiz. After graduation, he was also hired at Grumman Aircraft, but took a hiatus to join the merchant marine, rising from machinist mate to Chief Petty Officer during the war. Although he did not encounter enemy fire during WWII, he was shot in the shoulder walking the streets of Astoria as a teenager – and was later shot at by striking maritime workers while in the merchant marine. 

I see pictures of my parents at a roller-skating rink and horseback riding during their courtship – activities that didn’t survive past their marriage vows. Mom and Dad did not have the blessing of their families to marry; apparently, Italians thought the English never bathed – and the English apparently had similar hygienic thoughts about Italians.  So my parents eloped. Things eventually worked out, however: soap was in abundance.

Once married, both my parents worked – all the time. Dad had two jobs until my younger brother was born. Clearly money was tight and there simply was not room for many social pleasures. I sense that was the same for George’s family. 

What I appreciate the most about my parents is that they never allowed their tensions and worries to affect the love they showed my brother and I. They coped. Like George’s father, my folks had hoped for a daughter to add to the family – but they were proud of their sons. All in all, I can only hope to do as well as a parent as they did.

I Wonder…

Unlike my blogging partners, I know little about my parents as partners.  Back in my day, very little was shared with children about family and, I would hazard a guess, there was background information that they wouldn’t mention to many adults as well.

I am the oldest of three children and though I’ve been around the longest, I have little first hand knowledge of my father.  In addition, my mother and her parents felt children shouldn’t be exposed to “adult” matters. There is a strong likelihood that there was wrongdoing and legal ramifications of my father’s actions that likely added to the censorship that I was surrounded by.

My mom had two brothers, one older and one younger.  Her father came to this country from Austria and was a musician.  He made a living by playing the bass in the orchestra at the Waldorf Astoria.  Her mother came from Rumania and worked as a seamstress there as well as where they lived in the Bronx.  My mother grew up at a time when many left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand and young women were expected to become housewives, not college students.  With a musical talent for the piano, my mom was accepted to the Julliard School of Music and secretly attended classes for one year until her father found out and ended her studies.  She met and married my father and had three children.  I wonder what her choices would have been had she had the support of her parents to finish her degree and write her own music with the freedom to use her left hand.  Would she then have developed the confidence to understand that she truly had the right to determine the course of her own life?  Would she have married when she did?  And, from all that I can determine, if she did, it would likely not have been my father.

My father was born of Russian Jewish parents but grew up with them and his older brother in Italy.  His father owned a large shoe repair factory, and his mother, (who was educated as a doctor in Switzerland, but was only allowed to be considered a healer at that time in Italy) apparently enjoyed a well to do life until they were abruptly placed in an internment camp.  My father and his brother and his brother’s wife were able to escape to the United States.  Not having finished a formal education my father used his charm and natural intelligence to make his way.  He was adept at convincing people to trust him and to give him undeserved opportunities as well as loans and investments.  However, he would often take advantage of his benefactors and after moving about from one career to another and one part of the country to another, he ultimately disappeared abandoning all who had known him, including his family.  It has been easy for me to judge him from the standpoint of the effect his actions had on my life and that of my mother and sisters, but I don’t really know what it would have been like to follow his path of survival as a young adult.  He arrived in this country knowing he’d never see his parents again.  His brother had made a life for himself and his wife with little room for my father.  He had no degree, spoke English with an Italian accent and had to forage for his twenty-something self, alone in a foreign land.  I suspect meeting my mother offered a path to citizenship and stability more than the lure of young love.  If he had come to America under different circumstances, these two very different people would likely never have married.  Of course in that case, I wouldn’t be around to speculate!

Regardless, my mom managed to raise three children with successful careers, beautiful families, and more happiness than either of my parents likely experienced.  I’m content to wonder what it would have been like for them under different circumstances but whatever they had to struggle with and whatever choices they made I’m grateful for the role they played in helping me and my sisters get to where we are today.

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Labels

I find it nearly impossible to negotiate in this world without attaching labels.  That labels help us organize and categorize, thus giving us a sense of order, I understand.  It’s the extension of that practice beyond the need for context that causes me to question my reality.

While labels are beneficial they can also negatively impact our ability to objectively enter into a decision about a person or thing.  From an early age, I remember being taught which behaviors were good or bad.  This included labeling a person as good or bad based on their actions or reputation.   Not until middle age, did I soften my opinion enough to question its absoluteness.  I was able to then understand that we all function on a continuum of behaviors and, while some cross the line of what we label as acceptable or not, some are closer to the cut-off than others.  In fact, even if someone fits into my label of good or bad or supports a cause I won’t, the range of differences within that group are often more broad than I would think.  And, the similarities they have with me are also likely greater than I would anticipate.

Yesterday I went to town hall to pay my local taxes.  It was cold and rainy and as I exited the door a man of similar age was entering.  I held the door and said hello and he smiled (at least his eyes did as his mouth was also covered by his mask) and begin a friendly conversation.  As I walked to my car I was quickly reminded of how warm and friendly people are and how this person could likely become a friend if we had more time to get to know each other.  Next to my car was his vehicle with a bumper sticker of the political party I don’t support.  For a brief moment, my perception of him immediately changed.  Then, it got me thinking about how quickly I label people.  What if I had seen the bumper sticker and then met the man.  Would I still see the potential for a friend then, or by grouping him with all the other members of his political party, see that as an impossibility?

For years my business partner and I consulted with school districts and social service organizations.  Part of our work was to help leaders understand and deal with conflict.  In the process we helped participants recognize that even if they had an issue/conflict with a colleague or client, it was usually around a particular behavior or action not with the entire person.  Sometimes we would sketch an outline of a person and then shade in a small portion to illustrate that point.  We hoped to help them understand that the mistake of labeling the whole person as a problem because of a behavior or incident was diminishing their ability to maintain the relationships that were so important in their work and personal lives.  Given a mix of strategies, positive intention, and patience most relationships could be maintained if not strengthened.

As with many things in life, it’s easy for me to understand and even to explain positive principled behaviors.  To consistently practice those desirable beliefs is clearly a work in progress.  Today I’ll remind myself to be more aware of what labels I might use that are unnecessary and replace them with simple observations.  It won’t be the first time I’ve tried and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  And that’s neither good, nor bad!

Tag – You’re It!

Let’s step back from the term “label” for just a minute and substitute the term “metadata”. Sounds more dispassionate. All of us check off little boxes of these attributes – companies have made fortunes using little pieces of information that describe our physical measurements, social affiliations, economic status, spiritual and political leanings, food choices, fashion tastes, and more. Thousands of ways to be assessed.

And we do assess – and make judgments – and rather quickly as it turns out if you’ve read The Tipping Point.  John Hume, the Scottish philosopher, believed that the intellect serves our emotions. And if our passions wish to raise up some while denigrating others, we can use that intellect to select a few specific descriptors to caricature others, as well characterize them. I believe that this is what Hen refers to when he talks about labeling. It’s the root of what some would call profiling – or its sibling by a different parent: cancel culture. Both only need one or two pieces of data to make major assumptions. Tag – you’re it!

Yet each of us has many facets: in any given situation, we could be the goat or the G.O.A.T.; the hero or the jerk; the thief or the benefactor; the lover or hater. Already a lot of labels!  

In my last post, I tried to make a topographical analogy about people: we’re more asymmetric than spherical. We grow unevenly: we feature breath taking mountain views and hide dark crevasses, contain placid lakes and strong ocean riptides. When we make connections with others, we first look for common ground. From that initial vantage, it is easy to assume we know the entire territory – but that would be a mistake. (Now cue in background music from Sting: Nothing ‘Bout Me). The view from 50,000 feet is different than the view from 100 feet. Labelling is the act of retaining the view from 50,000 feet without ever feeling the desire to explore with boots on the ground. The trouble is that the exploration is where all the fun lies.

Label Here, Label There, Label Everywhere

When I was a kid, a teenager, someone got me one of those hand held machines that you could make labels with.  Being a wiseass even back then I went around labeling everything in my house to the chagrin of my parents.  When they lifted the lid there was a label that said, “toilet.”  I labeled our seats at the dinner table.  I even labeled my brother’s Ford (Found on Road Dead) Falcon on the steering wheel.  From childhood we are taught to label things and we are taught that we ourselves have been labeled.  My smart friends in Junior High School in the NYC public schools were selected for SP or special progress completing 3 years in 2.  They were labeled as the smart kids.  My IQ didn’t qualify me for that distinction!  In high school we were labeled “Regents” or “Commercial.” That meant college bound or not.  And our social groups were even labeled.  There were the jocks, the hoods, the beatniks (hippies hadn’t evolved yet) and the clean cut/penny loafer set.  Everyone fit neatly into one of these groups.

All labeling depends on making judgments, placing people into categories that define them. First impressions often categorize people even if it seems too judgmental or spur of the moment.  As a result I grew up being a judgmental adult who feels comfortable compartmentalizing people until they prove me wrong.  It is definitely one of my shortcomings, and I know it.  I chose my friends that way, even courses of study, even the school I was employed by.  All of these decisions depended on my judgment. With judging people, I question myself more than with other decisions.  It is so ingrained in my fiber that it happens automatically and only afterwards do I question if the labeling was accurate or not. 
I have been the subject of much labeling over the years, scaredy cat, momma’s boy, queer, liberal, ad nauseum…  Some labels I wear proudly, some make my skin crawl but all too often I fall back into the old patterns of judging and categorizing before taking the time to evaluate more fully. That’s why I wish I could be more like Henry when it comes to this because most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it!

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Amicus Brief

I’ve been thinking about friendship, particularly since Jack and Gregg commented about the desire to call a group of friends together after this COVID isolation. Friendship — The ancient Greeks had a name for it: Philia – and they held it separate from affection of other sorts: Storge: nurturing love given to children and those dependent upon you; Eros: erotic, sensual love; and Agape: transcendent, spiritual love.

Taken to a deeper dive, Aristotle declared there were three types of friendship: a) utilitarian friendship based on mutual help, b) friendships that involve activity around mutual pleasure or interests – Birds of a Feather friends, and c) friendships built on mutual respect and admiration: shared principles and goals. I wonder if such strict separation is necessary – doesn’t friendship include some or all of those aspects at different times? Maybe Aristotle was off the mark — he also believed that women had less teeth than men. So who is a reliable authority on friendship?

Well, it may be anthropologist Robin Dunbar. His research indicates that the average human has an upper limit on the number of friends that can be maintained. This number tends to be around 150 individuals – and only includes those folks who you know, and in return, know you. This number is widely known as the Dunbar Number. For the purposes of his research, ‘friends’ are defined as “… people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” I suppose that would corral everyone in Aristotle’s a, b, and c – and for some individuals it could substantially increase that upper limit.

Now Dunbar went a bit further. He hypothesized that the energy needed to maintain a friend network of 150 must necessarily cause a person to do some ‘social layering’, that is, to group certain players according to the level of intimacy. The research generally supported the conclusion that one individual usually has an inner circle of five buddies, followed by a grouping of ten mates, then thirty-five old faithful’s, and lastly, the centurion pack of 100 friendly relationships.

Hmm… how many friends were in the Rat Pack? I recall it was Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. There are other notable quintets: the Jackson Five, the Dave Clark Five, the Spice Girls, the Scooby doo gang, and the Cincinnati Gang of Five. Maybe Dunbar is right? But wait, I guess that if you have five people in your BFF chain, then it is really a sextet, counting yourself. Then Dunbar has to be right, because the cast of Friends included Rachel, Monica, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey. Now this is all very difficult to square with the Four Musketeers and Ocean’s Eleven (or twelve, or eight). And what is Rocky VII all about? Very confusing.

Now, I’ve maintained that friends are like asteroids (as opposed to hemorrhoids). There might be 150 of us that kinda fly in the same orbit, tumbling through space/time; sometimes together; sometimes at distance. But more importantly, friends are asymmetric. Each has striking features, majestic promontories and smooth plains. But there are parts of an asteroid that are generally not observed, aspects that are inhospitable, perhaps icy or rough terrain. However, we find some mutually attractive gravity which helps pulls us closer; we celebrate the beauty and help each other maintain stable flight. After all, we are only small entities flying around in a large cosmos. Together we have greater mass … and there is shared laughter in the universe.

And of course, laughter is the key – at our foibles and misadventures; at enjoyment of successes; and mutual discovery of hope after disconsolation. C. S. Lewis wrote this about the joy of friendship and it still rings true:

 “He is lucky… to be in such company [of friends]. Especially, when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us [or six?] after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens up itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”

Friendship, Friendship, Just the Perfect Blendship…

Friend-  the Miriam Webster Abridged dictionary defines friend as “a person one likes.” I don’t buy it, well I did cause it is on my shelf, but what if that person doesn’t like you back? Is that person your friend because you like him/her even if it isn’t reciprocal?   I think the definition of friend is flexible and evolutionary and varies as one ages (or should I say matures?)

As little kids your friends were whoever was out in the street playing ball, especially the kid who owned the ball! Now he was your friend… there were always kids playing in the street when I was growing up.  Our block had probably 20 or so kids of all ages.  You knew them all as well as their parents because you would go ring the doorbell and ask Mrs. Jones politely and respectively if  Johnny could come out and play.  Occasionally there was a kid from the next block who ambled in to join us which was good cause it evened up the sides. 

Then came junior high and we stopped playing in the streets and started listening to music and going to dances and  instead of friends you were part of a clique, and playing in the street was replaced by going to parties in people’s basement on the weekends and hanging out on the phone.  High school brought changes too.  You were part of a group now-  there were the preppies and the hippies and the hoods.  But it was the first time I had a friend who I would confide in and tell serious stuff to. Things were maturing as we were! You’d tell these people about your secrets, girls you liked, things you were mad at your parents about—and relationships were becoming more precisely defined and specific.  You had friends who shared your interests, and friends who you shared your fears with. 

College was when deep friendships developed for me. Feeling things I never felt before toward people developed. Long talks, and confidential sharing  of who we were, cemented these connections.  And then graduation and a whole new world comes at you.  Previous relationships became a little distant as we geographically separated and the focus changed to professional pursuits knowing that if the connections were strong enough those relationships would last through the expansion of locations and interests and ideas.

All the while you never took the time to appreciate  what these relationships provided you. But as the years pile up you begin to value the connections you made and continue to make in a way you never appreciated before. Through your professional lives you accumulate people into your circle, and then they start to retire and once again you are re evaluating, encircling those people who have contributed to your life.  You re-connect with people who were important to you, kids from the street all grown up, teenagers from junior and senior high school, who are in the same boat as you and also reaching out. And as a senior citizen, all of a sudden you finally realize what you have been working toward your whole life. The people who you still call friends know so much about you, share your secrets and your desires and are willing to be there for you!

I am a lucky man. My high school friend is still my dear friend.  She knows a lot about me  and my family that no one else knows. The painful secrets we shared are still confidential but the burden is gone cause it was shared.  The college friends who reconnect at a reunion 50 years later and decide to write a blog reconnect with ease and grow more connected than before. The new friends you met after retirement with common interests brought you together add to your wealth.  Finally you realize the real value of friendship.  The importance knowing there are people out there who care and have your back if needed, is the currency that friends trade in.  It means so much more than anything measured in dollars!  A wise old man once said that a friend is someone who will listen when you need to talk! That wise old man was not Aristotle, nor Galileo nor Zorba the Greek—— it was me!

On Being a Friend

Wal returns to the subject of friendship.  And while we have written about it before, it is indeed, a topic with multiple facets and ever-changing impacts.  I agree with Wal that even though Aristotle categorizes several types of friends, when we’re in a relationship with them, it’s not clear-cut and, I might add, the overlap often enhances the original interest in the friendship.

George challenges the notion that friendship can be a one-way street and talks about the benefits gained by both parties.  This concept is grounded in most of my experiences and makes perfect sense.  Yet, I was in a very close friendship with someone for over thirty years and even though he ended the relationship, I still refer to him as friend.  He was and always will be my friend, even though I am no longer his.  Semantics, perhaps, but friendship often elicits strong emotions and, for me, emotions often determine the status of a relationship.  George also ends with his definition of a friend that reminds me of both sides of friendship.

While we often give much thought to what we look for, desire, and expect in a friend I suspect it’s not as much as we give to being a friend.  I’m reminded of a book written by Dr. Gary Chapman  (author, speaker, counselor, and pastor) entitled, The Five Love Languages – (Quality time, Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Acts of service.)  The notion he puts forth is that of the five ways people often show their love for another, (I will substitute the word caring for the purpose of this post) we typically have one or two that we consider primary. In my case, I know which are most meaningful to me and I tend to give the same ones to those who I care about.

Of course that behavior makes the assumption that what matters to me, must matter to you.  What if, I really like someone and consider us to be friends.  Of course, I’ll want to be there for that person and to let them know that they matter to me.  And what if gifts and words of affirmation are what I need to know someone really cares about me and I give those selfless offerings to my friend who really wants quality time with me more than gifts or kind words?  Over my lifetime I can remember being confused by the lack of response and connection I was feeling from someone to whom I was being extremely caring.  And, the less they were moved by my generosity, the more I increased my efforts.  Duh!  Of course matters only got worse. All of this is to say, that being a good friend means understanding what the other person wants, not what I would want or even what I think they want, or worse, what I think they should want!  Sometimes, I even think to ask what they need from me during times of need or stress.  This is easy to write about but difficult for me to regularly remember when I’m with my friends.  I intuitively offer what I think is helpful, important, or supportive without stopping to think about what they need.  George talks about the importance of listening in a friendship.  I agree completely.  And, even though I might enter into a zoom meeting or a personal interaction with the intention of deeply listening and understanding before I speak, I find it hard not to jump in and even interrupt when I’m reminded of a related story or anecdote.  It’s easy to blame the reduced contact I’ve had with others throughout this pandemic but it still begs the question of how well am I listening and am I being a good friend?

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Evolution of a Recluse

I have always loved to be around people.  Coming from a loud, touchy Italian family I rarely was alone.  Actually I disliked being alone and still do. My careers lent themselves to enabling me to be around people most of the time.  A class full of children or an innful of guests was what was comfortable for me.

After retiring from both I found myself for the first time in my adult life living alone.  But I filled my days and evenings meeting colleagues for lunch or dinner, and going out with friends in the evenings.  Shaking hands, hugging, a slap on the back helped me feel connected.  In my family, a regular conversation included touching at various points for emphasis or emotion. That was part of learning to speak.  All of this helps explain why I have had such difficulty with Covid 19 self distancing and the subsequent isolation it required.  At first it was just uncomfortable.  The touching, hugging, shaking hands was adjusted to a fist bump or elbow tap when accidentally I ran into someone. Awkward, it still provided human personal contact.  As the year progressed we all seemed to withdraw more and more into ourselves.  Loneliness crept in especially at night. From a social being I had become a recluse. From a social society we became a society of hermits. 

As the months of masking and isolating passed, I fell into a routine.  My house became my world.  One day just bled into the next and routine became inertia for me and loneliness slipped into depression.  All I wanted was to be with people again and it is still what I want!  What I need.

Then, last week, my daughter and I were going to pick up food and go to her house and watch a movie which we had been doing once a week for several months.  I looked forward to our movie nights.  But then something came over me.  All that day I was resisting the idea of going out. I didn’t even want to get dressed, the effort to get ready to go out seemed overwhelming.  Suddenly, I didn’t want to make the effort to go.  I just wanted to stay in my chair and watch TV. This was not like me.  The other contradiction I realized was that my house was a mess.  The dust was pretty thick, the newspapers were piled by the door to be recycled but never got into the bin in spite of all the time I had on my hands.    I have become the exact opposite of who I always thought I was. 

I’m smart enough to know depression can do this kind of stuff and believe once this pandemic has eased enough to go back to where we were last February, my Italian traditions and inclinations will return.  I like myself much better as a social insect rather than the spider who sits alone in its web waiting for its next solitary meal!  This too shall pass……..

Now, in an attempt to make this pass sooner, last week I was rummaging around in my basement trying to better organize it.  I stumbled upon (not really stumbled upon but forced myself to climb up on the cement shelf) boxes and boxes of my model railroad stuff.  I think I have mentioned before that that particular hobby was the only thing my brother, dad and I ever did together.  Every Christmas Dad would drag out the platform, claim half the living room floor and set up our Lionel Christmas village. The three of us would be crawling around on our knees arguing over whether the Plasticville church should go near the overhead trestle bridge or near the firehouse.  In an effort to feel a little close to them and as a definite distraction from inertia, I started opening up boxes and smiling at what was inside.  Later in my life I actually had a layout in my house in Woodstock, NY at which time I built structures from models and  from scratch. I built a model of every house I had ever lived in up to that point.  Though I have more exploration to do in those boxes I pulled out some very nice structure kits that got me excited and brought many of them upstairs to the dining room table- a perfect work space since I wasn’t doing any formal dinners at the moment.  Naturally, I had to go and buy some supplies as most of the paint and glue I had used some 25 years ago had pretty much dried up.  I now own a brand new Xacto knife set, multiple use brushes, glues of various varieties  and a plethora of acrylic paint bottles and am in the process of setting up my work space. 

Right now the resistance is… which kit to start first.  I remind myself that inertia is a strong force to be dealt with that requires fortitude to overcome and encouragement, mostly from the dog, to get at it.  That is my primary objective for this week…….to get at it!  I have promised myself that I will beat this inertia!  Could someone give me a little push please?  More to follow!

Nil Desperandum

Don’t despair, George – we’re here to nudge! I recognize the feelings you expressed. When you are under duress, the world gets smaller. A body at rest stays at rest… bits of your repertoire tend to disappear; motivation lags. It’s sort of a confinement syndrome.

The lovely aspect of people is that we are so adaptive. We can even get used to our Covid gulag. It’s easy to lose ambition in the process. 

I appreciate Hen’s point of engaging in a new project and taking satisfaction from projects undertaken. When I’m stuck, I break large problems into small packages. Even if it seems to take forever to overcome some of those issues, focusing on limited “wins” keeps me on the right road and helps me avoid becoming disoriented or overwhelmed. 

It’s important to keep on moving, physically and mentally, particularly at our stage of life. Lately, I’ve been more aware that there is limited time remaining for me to engage in activities that have been taken for granted up to now. That is what is so telling about our constrained period of social interaction during the time of COVID: it has stolen a precious year (and more) from our remaining time.

Even if the task is not something I prefer to do, I encourage myself by saying a prayer of thanks that I’m still able to do it. Small wins. Look for areas of enjoyment and set goals that support some measurable achievement.

And, of course, share your victories with your buddies! 

The Big Test

George captures the feelings of many as we sludge along this unknown path of living.  I expect, at times, we’ve all know what it feels like to be uncertain about our future or the outcome of a path chosen.  In my experience, this occurs infrequently and even more rarely when one or two of my network of supporting friends and family were also in the same boat.  However, as we move into year 2 of the pandemic, it feels like everyone is significantly impacted and in need and, to make matters worse, the timeline for managing it to a point of renewed stability keeps being pushed just beyond our reach.  Truly, we are, together, in uncharted waters.

I also have encountered evidence that I might not be as together and happy as I might think.  The other morning I found myself calmly pouring orange juice into my cereal bowl and, as I watched from what seemed to be another being, realized how long it took for my brain to realize I was in control of my hand and could stop at any point.  Yikes!  And then there was the time I texted a friend to wish her good luck on her upcoming workshop, knowing full well it wasn’t for three more days but simply responded to an incorrect reminder from my iPhone.  Duh!  Last, but certainly not least, is how quickly I can turn from a calm, easy-going mood into anger and upset over meaningless, even laughable triggers.  Yup, George, something is definitely out of whack!

To the rescue comes George’s project.  More than just a distraction from daily sameness, it stimulates old and new brain functions and brings back a purpose that results in joy and satisfaction.  Then, the next time we connect with friends via phone, Zoom, email, or in person at the supermarket, we can replace the distancing conversation of politics or COVID with something that is “new” and that brings an energy to our voice.  

I’ve found the time I’m spending with my GoPro camera learning everything from scratch and the continued culling of stuff I no longer need or want in my house, to offer the same effect.  I look forward to the progress I make each day as well as the related (yet unexpected) activities that spiral outward from this work.  It also lends credence to looking beyond to even bigger “new beginnings.”

As with all experiences, if I am able to step back and look at what I’m going through from afar, I get a more comprehensive perspective.  In this case, when I’m not caught up in the negative emotionality that isolation, sacrifice, and limited choice can bring, I recognize that this is just another test that life presents.  A query of how I can continue to appreciate what I have rather than what I’ve lost, to remember it’s temporary, no matter how long that may be, and to learn from these events so that I will emerge even better prepared for the next test.  So far, perhaps a “B” but hoping for, at least, a “B+.”

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Putting Down Roots – Pulling Up Stakes

Extending the question of self-reflection from our last post, I wonder aloud if I’m still in the right place.

Putting down roots has been fairly clear and straightforward for me.  It took two years of weekends to find the place I now call home.  As soon as I stepped out of the car I was drawn to a nearby deer path that led down to the stream.  Before I set foot in the house, I knew this was where I wanted to live.  This was the place where I would grow old with my wife.  It was to be the place where family and friends visited often and stayed long.  It was the place to joyfully integrate with nature until my dying day.  And, despite an unexpected divorce, it remains a sanctuary for me as well as a retreat for friends and family and pets.

For nearly twenty-one years I have enjoyed this space.  It has healed me when I needed healing, provided joyful celebration when I wanted to celebrate, and has given me nurturance each and every day.  But with every choice for the many things that matter, comes an acceptance of not having all that matters.  And, it seems to me, as I move into this last season of my life that it may be time to exchange this space for one that gives me more access to those other things/people that matter – my children.  

As I seriously consider whether I still want to live out my days here or consider pulling up stakes and moving closer to my family I am both energized and anxious.  Do I leave what I know so well and what has given me so much, in search of being a more integral part of my children and grandchildren’s lives?  Leaving the comfort of what I know and starting over with a new home, new friends, and all the people and services associated with daily living is scary.  Being able to regularly spend time with family, meeting new people, and blazing new trails, is exciting!  

I’m a firm believer that given careful thought and ample time, whichever decision one makes, will work.  How well and for how long it works depends on keeping an open mind and trusting that we have the power to find happiness and fulfillment in all choices.  So, for now, I’ll explore my options by looking at the proverbial pros and cons, consult with family and close friends, and then decide.  I love where I live and I would love to be closer to my family.  Whichever I decide will be good.  

Leaps of Faith

Often major life changes are accompanied by tremendous leaps of faith.  As we go through life sometimes such changes are brought on through careful deliberation with the hope of improving our lives and sometimes they are thrust upon us.  Significant life changes like marriage, divorce, death in the family, moving, retirement and many other things- seen and unseen, can be very traumatic or wonderful and we strive to make the best of them.  In my life, perhaps the biggest life change occurred at the crossroads of several altering events.  I was in a new relationship, my kids had moved out and I was living alone in the big house, I was retiring at the end of the school year after 35 years in the classroom.  Retirement hung heavily around my neck as I pondered what I would do with the rest of my life.  Anyone of these events was stressful enough and combined it was overwhelming.  One day my partner asked if I would like to join him in following one of his dreams.  Since I had none of my own, I took that leap of faith and agreed to take on his dream as my own.  He had always wanted to own an inn!  I listed pros and cons, read up on innkeeping,  It would give us freedom to travel, visit our families, and be productive professionals.  After 35 years of teaching I defined myself as “teacher.”  It was as much a part of me as my name was.  After much deliberation and conversations I jumped in.  I put my house on the market, we contacted realtors who specialized in hospitality and for a year before my retirement we visited 30 or 40 properties all over the East Coast.

I had purchased 4 houses throughout my life and each time I knew the minute I walked into a place whether that was my new home.  Just a feeling I got, a sense of comfort and safety, and yes – style.  Every weekend during my last year of teaching we went looking at real estate.  My house sold quickly and I moved temporarily into an apartment.  One weekend we went to New Hampshire, the next to upstate, NY, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and in the first week of January we spent the weekend in Vermont.  We were pretty discouraged because the places we looked at were lacking mostly a nice place for the innkeepers to live.  We didn’t want to just live in a spare room that wasn’t rented out.  This particular Saturday, we had almost decided that we would give ourselves a break until spring if nothing materialized.  Our realtor took us to the beautiful community of Woodstock, Vermont and brought us to an old farmhouses, built in 1820.  It had been a 300 acre dairy farm but over the years the land was sold off and a small development off the main road was made into a nice neighborhood for about 10 families. The farm house sat right on the main road across from a babbling brook they called a river.  We met the innkeepers who were selling the place and they toured us through the building.  Great place, they had build an addition in 1985 for themselves, finally a place with owners’ quarters and each bedroom had a private bath   This was definitely a possibility.  As they were walking us up the stairs to the guest rooms I was struck by a familiar smell.  I didn’t recognize it at first but then I was thrust back in time to my grandfather’s house in Pennsylvania.  It was a sweet, country air kind of smell and that was it!  I knew this place was to be our inn.  We made an offer, it was accepted only after we stayed for dinner and met the entire family because they wanted to be sure we were the right buyers for their baby!  We all hit it off, they loved us, we loved them and sometime that night it sunk in… What the (expletive deleted)….am I doing?  And  here is where the biggest leap of faith I ever had to take kicked in.  What the hell did I know about running an inn?  I depended on my partner for knowing about the business end of it.  Are there reasons for people to stay here?  what kind of rates would we charge?  how do we handle unhappy guests……. that was his jurisdiction.  SO the remaining months of the school year dragged slowly by until closing over Memorial Day weekend.

Things were hectic for my last month of school ever.  I raced to Vermont every weekend, back to NY every Sunday.  We were learning the trade from the previous innkeepers.  She taught us her recipes, how to clean a bathroom, haw to take a reservation.  It was  un while she was still in charge..  The next leap of faith came after the closing and we were doing stuff to freshen up the place and put our touches on it.  We worked all day and well into the night painting the living room and hallway and staircase one Saturday.  It was a long day, and as it got dark we turned all the lights on in all the rooms so we could see what we were doing.  Just before midnight we were done.  We sighed with relief and went from room to room shutting off the lights and turning down the heat.  We collapsed into bed as I had to return to NY the next day for the last 2 weeks of school.  The next morning we got up and decided to go upstairs to see what the paint looked like in the daylight.  In Room 3, every light was on in the room and the heat was blasting.  I asked my partner if he had gone up during the night..  He hadn’t and I hadn’t.  Odd, yes but these things happen.  I returned home, finished the school year, had my retirement party and moved into the inn full time the next day.  We had a few guests and were learning the ropes.  David did the cooking, I did the cleaning, we both greeted and schmoozed with the guests.  I was cleaning Room 3 one day after a lovely couple left.  I Vacuumed, changed the linens and cleaned the bathroom.  I placed a nice wrapped bar of soap on the sink and a fragrant boxed soap in the shower, finished up and moved onto Room 4..  I had to go back to Room 3 to get the vacuum and noticed that the nice boxed soap was on the sink and the wrapped soap was in the shower.  Was it me?  Was I crazy?  The previous owner was also our Fed EX guy and he dropped off a package that afternoon.  I asked him if anything strange like that had ever happened to them.  He  said, “OH, you mean the presence?”  The presence?  And you are just telling us now?  He assured me the guy was friendly and mischievous.  By this point I was playing leap frog with my leap of faith.  To make a very long story short I grew to like Mr Kole (it had been the Kole Farm) as we were able to identify who he was.  Everyday when I cleaned his room I would talk to him.  He continued to switch soap bars for 15 years, Occasionally gave the guests foot massages in the middle of the night which led to great breakfast conversation, and became a part of the lure of our inn.  People came requesting that particular room.  The point is we took several leaps of faith and became very successful and had a wonderful span of 15 years.  I discovered that being an elementary school teacher and an innkeeper  used pretty much the same skill set. We were selected innkeepers of the Year in 2010 for the State of Vermont and I loved my life there.  Leaps of faith can be wonderful things if you believe in them.  Changes can be exciting life experiences.

Fast forward to Covid 19 and a major life change would be an exciting adventure.  Henry has some exciting times ahead. Right now the most exciting thing to happen to me is when the dog and I run to the window to see who is passing the house!

A Grand Adventure

Hen is not alone in contemplating a move and starting a new chapter in life. What a grand adventure! If you believe that ‘where you sit determines what you see’, then it’s a good practice to change your seat from time-to-time, if only to gain a new perspective. 

In practice, it’s not easy to walk away from an environment that you’ve worked hard to create – and all the memories that are linked to the bricks and mortar you touch every day. In my case, we’ve spent almost fifty years in our home – it was a starter home we never left. In truth, I have a love-hate relationship with my abode. I know we should have shifted gears long ago and left it behind. I guess grad school and work left me distracted… and even a five year stretch of commuting 200 miles a day should have been enough impetus to address a decision to move. But we didn’t and now the starter house fits us again, even as it ages along with us.

The house has a story which is only partially ours. We bought this place from Mr. K. who was 92 at that time. Quite a character. Mr. K. built the house while he was in his sixties for Caroline, whom he then married. A bit of a scoundrel, folklore has it that Mr. K. went afoul of the law for some type of fraud. I know that Mr. K. blackmailed his neighbors into buying some of his property – basically a drainage ditch – by telling them that he was allowing the fire company to install a siren there. People talk about him with a scowl which gradually turns into grudging admiration for his scheming ways. A character you love to hate.

He made his living as an itinerant carpenter and his houses were simple, but overbuilt. If you needed 10 nails to attach a board, Mr. K. used 20. Of course, if you didn’t have a board the right size, well any two pieces might work, even if one had been used as a cement form. He milled his own walnut wood to use as door trim, but left it plain and poorly joined. Not one with an eye for detail, Mr. K.

However, the main point is that I believe that Caroline saved Mr. K. She had long passed by the time we bought the house. He still grieved. Mr. K. cried when he showed us the bedroom where his wife died. Her touches around the house were evident by the old fashioned plantings around the property: bleeding heart, mock orange, honey suckle and lilacs were well established. I think her spirit still imbues the place. He picked up her deep faith and joined a fundamentalist church (many “Jesus Saves” reminders were pinned throughout the house and workshop). Of course, Mr. K. also enjoyed the attention from the church ladies who knew Caroline. 

Caroline’s bedroom is now the kitchen. Walls have been removed to provide a sense of more space in this small building. The structure is a one-and-a half storey cape: balloon construction. The downstairs is plaster over lath, but the second floor was done quickly with knotty pine and beaver board. And yes, Mr. K. actually rented the second floor as an apartment: a unit with kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bath accessible by a separate entrance. A very strange floor plan for a cape cod design.

I’ve spent years reworking the house: every window has changed, siding, decking, enlarged entry porch – all the services. You name it. Woodshed, chicken coops and dog house have bit the dust. The fieldstone barbeque Mr. K. built in the front yard is demolished – he’d be very unhappy about that, since he gathered all the river stone from the trout streams he fished. 

Unfortunately, all of those changes now need a version 3 renewal. Yikes, there are times when I feel like I’m yoked to Mr. K. toiling fruitlessly to further the project he started – and probably with the same limited skill set. Those are the times when I’d like to join Hen and look for a totally new experience! But Hen is a man of action – he will act on the decision that makes most sense. Me, I just like to dream!

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Reflecting on a Lifetime

I have reflected back on my life at several different times.  Taking an honest look at yourself is scary and sometimes dangerous.  As a young kid I often wanted to be anybody else but me.  I saw my friends on the block and was envious for all kinds of reasons.  Stephen and Brian across the street had wealthy parents, Bruce up the block had cool parents, much younger than mine, Adele’s dad was a doctor and I could find a million reasons to be envious.  As I matured that envy morphed from wishing I were them into wishing I could be more like them. This one was 6 feet tall and athletic, this friend was kind and thoughtful.  I wanted to be more like them, a more realistic and mature approach than wishing I were them.

High school and college went by and I was comfortable for a long while pretending I was like everybody else but that pretense had a price attached to it.  I knew I was different  and thought I was the only one.  I pretended way up til my 40’s.  The toll it took was enormous and as the marriage fell apart once again I had to reflect, consider and accept the truth.  I came out at 46 after months of considering and  reflecting.  Knowing full well that if I came out it would have to be all the way out-  to friends, fellow workers, my school district, my kids and they would have to find out from me personally.  It was a tough time, consequences were difficult but surprisingly not overwhelming. Most people said they were wondering when I was going to tell them.  My best friend, over a drink at the Woodstock Pub, asked me when I was going to tell him about my alternative life style. So I did!

Reflecting has always been significant for me!  Just as an aside, to those people who think being gay is a life choice please let me assure you no one would CHOOSE a life style of pretense and denial if there was a choice! Honest!  People of my generation didn’t have a choice!

In spite of all this I have been fortunate.  I had two wonderful careers that I loved, a family to love, I traveled all over Europe, I have had a good life.  I always gave everything I had to my jobs and was rewarded for it.  For that I am truly grateful.  Fast forward 15 or so years and along comes Covid 19.  With so much time on my hands, another opportunity to reflect on my life has arisen. This time it is coming toward the end of my span and with new appreciation for what I have experienced and what I have become as well as with a realistic recognition of how this could be my very last reflection period.  

At this reflection point reality has imposed its heavy hand on an unedited evaluation of a life lived. No more self deception, no more rationalization, just pure and simple honesty.  And surprisingly I have learned some things about myself that surprised me.  As Wally and Henry will tell you, as can just about anyone who is close to me, I am a glass half empty kind of a guy.  That was self defense as a kid and served me well for years to cope with life. Breaking a life habit that was a shield for years is difficult.  But I don’t need that anymore.  I have to stop now before I react to anything and consider how I want to perceive things.  I indeed have a choice!   Yell at me if you catch me falling back.  Life is generally good and before Covid my life was comfortable and fun. I have also been quick to judge and not very forgiving but I have noticed in roads in these categories as well-  unless you hurt an animal or a child  and then you are dead meat to me. But probably the most unrecognizable feature I have noticed in me is patience.  I miss being with people in person.  I miss shaking hands, hugging, patting on the back, kissing on the cheek.  No Zoom meeting can replace that.  I miss sharing meals with friends, and I miss laughter.  LAUGHTER! Living alone I realize that sharing something amusing or comical with another person makes it funnier, and I guess that is true of a lot of things, like seeing a beautiful sunset, or a parade passing by with another person makes it more beautiful or more patriotic.  But what I realize now, is that I can wait for a better time when I once again can shake a hand, share a secret, giggle over some silly thing and the joy that it will bring me will be intensified because of the void we have been forced to experience.  I will be a better person for it….I will feel more compassion, more empathy, more alive because these things have been denied me for almost a year now. Reflecting is hard work!  It makes us accept our shortcomings and file away our accomplishments. Life will be so much richer when this is over!  Patience……

Could sure use a hug now!

2020 Hindsight

George challenged us to write about what we learned about ourselves in 2020 – and here I’ll include  the horrific events of Dec 37th.  Each of us wrote without seeing the others’ responses. It will be interesting to see if our thoughts intersect.

I worked at my son’s restaurant most of the year – thirty hours a week washing dishes and scouring pots and another six doing accounts payable/bookkeeping operations. Last year, via a dozen webinars, I learned to talk PPP, EIDL, and PPE grant language. From this experience, I determined that I have a strong aversion to filling out government forms – but that’s neither original nor meaningful.

Instead, I’d like to share three conclusions about myself that became clear during the time of COVID:

1. My color is now gray. Once, my color might have been wide-open blue or deep green the shade of the holly leaf. Gradually it had morphed into a warm chestnut brown – at times even a burnt orange. But now it’s gray. Johannes Itten, the Bauhouse color theorist, said that in equilibrium, our brains resolve the sum of all colors to gray. Gray is peaceful and soothing. 

This has been a tough year. While trying to keep a heartbeat going in our business, my wife Linda almost relinquished hers. We’ve lost more friends this year (although not to COVID) than would have been imagined. It’s almost as if this past year offered incentives to give up the ghost.

Now, entering a new year, I don’t feel isolated, lonely, or depressed; just beat-up. I need healing and the soothing power of gray.

2. I have stopped taking things for granted. This year banged hard on the reset button. COVID pressure per square inch has squirted excess emotion in unpredictable directions. Imagine people being murdered for requesting facemask usage; police stations burned; swarming the capital of the US. We’ve witnessed a storm surge of acting out. Not to mention that it was a bad year to be a statue.

It’s doubtful the social environment will simply revert to what it had been pre-COVID. Competing ideas always result in a new thought profile. Can’t un-ring the bell. That’s dialectic, baby! We synthesize and move on. Now is not a time to take anything for granted.

In a way, this is healthy. We have the freedom to rethink… which leads to my last conclusion.

3. I need to empty and refill my cup: The question is not whether the cup is half empty or half full – or even whether the cup is overflowing. The question is what is in the cup. I have come to appreciate that I have spent a lifetime both fashioning my cup and refining my drink. It’s time to analyze how I take nourishment.

My cup often contained a measure of anger and judgment when life didn’t offer me what I wanted. A dose of entitlement, preconditions, and control confused a clean aftertaste. While I won’t completely eliminate those ingredients, I intend to add a bit more acceptance, humor, love, and gratitude in the mix. I’m also looking for that small bottle of wonder that used to provide the high notes.

 In order to do this, I need to empty my cup, so that it may be filled once again.

Reflections During COVID-19 Restrictions

Many of us are living in the great “Pause.”  For me this means an interruption in the everyday, automatic, often, unconscious way of going about our daily lives.  George encouraged us to take advantage of this shift and to consider what we’ve learned about ourselves.

In some cases it is more of an affirmation of what I thought I knew about myself rather than a wide-eyed epiphany.  I’ve always loved spending time in nature, especially in the woods.  Given that I spent more time there this year than in my last ten years, I can verify that, yes indeed, I love the serenity, exercise, and fresh air it provides for me.  Encore!

I also reaffirmed how important family and good friends are to me.  It has given me the impetus to make time to be even closer to them.

I learned that I could do without much of what I thought was necessary and still be in a positive and often happy state of mind.  As I continue to discard items from my closets, basement, and garage, I realize that I no longer need what I felt was important.  Lightening the load helps me feel freer.

I’ve learned that more time at home provides me with opportunities for developing new habits.  I have gone from occasional grilling to preparing relatively sophisticated meals in ten months.  I went from finding any meal preparation a burden to looking forward to cooking dinner.  I’m surprised but happy to realize that I still have the capacity to make significant changes in my outlook on things I believed would never change.

I’ve also learned to develop a more critical eye when listening to the news.  The inherent bias of most major television news networks rings loud and clear. Having time to really listen and think about what was reported has given me some pause to consider whether I am as open as I thought I was.  Now that I can more easily separate out judgmental comments and derogatory remarks made by newscasters who promote my viewpoint, I can better monitor my own dialogue.

Finally, I can say that I’ve discovered my capacity for greater patience.  Now, I’m not saying I’m a patient man.  However, I am more patient than I was last year.  The question remains, will I maintain this more desired state, or will I relapse when the more rapid and busy pace of life returns? 

Overall I’ve learned that I can have a smile on my face and in my heart whether I’m out and about or in isolation.  So far, I’ve been able to accept what is and still be content.  Knowing that this is temporary helps.  I prefer to look at this year of pandemic restrictions as a test that I’ve been studying for my whole life.  Luckily, I’m the only one who decides how I did.  And then I can begin preparing for whatever next test comes along. 

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It’s Time

We have been trying hard to turn the page of the calendar to a new year, but the bad karma of 2020 wants to linger. The unimaginable events of Dec 37 makes you wish we could skip ahead in time – or go back and change decisions. Usually, when I think about time, it’s from the vantage point of examining time as a commodity, as in, ‘wish there was more time for this or that’. Time usually seems in such short supply. Don’t you wish it could be mined and saved in a repository like a bitcoin?

What really is the nature of time? Can we suspend time, reverse it, or experience an alternate timeline? I don’t have the chops to figure this out — we need a quick trip to wiki! George is going to hate this, but I‘m going to need citations.

Reworked detail from the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

There are a number of definitions that can be found on the web. Some take the easy way out: time is what is measured by a clock, and so forth. Others approach time as a fundamental quantity, experienced as a sequence of events. Hen sent George and me an article which defined life as change. Is change also the essence of time as well: Time = Change? Simon and Garfunkel sang about the “leaves that are green turn to brown” – is that a function of a life cycle – or simply time? Does life depend on the action of time? Some philosophers, including Anne Conway believe that. In the 17th century, she put forward a view that life cannot exist without time… and that time is change.

Stephen Hawking* wrote a book, A Brief History of Time. He concluded that the arrow of time only moves in one direction: forward. In fact, he identified three arrows of time:

  1. Psychological arrow: the inexorable flow of existence – a sequence of events
  2. Thermodynamic arrow: the sense that in a closed thermodynamic system, time is represented by things losing coherence or degrading; the entropy of green leaves turning to brown
  3. Cosmological arrow: time was only introduced at the big bang and is measured by the continued expansion of the universe. If that’s true, then time may not be infinite.

If time is not infinite, what happens when time ends? Could it be that there is an eternal ‘Now’? If life is change, can life exist in an eternal Now? A great deal of meditative discipline is devoted to the goal of being ‘present’ and attuned to the NOW. Where does Now exist? The 6th President of the US, John Quincy Adams, wrote in The Hour Glass:

“…Time was – Time shall be – drain the glass –

But where in Time is now?”

Heidegger used the term “Dasein”, meaning that while we are all in the present, we are simultaneously anticipating and planning for the future. And if you consider that technically, our nervous system has a built-in delay in reacting to stimuli, our ‘present’ is already an artifact of history. The Now balances on a knife-edge.

Not only is time a finite quality, according to physicists, time is also relative. Einstein described it as follows:

“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

Dr. E continued that time is affected by gravity, which can bend space-time and slow it down. That is why time proceeds faster at the top of the Eiffel tower, than at its base. Experiments are in process to physically slow time, as well as to measure its speed across quantum particles. These experiments are closely connected to properties of light. One such experiment recently measured the speed of light in zeptoseconds — one millionth of a second. This approach may change our lexicon:  “In a New York Zepto”, or ‘just a zepto, Honey, I’ll be right there’. This could put “one Mississippi” in a bad spot.

However, I’m more interested in the experience of time – Hawking’s psychological arrow. Mainly, I view it as island hopping – from memory to memory. There are no objective time distances among these memories: some old memories seem vivid and close by, while other more recent memories have faded. Research suggests reasons: heightened emotional states can alter a person’s perception of time passages. George wrote about this in an earlier post, As Time Goes By; that for him time is measured in events – not necessarily in a linear progression. He’s in the same line of thought as Heidegger, who felt that time can only be understood as events in the past and only from the perspective of a fixed lifespan. I’d agree that time is only experienced in the rear view mirror of memory. Because so many moments are simply repetitions of daily tasks, they are completed with little ‘present’ attention. So when we talk about ‘being present’, what does this mean to you?

*Funny anecdote about Hawking. He decided to prove time travel was impossible by hosting a time travel party, but sending invitations after the event. Since no one showed up, he jokingly “proved” that the arrow of time cannot be reversed.

Time, Time, Time is on my Side

I’m trying to think of a way to define time without using the word “time.”  I’m not smart enough.  It is a measurement of the passage of WHAT? I can tell what it is measured in-  seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, centuries, eras, ions…..but that doesn’t help with the definition.


My perception of time is more based on experiences in my life. Time doesn’t appear to be a standard measurement.  An hour today is much shorter than it was in my youth.  A day used to be an eternity when I was in grade school but now it goes by so quickly that sometimes I feel I get up in the morning and the next thing I know I’m climbing back into bed.  I find it is variable from day to day.  Some days I can’t find enough time, or there’s all the time in the world and I can take time or I have time to give. Sometimes I’m ahead of time or it’s about time.  Time is very flexible and isn’t consistently the same unit.


Time can be evaluative.  I had a good time last night or I had a great time or even I had the time of my life!  OR, I wasted my time, I had a bad time , or I had the worst time ever!  When I evaluate my time I divide it into sections: childhood, college,  marriage, post marriage, retirement, future. I can evaluate each section. College and retirement are in the time of my life category.  Where other sections were good to great, and fluctuated therein. Fortunately, my bad times faded as good times replaced them. 


That’s another aspect of time-you can do things with it.  You can waste time, spend time, share time, you can even take time and even do things in timely fashion.  Time has a mind of its own.  It can lapse, drag, fly or be sensitive or even stand still, and sometimes it is even on my side, yes it is!  And time is even different from one species to another.  At the end of a year I am a year older but my dog is seven years older, whew!


I guess the point is we can’t live without time.  Try to count the number of times in a day you say the word TIME.  Sometimes you are referring to the scientific definition of time but more often used in different contexts: on time, in time, overtime, time and a half, once upon a time, time capsules, times up, yada, yada. OMG, I’ve had too much time on my hands!  It’s bedtime anyway…

On Time…

Wal has given me so much to think about in his presentation of time.  It seems, as we grow older that its passage gives us pause to reflect upon it more and more.

For me, it is no longer the commodity it once was.  Working full time took, well, lots of time.  As Wal mentions in his piece, there never seemed to be enough time.  Never enough time to get all the work done; to be an attentive parent/partner, or to adequately care for my emotional and physical health.  As I got older I slowly moved from wanting to “find” more time, to realizing I needed to “make” more time for the things that mattered most.  But still, there never was enough time.  But now, mostly retired, single, and easily enjoying my completely independent children, I have all the time I need.  Upon my retirement, I remember being asked by a colleague, what I’m doing differently with more time on my hands.  “I can now change a light-bulb as soon as it goes out!” I replied.  The hurried world I created in which every waking moment was accounted for, was no longer.

I like Wal’s comment regarding living in the now;  “Our present is already an artifact of history.”  I agree.  Now is only here for that Zeptosecond before it’s behind us.  However, can we not flow with the now?  Isn’t our quest for mindfulness and awareness staying with where we are for as long and often as we can?  The present always becomes the past but, not falling prey to thinking of what just past, can keep us one step ahead, in the present.

I had another thought about the notion Wal brings up from Heidegger’s explanation that time can only be understood as events in the past.  Does this preclude the impact anticipated time (imagined time in the future) can have on us in the present?  According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it.  Perhaps the perception of time that hasn’t yet occurred but has had a measurable impact on one’s present life, can expand its understanding beyond past events.

As to the speed of time passing more rapidly for us when we’re older, some research suggests that over time the rate at which we process visual information slows down.  Thus, we end up interpreting less information than we did when we were kids.  As a result it feels like we get to the end of the day faster than we used to.  The March 2019 blog from Harvard University entitled:  No, Its Not Just You:  Why time “speeds up” as we get older, explains this in more detail.  I also remember reading that the more we remain habituated to our daily routines the more quickly we get to the end of our day.  But, if we seek to insert new and creative challenges into our lives, the more the brain has to consciously process and our days seem longer, time seems to slow down.

On a related note, I want to recommend a wonderful four-minute movie created by artist and musician, Prince Ea.  He puts time in perspective by overlapping the 4.5 billion years the Earth has been in existence with the approximately 140,000 years of mankind.  If we were to consolidate that into a 24-hour period, we will have been around for 3 seconds!  The video is entitled, “3 Seconds.”

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t include my relationship with being on time.  I never was.  I would usually leave for an appointment at the latest possible moment and then hope against hope that nothing would hinder or slow me down.  Life almost always does!  I was late for meetings and late picking up my children, and when I did arrive, I was usually stressed. One day, someone who also kept a calendar with a very busy schedule told me to write down the time to leave, so that I would arrive fifteen minutes early.  Problem solved!  I’m almost always where I need to be with time to spare and in a much more relaxed frame of mind.   

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Questions for Reflection

One year ends, another begins.  

According to Wikipedia a New Year’s resolution:  “is a tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere, but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person resolves to continue good practices, change an undesired trait or behavior, to accomplish a personal goal, or otherwise improve their life.”

While the intentions are sincere, more often than not, people find they are unable to sustain the quest to change and the resolution is dropped, reduced, or entirely forgotten.  As a result, it appears that people of my vintage no longer make promises to themselves. One T-shirt I recently saw captured this notion:  2021 – Eat, Sleep, Fail my New Year’s Resolution, Repeat! Another stated their goal simply and clearly:  First Rule of 2021 – Don’t Talk about 2020!  (Yeah, Good Luck!)

However, I like the idea of looking back over the year to consider what worked and what didn’t and then making a plan for moving forward.  Perhaps asking myself some questions might give me the foundation from which to be more successful in my commitment to change.

Question:  What do I want to get rid of?

I’m tired of feeling defeated, deflated, angry, and surprised when I expect life to be fair!  I’m tossing that out and replacing it with fairness as a preference but not an expectation.  If I can remember to chuckle or say, “Isn’t that interesting!” when something turns out unfairly, I might have a chance!

I’m concerned that my children will be forced to sort through all of my “stuff” when I’m gone.  I’m going through file drawers and basement shelves each week and am throwing out, recycling, and donating.  A secondary benefit of less clutter and more room is also appealing.

Question:  What do I want to do more of, less of, and keep the same?

I want to spend more time laughing.  I need to spend more time with people who are uplifting, sincere, energizing, and enjoy a sense of humor!  Applications are now being taken!  Grumps need not apply.

I want to feel more of the creative energy and sense of purpose I used to get from my work.  Recently, I had a conversation with my granddaughter about creating a video collection of daily, interesting experiences.  She is interested in working remotely with me on the artistic and editing end of it.  What a wonderful opportunity to kick off the New Year in a joint venture with Kylie!  Delicious!

I want to spend less time agreeing to situations that drain my energy.  Warning!  If I say no to you for something you may request, I’m really saying YES to me.  

I want to maintain the time I now spend communicating with my children.  (Due to COVID, we talk and FaceTime more than ever before!)  Amen!

Do you have an “end of year” question to suggest?

Nevermind!

Before addressing Henry’s questions let me preface this by saying that I always approached New Year’s Resolutions in the same way I gave up stuff for Lent.  As a kid I thought I was so clever giving up homework, peanut butter (which always made me gag), Brussel Sprouts, and the like as sacrifices for Lent.   If you are going to give something up, give up something you were supposed to do but hated doing!  Makes sense, right?  My resolutions were similar.  Mostly they were things I promised I wouldn’t do anymore in the new year.  And I would pick things I hated to do.  In the new year I am not going to make my bed cause I can use the time much more pleasantly, or I’m not going to clean the garage cause I have too much stuff to store in the house and it has go somewhere.  In general, I never thought of these things as ways to improve myself but rather ways to get out of doing stuff I hated.  That served me well as a young adult but alas I, too, had to grow up and with growing up comes the nagging nuisance thought of improving yourself, being responsible and mature. Acting like an adult can be very draining.  One last thought before answering these adult, mature, personal improvement questions is that Henry may not want me for a friend anymore because on my application form it will admit grumpiness is part of my make up!  Ggrrrrrr!

There’s a lot of stuff I want to rid my life of.  Definitely clutter.  For years I’ve collected things. Things that mean something to me but not to those near me.  What will happen to that all?  And that is stressful to think it will all wind up in the dump.  Stress!  The question is for a person who is a habitual stresser, what things could I do to reduce it.  I would prefer if it would just go away rather than my having to do something to cause it’s exit.  Drama, I have two kids so it is hard to eliminate drama which just leads to more stress!  Covid, I’m doing my part but not sure it is working to eliminate the disease which causes me more stress yet again.

There are things I’d like to do more of in 2021.  For years I was an avid model railroader.  It was the only thing my dad, brother and I ever did together.  I have collected mounds of paraphernalia- trains, structures, everything all neatly stored in my basement but the hobby has progressed technologically well beyond my capabilities.   I would love to set up a layout again and play with my trains.  I’d like to write more and make my voice heard.  I’d like to be the perfect dad ( wait, that takes real effort).  And I’d like to get some things accomplished at my house which requires organization, money, and planning, 3 more things I’m not very good at which just causes me more STRESS!

I am truly grateful for the relationship I have with my kids, I have friends who sustain me and actually tolerate my quirks and sense of humor, and I have a constant canine and 2 feline companions that have been with me throughout this entire Covid journey.  I am truly thankful for these things.  

So what do I resolve to do to improve ME in this coming year?  Wait a minute…..last  year I resolved not to make anymore New Year’s Resolutions this year!   Nevermind……

Best Foot Forward

I admire Hen – if he says it, he will do it. His goals for 2021 are bound to be achieved! On a less reliable note, here goes a shot at his very good questions:

Question:  What do I want to get rid of?

First, I share Hen’s desire to prefer life to be fair, but on the other hand I believe that we should continue to press for fairness as an expectation. If we all can imagine it and believe it, I suspect we can tip the scales to get closer to that end result. Sure, we will be disappointed now and again. However, keep in mind that fairness does not mean that there is always a happy ending – or even an ending, for that matter. I think of it as a never-ending thread in the warp and weft.

So what do I want to get rid of? Well, off to Hen’s second point: clutter. Now, if you have ever visited Hen, you realize that clutter is a relative concept. He is so neat and organized that I have a hard time picturing what he is sorting through. You want clutter – I’ll show you clutter!

Among other things, I hoard wood. Slabs, crotches, burls, spindles, blocks or all kinds. All air-drying for potential projects. Beautiful specimens of huge black cherry butt logs, walnut, flame box elder, osage orange, buckeye, kingwood, coyote wood — A to Zed: afzelia to ziracote. I am a wood ho’(arder). My aim is to clear out the excess wood under tarp and under roof and send it to Hen, so he really has something to sort through! Truly, I will reduce the dragon’s treasure of wood in 2021.

Question:  What do I want to do more of, less of, and keep the same?

More: 

  • Stay in touch: If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s not to take anything for granted. I’m not alone in losing – or almost losing – friends and dear ones. Strangely, only one loss was to COVID, but this season makes every loss more tangible. So, my desire is to stay in contact with those I care about and be more present and engaged. Left to my own devices, I would normally just stay busy and let the world pass by.
  • Continuing that thought: I tend to believe that while we all are the main characters in our own screenplay, sometimes we forget that at best, we are simply character actors in other people’s movies. In 2021, I’d like to do a better job of performing a supporting role in some wonderful stories.  
  • Creating: Linda and I find we are happiest when we are making things. I think for both of us, it’s a calling vs. a preference. Collaborating with my wife is a win-win! A must-do for 2021.
  • Last, I will work hard to attain an “attitude of gratitude” each day. Starting each morning, I will focus on three things for which to be grateful – and not the same three each morning. I won’t get out of bed until these are visualized.

Less:  (correspondingly, less elaboration)

  • Less time imagining every worst outcome. Boy, does that sap energy. 
  • As above, less time overly planning and constructing narrow definitions of success. Less time building mental labyrinths.
  • Less sedentary activity. Humans are meant to move.

Same:

  • See the humor in this existence. I can be intense at times, but the saving grace is always humor. Who could invent some of the situations in which we find ourselves enmeshed? Regarding many of today’s items of obsessive focus, I continue to ask myself, “Who will remember this in 50 years?” If the answer is ‘no one’, well then, ease up.
  • Stay in balance: life IS change – no two ways about it. We experience new terrain every day. When we walk on uneven ground, we shift our weight, juke left or right – but maintain our balance. There’s no telling what new contingencies will be introduced in 2021, but maintaining balance is the key.

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Merry Griping

When Christmas and Covid intersect it brings out some strange feelings and reactions. Reflection usually is nostalgic for me.  Pleasant memories waft through my mind.   Smells carry me back to the warmth of grandparents and holidays and the intersection of both those things!  Favorite past times rush back and desire wells up inside me wondering why I stopped doing them. 

But the intersection of Christmas Blvd. and Covid Ave. bring up less reassuring feelings and I want to get things off my chest. Odd even for me at Christmas. Things are annoying me.  They crop up every year around this time and for probably 50 or so years I have stuffed them away but now I want to say them, get them off my chest.  Let me dive into my point….”Keep Christ in Christmas.”  We have all heard this or read it assuming that the X is a way of eliminating Christ from the most revered of Christian holidays and cheapening it.   Somewhere along the way I heard the derivation of Xmas and asked my friend Siri to tell me again.  She confirmed my belief that it does not remove Christ from his own birth!  It seems it was first used in the year 1021 by a scribe.  Back then, parchment was scarce and expensive and because the name Christ was written frequently he came up with a way to abbreviate it.  Greek was the language of the New Testament and X was the Greek letter “chi” which was the first letter in the Greek word for Christ.   The scribe used  X to stand for Christ.  So for a thousand plus years the X has been misunderstood and therefore Christ is in Xmas and in our hearts if we believe.

What about this so called war on Christmas?  Are you afraid to say, “Merry Christmas” or is it politically incorrect?  Hardly!  If I know someone celebrates Christmas I always say, “Merry Christmas.”  If I know they are Jewish I wish them a Happy Hanukkah.  If I don’t know their religious history I will say,  “Happy Holidays,” out of respect.  I remember years ago my parents would send out Christmas cards but to their non-Christian friends the term back then was, “Seasons Greetings.”  It was an acknowledgment of the fact that other people celebrate holidays different from our own.  Nothing political about it!  Respectful, thoughtful, all inclusive!

One last gripe.  For years as a school teacher I would hear how the public schools took prayer out of school and it had dire effects on education.  That, too, is a falsehood.  Prayer was not prohibited in school.  Just the open recitation of a prayer from one specific religion was done away with.  When I student taught my cooperating teacher made the class stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. That was years after that practice had been abolished.  I wonder how the Jewish or Islamic kids in those classes felt reciting such a prayer.  Probably no different from the class standing and  reciting a Jewish or Islamic prayer would feel  to a Christian child.  I was never very religious but spiritual and prayed all the time in school.  I have to admit sometimes it was to please make the day be over quickly or even pray that tomorrow would be a snowday. I know that kids prayed at their seats when they were taking a test or as in my case in gym class that I wouldn’t get picked to be on a basketball team or something!  No one was ever told they couldn’t pray in school! EVER!  Ok, I’m praying now that I will regain my more positive feelings for Christmas now that I verbally regurgitated these long standing complaints.  

Incidentally I read somewhere that there are about 14 religious holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so Happy Holidays doesn’t sound so bad!

Whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year may they be peaceful and enjoyable, happy or merry, but may they lead to a hell of a better new year!

War with the Newts

The first thought I had after reading George’s piece was: Here we go – War with the Newts. This is a dark satire written by Karel Capek just prior to WWII. In a nutshell, humans discover a breed of intelligent salamanders and the book highlights how our unique ability for quarrel and aggravation turns an opportunity into disaster.

There are whole industries based on whipping up contention. Aren’t you tired of the talking heads braying about real or manufactured issues, with less an eye toward solution, than toward retweets or ratings increase? I am. It’s time to give the drumbeat a rest. Let’s heal.

I view this time of year as an opportunity to celebrate the wonder of an existence that depends on faith, because we don’t have all the answers. In fact, I celebrate the faith journeys of any point of view that focuses on achieving harmony. If you focus on the joy, there’s less room for the gripe, Grinch — no Rant-a-Santa. 

It’s a question of balance. As a person following the Christian path, I embrace all the non-religious aspects of Christmastide. After all, it’s a great social occasion – and has had its ups and downs (check out History Channel’s Christmas Unwrapped: the History of Christmas).  Christmas, the holiday, fosters goodwill and generosity of spirit. Good things! Since Christmas has secular and commercial acceptance, some states have even pushed for resolutions renaming their Christmas trees ‘Holiday trees’.

However, since parchment is not an issue, I will still write out ‘Christmas’ and refer to our tree as a Christmas tree. It has nothing to do with Chi-Rho, or Constantine’s dream of military victory (i.e., “in hoc signo vinces”). Rather, it helps me focus on the fact that Christmas is a holy day, as well as a holiday. Shorthand ‘Xmas’ is what I associate with ‘XmasSale!!!’  It’s a preference to avoid a commercial connotation, nothing more.

In addition, I will share the joy of Christmas with my friends, who are diverse enough and nuanced enough to appreciate this is a special time and accept the greeting as it is meant.

Merry Christmas to All! 

Happy Holidays!

While I personally don’t find the challenges George raises as significant concerns, I do agree with his approach to greeting others during the holiday season.  Essentially, if you know what they celebrate, name it, if you don’t, wish them a happy holiday.  It feels respectful, inclusive, and thoughtful.  

As a child, I celebrated Chanukah.  And, while I lived in a neighborhood where fifty-seven of the sixty families celebrated Christmas, salutations of “Merry Christmas didn’t offend me.  However, when kids who knew I celebrated Chanukah, said Merry Christmas to me, I felt more ignored or dismissed than included.  And those who made a point of saying Happy Chanukah or Seasons Greetings gave me a recognition and a visibility that felt like it was okay to be different.  It was never a huge issue to me.  It was just learning how to cope when you are in the minority.

I appreciate the good will that abounds around this time of year.  Gifting lifts the spirits of both the giver and the receiver.  Greetings and smiles (although masked this year) and holiday music wrap me in a warm and joyful feeling.  I am thankful for all those who make an effort to bring a bit more joy and connection to their daily interactions and hope they feel the same from me.

I wish you all a most Joyful and Healthy Holiday and a very Happy New Year!

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Words: A Prolegomenal Disquisition

English — you have to love it!  The title comes by way of WordGenius, a daily feed of words you never knew existed — and may never have a chance to use.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to use “thousand dollar words” in order to expand our vocabulary. I still love to collect such words — they are fun!. Considering inflation, thousand dollar words in the 60’s are probably ‘hundred thousand dollar words’ today. Are they worth knowing — or using? Like rare stamps, some words are treasures, but not meant for the daily mail.

In fact, words can be temporal: usage waxing and waning — or in fact changing. For example, within 100 years the term ‘tory’ morphed from describing an Irish ‘bandit’ to describing a conservative member of parliament!  The popular use of slang, like carbon dating, can place a word squarely in a timeframe. Today’s lol was yesterday’s belly laugh. BTW, isn’t it time for lol to FITS (fade into the sunset)?

It’s no coincidence that groups of words are called passages — a conveyance for understanding. However, choice of words can create distance and draw more attention to the author than to the subject. A learned pastor — and excellent speaker — I know used to rail on about people who ‘bloviate’ and inserted the word frequently in sermons.  Whether you find this ironic or irenic will say a lot about your communication philosophy!

Yet at times, arcane words do fit the need. ‘Mellifluous’ sounds like what it is — and it’s easy off the tongue. Unfortunately ‘ratiocinate’ sounds like the starter is failing in your car. So, I must confess a bias: a preference for words with lots of vowels vs. the chitinous sound of consonants clicking together.

Words can speed progress or slow you down to a crawl — try again to read the fine print and boilerplate in legal documents. After reading hundreds of scholarly articles in professional life, I grew a bit tired of third person passive, densely packed language. It’s not that written discourse needs to be pointed to the lowest common denominator, it’s just that reading — and then rereading — passages seems inefficient. Lately, if I invest time in reading (or listening), I’d like to get to the point, particularly if the information appears useful. So, accessibility is key.

Accessibility is important, but so is precision. No one benefits by vague descriptions that declare people or efforts are “fantastic”, “beautiful”, or “nice” (or nasty). Some politicians prefer that type of 50,000 ft. explanation, but other than providing a blue or pink litmus test, what do you really learn? Descriptions long to be clothed elegantly!  Why are results ‘fantastic’, the person ‘nice’, the program “beautiful”?

If I were to give my grandchildren advice, it would be: choose your words to suit the subject, the audience, and the medium. Mutual understanding is the aim. Realize that words have their moment. Don’t be afraid to show off a special word, if it is a precise modifier — but a little goes a long way. Conversely, verbal shortcuts or initialisms may be a long-term trend, but consider the depth of information conveyed. Verbal shortcuts are your acquaintances, but your real friends are words that make your thoughts come alive.

Parting Words. Food for thought: what is the word you would most like to hear initially — and the last word you would like to hear? (Mine — for both — might be “welcome”). What’s yours?

The Spanish Disquisition

I must admit I had to reread Wally’s piece a second time with my dictionary just to figure out the title.  True confession…my title has nothing to do with what I am writing.  Just a play on words.  Words have always been a favorite of mine.  I’m generally good with words, hmm…. does that mean I know a lot of them or perhaps I’m just kind to them when they are struggling?  Interesting conundrum!  Well at least to me it is.  To you it may be neither interesting nor a conundrum, if you catch my drift.  Drift being used in the slang sense,  not being pushed around by the wind. OMG I am very confused.  I have to clear my head- what the heck does that mean?  If I clear my head what happens to my nose and eyes?  Where do these expressions come from?


Words develop over time as Wally said.  Can you imagine George Washington telling Martha that Mt Vernon needs WiFi or tech support for their computers? So new words have to be invented as society progresses.  “Martha, you are interfering with my digital networking!  I’ll burn the garbage later!” 
Each day in my classroom for many years I would write a new word on the blackboard with its definition  before the kids arrived.   The kids knew they would get extra points if they used that word in their speech or writing that day.  “The Word of the Day” became popular and sometimes kids would bring in words for me to use.  


My brother and I growing up in Flushing  invented words for specific situations.  Goodhumerical, an adjective used to describe a hot summer day when a nice ice cream bar from the Good Humor truck was in order started our private word development.  He and I developed quite a few adjectives to describe many of our relatives.  “Nissengnat” was how we would refer to our uncle from the Bronx because he would always finish his sentences with the expression, “ and this and that….” but with his heavy Bronx accent it came out as, “And nis an nat.”  My brother used to tell me I was being cataclusional, when I would come to a cataclysmic conclusion as I usually did about most things.
So I too always thought of words as being fun.  And the combination of words into phrases even more enjoyable.  I’m feeling very scatter brained as I write this rejoinder today.  Does that mean parts of my brain have been scattered around my house? Maybe, like Maria, who the nuns couldn’t even deal with, I’m just a flibbertigibbet!  I have no idea where that word came from derivatively speaking!   Not sure how you speak derivatively but it just rolls off your tongue, actually made me giggle inside.  Sometimes I giggle outside but it was too cold this morning! 


Oh, I almost forgot.  Probably the first word I heard in my family was, “d’yu eat?” And that probably will be the last thing I hear as well!

On Words

I was immediately taken with the word knowledge and wit of my blogging partners.  They keep me on my toes and always in learning mode as I read their posts and listen to their stories.  This is yet another reason why I appreciate them and what they bring to my moments of thought and reflection.

For a period of time, words served me well.  Fortunate to have intelligent colleagues and family, critical friends, and a love of my work, I readily found the words I needed at the right time and delivered in the right tone.  Clearly I’m not, nor ever was a grammar maven.  I was adequate, at best.  Yet, as well as I can recollect, I was usually able to find just the right word or phrase to help express what I meant or to affirm what I heard.  It was critical to my sense of value and good work.  However, that capacity is now diminished and continues to decline as the years advance.  I feel the loss of words I can’t retrieve, shorter moments of clear focus, memory confusion, the list goes on.  I appreciate what I can do but am inexorably aware of what I do, less well.

Early in my career a student came to me at lunchtime and asked if I could help her.  She wanted to know why she didn’t have any friends and wanted to know what she could do about it.  She was bright, as cute as any of the girls in her class, and mostly upbeat.  And, she loved to talk.  She spoke of her vacations, her adventures after school, and about the books she read.  Together, we came to the understanding that perhaps one of the most important things people want is to be heard.  She agreed to practice spending less time talking about herself and more time listening, really listening, to the words of others in the hopes of making friends.  Later on, we formed a small group of students with similar needs and focused on using “words of connection” to help them address their needs.

I often think about what word to use to capture, with absolute precision, my feelings at a particular moment.  And while I know the feeling, I cannot find the words to do it justice.  You know, the feeling that is a bit more than one descriptor but a bit less of another.  Sometimes we find words in other languages that aren’t directly translatable and that seem to better convey what we mean.  They can be described in English but the native speaker will tell you there is no way to explain it accurately.  The Yiddish word Kvell, is defined as a state of being extremely proud.  Yet to me it’s more than that.  It is a feeling that comes from within that goes beyond pride.  It is like an act, a feeling, and a thought, intensely combined. 

Wal challenges us to identify a first and/or last word we find meaningful.  I choose delicious!  I often use that word beyond the context of how food tastes.  It’s how I sometimes feel about a morning walk, a loving friend, or a perfect moment.  Delicious!  I would also use Thank You!  Some days, I find myself so appreciative of what I have, where I am, and what I’m doing that I shout out, “Thank You!”  Most often only Duke hears it as it’s usually when I’m with him in nature but sometimes I do so with a trusted friend.  It’s an expression of gratitude to whomever or whatever in the universe might be listening.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Most of us desire to be in community – a place where people feel valued, accepted, and connected.  And, while communities are often founded around common goals and interests, they vary greatly in regards to their openness and collaboration with other communities and with society as a whole.  It appears that we are currently experiencing more entrenched attitudes and behaviors within and among these groups and fewer opportunities for open dialog toward the common good.

The “ends justify the means” seems like the present mode of operation by many groups.  And, while it may lead one collective or another to a temporary victory, is the long-term cost worth it?  In our righteous indignation and justification for winning at all costs, is the angst, corruption of our principles, and the constant attention we give to defensiveness and negativity how we want to live?

Even when we feel we have no other options, we are often avoiding the hard work of finding or creating alternatives.  Sometimes, rather than picking one side/approach or another, we can merge the two into an even more effective one.  Martin Luther King spoke at the 10th annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 about two approaches that often provoked one choice, the path of love or the path of power.  His stance was that we couldn’t be effective without both.  Perhaps it’s time for us to reconsider where we stand and whether the communities we align with have the best interests of long-term goals and those of our children.

Is our community behaving in ways that illicit trust?  Do we act in ways the make it difficult for the other side to challenge our civility, dignity, and authenticity?  If we don’t because they don’t, how will we ever get there?

Where do we go from here?  Isn’t it up to each of us to decide how we act to bring about the future we want for our children and ourselves? And isn’t that future dependent on how we respond and embrace other communities?

Thoughts?

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

After reading my friend Henry’s blog post I have to confess I have been naughty this year, well these past 4 years.   You see I have had very strong political views that often crossed the “being appropriate” limits.  I was often angry, outraged even and vociferous in my expression of that outrage.  I said mean things on Facebook and listened to only one tv station news coverage- the one that I agreed with.

I always considered myself a reasonable, intelligent person.  But I just couldn’t accept imitating a handicapped journalist or calling people names based on their appearance or physical features.  In my heart I knew that was wrong but our leader was displaying this behavior publicly, snd I saw our interaction between people becoming caustic and aggressive.  Santa, I gave into those feelings I had and expressed them instead of trying to find common ground. 

We now have an elected leader who is trying to model appropriate behavior and I promise to follow his lead.  I will do things to try to bring our country together again.  I won’t say mean things or cause disagreement to intensify.  I promise to try to reconnect with people I may have upset.    That way my letter to you next year can tell you that I have been a good boy and have everything I need so give my stuff to kids who are more needy. This pandemic will certainly cause people to need things that they normally would have.  Hopefully by next December this Covid thing will be gone but if not I will ask for enough masks for everybody in our country and the general acceptance that masks help!  Please forgive me Santa.  I tried but just couldn’t live up to my wish to be a good boy.  My friends Henry and Wally were gooder than I was this year so you should give them what they ask for.  Well, maybe they were a little naughty too!
Your friend,
Georgie

Permeability

I suspect that we each have an urge to assimilate and an urge to be distinct. We try to solve that tension by finding a reference group (or several) that allows us to do both. In a healthy society, just as in a healthy individual, affiliation in various ‘communities’ is fluid enough to help us practice seeing different points of view. I tend to think about this condition as one which features permeable boundaries – like a biologic cell wall — allowing traffic of ideas (like RNA) through the walls. This allows analysis and accommodation among varying points of reference.

 When ideologic boundaries harden, it’s no wonder that commerce between particular communities tends to stop.  So for me, it’s about permeability – allowing flow. Carrying the analogy a bit further: if we each act as a unit in a living entity, our function is to pass nutrients throughout the system and keep it thriving. It’s also our job to defend against threats to our ability to do so. 

If the body encounters a destructive virus, it tends to attack anything which looks like a threat. Sometimes it overreaches. Hen describes a situation where our communities seem to be ill – and some functions are not working well. A healthy community, like a healthy body – should rebound from most infection. However, that rebound depends upon various organs working in concert, not shutting down. The individual’s essential job is to continue to pass nutrients through the system. Now I know that I’ve set the stage for some to liken our current state of affairs to a cancerous growth. Okay, maybe we need chemotherapy – maybe our living entity will die. Or maybe our society is suffering from a malady that can be treated with an injection of common sense and affection. Either way, I believe that our boundaries need to be permeable enough to receive both familiar ideas and new ideas and pass along the useful bits of both which allow the whole body to thrive. 

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Go Back Where You Came From

I did!  One of the most incredible experiences I ever had was going back to where I came from.  My entire life I was surrounded by the crazy Italian Family that I came from- or at least half of me!  Holidays consisted of people yelling at each other, all at the same time.  Half in English,  half in a bastardized Italian that was spoken in southern Italy.  I should refer to it as a dialect but if you speak ITALIAN you might agree that the dialects were bastardized.  The area I came from in Italy is Basilicata.  The arch of the boot.  Calabria was to the west (the toe of the boot)and Puglia to the east(the heel).  The minute you drive south of Naples you begin to feel the difference!

Planning the trip was a trip in itself.  My partner called the only hotel in the area but they spoke no English.  So he called an Italian friend of his to call for us.  She arranged a conference call and within moments we realized they were speaking 2 different languages.   A subsequent call with someone on their end who spoke “English” resolved the issue and we were all set to go. 

The trip was phenomenal. As we flew into Rome I became very emotional. We drove from Rome south to the little town of Pietrapertosa, a little mountain town in the Dolomities(Little Dolomites).  The drive was incredible.  Dirt roads through the mountains, pigs blocking the roads, rock slides to drive around and then miraculously the town was right in front of us.  As we drove up the cobblestone street the emotion overwhelmed me.  Here I was on streets that my grandfather played on. 



We pulled into the only hotel  in town and parked.  It was 2 pm in the afternoon and judging by the lack of anyone around it was the traditional siesta time.  But the smell was unmistakable . From the kitchen wafted the smell of my dad’s sauce. I broke down!  The owner came out and introduced herself. When she heard my name it was as if the world erupted. Moments later we were in a car driving through the village to “commune” which we learned meant town hall.  Once there the mayor introduced himself snd obviously knew who I was as he went to a closet and from an old waterlogged shoe box took out my grandfather’s birth certificate from 1881.  From that point on the trip was out of our hands.  We went to every household in the town where my family lived, had grappa everywhere, then to the mausoleums.  In that part of Italy the dead are not buried but placed in mausoleums and I met many of my dead relatives.

To make a long story short, all of the living relatives in the village are teachers, and  our guide whose great great  grandfather was my great grandfather’s brother, had been a teacher but left teaching and like me became an innkeeper- Coincidence????

This does not do justice to the incredible feelings and emotions that I experienced, about the story of my Aunt Eleanor as a young girl, walking with Bartolo Longo who has become a saint since my visit, about having to eat at every relative’s house still there.  This is a case of not really being able to express the depth of emotion and love that overwhelmed me in this little mountain town from which I had originated.  We all came from somewhere else.  Ellis Island has all our names engraved there.  If you EVER get the chance to go back where you came from, GO!

NoWhere To Go

I envy George’s sense of place. But what do you do when there’s no specific place in which to return? Like George, my grandparents came to the United States in the early 1900’s. However, where they came from is not clear. Technically, my grandfather and his brother left a farming village somewhere near Rome and struck out for a new life in America with the idea of sending for their wives and family. Two years later they both returned to Italy and only my grandfather returned with his bride via Ellis Island in 1904. 

On my father’s side, my grandparents emigrated from Walthamstow, UK in 1924. The area in Walthamstow where they lived was devastated by Nazi bombing during WWII and was significantly redeveloped. Unlike George’s story, there are no memories and close family to investigate. I did recently learn that my grandmother was one of twelve children; it appears that this cohort was involved in railway occupations and distributed themselves far and wide. One granduncle left for South Africa, got into some trouble as a result of a railway accident and hightailed it to Argentina, then Uruguay to work in the railroad industry. A cousin now living in Mexico City has filled me in on their exploits.

Now, my grandfather (who served in the RAF) may have come from Edinburgh, Scotland, but since he sort of disappeared shortly after arrival in the US, there’s no way to confirm. My father’s older brother Alfred went with my grandfather when he left – soon after, it seems like Alfred may have stolen a car and was deported to Australia. He later died during WWII serving in the Australian Airforce. I do sense that the English side of my family tree had a strong sense of adventure and were not afraid to strike out boldly. My father used to say “scratch an Englishman and find a pirate”… seems like this could sum up our family tradition. 

Honestly, I don’t have any desire to search out places near London, Rome, or Edinburgh – I sense that these are places my forebears really wanted to leave behind. I did not grow up with fond retellings of life in the old country — I don’t feel a connection. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate and honor the effort it took to transplant a family in an entirely new country. It’s simply that my good non-piratical memories sit in this little corner of the world.

Going Back – Moving Forward

George’s piece likely triggers different memories and emotions for each of us.  His desire to go back to his family roots and the feelings that were evoked for him, brought up another kind of “going back to where you came from” for me.

My father rarely lived at home due to the nature of his business.  One day, when I was in my teenage years, he stopped coming home altogether.  For a short while there was some correspondence and financial support, but then that ceased as well.  Except for one ambiguous letter from him while I was in college, I knew nothing more about the man, his history, his intentions, his beliefs, or his rationale for abandonment.

When I turned forty, I felt the urge and found the courage to seek him out.  All I knew was that he had left the New York area due to legal issues and was absorbed into some other part of the country with no address that was made available to me or my mom and sisters.  I knew someone who knew someone who could, for a price, get me my father’s location.  The source turned out to be sound and one summer’s day, I found myself on a plane bound for Houston, Texas, with an address, a phone number, and a load of questions.

Good fortune was on my side.  After settling into my hotel room, I called the number and told the woman on the other end of the line that I was looking to talk to Joe and that I was an old acquaintance who would like to surprise him without giving him my name.  He was indeed surprised, and after a few awkward minutes where I could hear my heart beat louder than his voice, he agreed to meet me at a diner I had noticed on the way to my hotel and not far from his home.

I remembered my father as an imposing figure.  He was six feet tall, always confident and self-assured, and always in control.  Now, as I watched through the diner window, I saw an old man struggle to get out of his weather beaten sedan and lumber up to the door.  He was in his late seventies, just a few years older than I am now.  His gait was slow, his posture slouched, and he was clearly not in control as he walked in the door and I went up to introduce myself.  Uncharacteristically, he went for a hug but I offered my hand.  We shook and I took him to where I had been sitting.  I asked my questions and received vague responses, deceptions, and mostly evasive language.  In truth, he had no answers for me, nothing of substance that could help me understand how he could leave the four of us without explanation or support.  I felt little to no empathy from him when I told him how the man he had sold our mortgage to, foreclosed on our house and how we lost all of our possessions and had to live in a motel until we could reclaim my grandmother’s 800 square foot cottage from a reluctant tenant.  For whatever reason, I don’t believe he was capable of truly feeling another’s emotional condition and, time, it seemed, hadn’t changed that part of him.  As he spoke of his hardships I recalled he had always told us stories of his heroic efforts to ward off injuries and illnesses, injustices done to him, and fantastic tales of survival.  Most, we later learned, were fabrications and exaggerations.  It’s just who he was.

Since he had shown no interest in contacting my sisters or me over our adult years, I chose to answer none of his questions about my mom, or us other than mom was still alive despite what he claimed he had heard.  In less than an hour I confirmed what I had suspected about this man.  I had given him a chance to prove me wrong, to hear the other side of the story but, for me, there was none.  I shook his hand and wished him well as he ended our meeting with another one of his woe-is-me stories about an upcoming surgery that was critical for his survival.

On the flight home I reflected on my journey.  Meeting my dad as an adult I realized that despite our shared DNA and many similar characteristics, I was not, nor would I become, my father.  

It was also fortuitous that I chose to “go back to where I came from” when I did.  As it turns out, his last story was indeed true and his surgery, six months later, was not successful.

I’m glad I got to see him and was able to address the issues that were on my mind.  And while I would have preferred a different kind of reckoning, it provided the closure I sought.  

Afterthoughts: Today my reflections of that time include more questions than answers. Was I really interested in listening and understanding or did the anger and fever of the moment keep me from hearing? If we had established any kind of relationship, would he have been able to be more honest? Can I ever truly understand the intentions and choices made by another, having had only my experiences and not theirs?

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Falling Down

George hurt himself. He was simply trying to put out the garbage one evening when his dog, Devin, body- checked him and proved once again that stone is harder than face. George wound up with a boot on his foot and luckily did not need one for his face. Devin was apologetic, but Devin was a hockey defenseman in a past life, so he was doing just what came naturally.

George and His New Boot

George felt bad about this accident, but it was dark and wet – and hey! – unplanned. George’s incident was on my mind when I took a wrong pivot during a tennis serve return and heard about it from my hip. It was the final point in our doubles match and I was still talking to myself about being a clumsy idiot as we all gathered our stuff to dress and leave the court. In the process of limping back to my chair, I managed to spill my water bottle into the tennis bag and knock the open can of balls back onto the court. Naturally, bending down was not on my bucket list at the moment, so I expressed some displeasure. (Well, that might be a euphemism for my actual words).

Rich, one of our foursome, said: “You know, Wally, we are old enough to forgive ourselves for these kinds of things”. That brought me up short. He is absolutely right! We talked in the last post about asking for and accepting, help. Forgiveness – particularly self-forgiveness – is a necessity as one ages. (Of course, you could make the argument that it is essential at any age — but you might also figure that younger folks at least have a longer runway left to learn this lesson). If you can’t achieve a reckoning in later life, what a tortured soul you will have been. Don’t ask me how I know this.

I confess to storing a long list of my gaffes that remain unforgiven – well, at least by me. Most are not blockbusters, but rather insensitive sins of commission and omission over the years. These items, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, often impinge on my consciousness at pretty inopportune times – you can tell by the sudden scowl on my face while involved in some otherwise pleasant conversation. My wife calls me out on this (rightly) and suggests that I have on my ‘Isabelle-face’ (my good-hearted mother was also similarly afflicted). Rich’s comment brought home that we ourselves have the tools and ability to come to terms with these silly aggravations. Items that no one will remember in 5 or 50 years. He was giving me permission to forgive myself for not being always at my best. It felt good!  I’m going to start giving myself some mulligans… why not?

Feeling Forgiveness

The Ho’oponopono Prayer is an ancient Hawaiian practice of forgiveness.  It goes like this:

I’m Sorry

Please Forgive Me

Thank You

I Love You

I remember reciting this once at a large Thanksgiving gathering at my home. 

I said I was sorry for anything I had said or done to offend any of the guests seated at the table.

I asked for their forgiveness for those shortcomings.  (I also added that I forgave them for anything they may have done to offend me.)

I thanked them in advance for forgiving me and for being significant in my life.

I told them all that I loved them.

One person came up to me afterwards and shared her appreciation of the sentiment.  However, it mostly made the rest of the family uncomfortable, if not bewildered.  Several wondered if I was referring specifically to them, some became defensive, and others had no idea why I chose to share this piece on a day of giving thanks.  It was one of my greatest miscommunications in a group setting.  This time, I was able to smile and quickly forgive myself for causing more disconnect and confusion than the sense of closeness and clarity I had sought to create.

Wal reminds me that I haven’t always forgiven myself so readily and even when I did, the occasional flashbacks and corresponding emotion – – feeling like I was just punched in the gut, still lingered.  I wonder if there will always be a consequence of a wrongdoing that while forgiven, is permanently linked to guilt.  Or, if I am able to truly forgive myself, is the connection broken and I am free from ongoing remorse. 

Of all the words I value, acceptance is number one.  Indeed, if I accept things (people, incidents, actions) as they are then I would have no reason for forgiveness.  If I never judged something or someone to be lacking or wrong, or a mistake, it was just as it was supposed to be.  Thus, there is nothing to forgive.  And while I subscribe to this concept and practice it when I harken to do so, it is not yet (and likely never will be) a consistent habit.  So, for now, I’ll use Wal’s story and my age to remind me to allow myself more forgiveness and perhaps find it easier to forgive others along the way.

Reflections on a Brittle Body

I’ve said before that during this pandemic isolation a lot of reflection happens.  Thinking occurs when there isn’t a lot of activity to distract and I have had some very pleasurable moments reflecting.  I took time to look around and see things I never noticed before.  However, sometimes reflection can go south and stir up concerns that may never have surfaced otherwise.  Such is the case when I  collided with my pup. The night was dark, the ground was cold and wet.  I had taken out the garbage and recycling bins and was headed inside to chill. Just at the moment  as I was headed up the path to my back door, my devoted companion came charging around the back of the garage and at top speed came 60 lbs of muscle .  It happened too quickly for either of us to dodge and in an instant there I lie on the cold wet stones on the path to my house.   I fell forward and was worried I had hurt my face so just for a moment, stunned, I stayed put and took inventory.  


It’s incredible what you think of when your head is under an evergreen bush and you feel the wetness of the ground soaking into your body.  Immediately feeling foolish, I took stock of any pain that would need attending to and all felt good til I tried to stand.  I realized my left foot was most likely broken. Carefully I climbed up the brick steps on my knees and crawled all the way into bed.  There was little doubt in my mind that indeed a bone had snapped . The dog, feeling guilty and repentant, kept licking my foot saying he was sorry. 


I began thinking how in a moment things can drastically change.  My body, which years ago would have sprung back with a little bruise,  had become brittle and rigid with time.  While lying in bed looking up at the ceiling all kinds of fears came rushing in.  Will I need surgery, will this be another part of my body forever aching and causing pain?  Is this the moment where I am no longer able to care for myself and live alone?  Will I no longer be mobile, able to get upstairs to the bathroom, drive my car?  All these thoughts came rushing in during this forced reflection,  things people my age have to consider.  Did I do something stupid to cause it? If I am more careful in the future can I prevent accidents from happening.   My imagination was running away with me and not in a good way.  I remember saying out loud, “All right!  Knock it off”. Tomorrow I’ll have it checked out and do whatever has to be done!


But the feeling still lingered that as we age we become more susceptible to silly little accidents that could cause a drastic change in our lives.  So, do I spend the rest of my life carefully studying the landscape for mine fields or just dismiss the whole thing with the …whatever is going to happen will happen… attitude?    Hopefully, somewhere in between is middle ground that doesn’t inhibit my lifestyle or cause it to come crashing down.

 
I guess I will have to think on it!

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Help!

Asking for help has never been easy.  As a child I believed that working hard, persevering, and striving for independence was the way to be. And since my mindset has always been to do it myself, asking others to lend a hand, especially with something I could somehow figure out on my own, is not easy for me.  Even though I could save time, attempt challenging tasks more safely, and end up with a more refined end result, I almost always chose the solo route.  My belief has always been that if I could accomplish a task by myself, I would be seen as successful, capable, maybe even better than those who needed assistance.  I’m not sure how I developed that belief but it’s been part of my thinking for a very long time.  Whatever the psychological underpinnings, I’m not very good at asking others to help me. 

I am a fan of Stephen Covey. In his work on defining the behaviors of highly effective people, he talks of an evolution from dependence to independence and finally to interdependence.  It is not enough for us to be independent and expect to live well in society, especially in this global society.  He contends that we must collaborate and recognize how we need each other to grow into our best selves and accomplish our best work.  From personal experience the beginning of a most successful business partnership began when a friend asked me to co-present a topic with which he was less familiar.  This collaboration led to almost a decade of some of my best work and I’m convinced, could only have happened through the interdependent relationship we had developed.  It all happened because of a request for help.

I actually enjoy helping others and appreciate when friends and family ask.  It enhances my sense of connection, I feel good being there for others, and it sends a message that I have value.  If I receive these benefits from helping others, it is likely that others will feel similarly if I ask them for help.  My hesitation though, comes from a rationalization that everyone appears to be so busy dealing with the challenges of their own daily lives, that even if they gain something from helping, they are still being inconvenienced and I’m still adding more to their list of things to do.  As I think about it though, perhaps this is a way of justifying my old habits and beliefs.  Perhaps I can have faith that if they are too busy, they will simply say so.

I truly value the idea and practice of interdependence.  I love the idea of Amish barn raising.  In an article in the Family Handyman, Alexa Erickson writes, “Barn raising combines socializing with a practical goal of building or rebuilding a barn, and allows for everyone involved to feel helpful. With all hands on deck, no one has to work too hard, while also getting an opportunity to catch up with friends and family.”

In fact, for a period of time, many years ago, my family joined with two others to cut and split enough wood to feed our wood stoves for the winter season.  Each of us ordered about eight cords of uncut tree trunks delivered in sixteen-foot sections.  We would spend entire weekends together at each home cutting, splitting, and stacking. The children played with each other, we ate meals together, and we were able to get more work done than any one of us could have accomplished alone.  And, we had fun in the process.  I’ve tried to replicate that over the years.  More recently,  I asked a group of friends over to help me with the spring tasks of weeding, pruning, and mulching my gardens.  I provided the meals and the after party!  Once again, we got a tremendous amount of work done and had a great time doing it. A few weeks later, one friend asked us to help her start a garden.  In one day about a dozen of us turned over the soil, built a fence, and planted her garden.  

I cherish those times.  For me they were brief but powerful experiences of being in community.  And each one began with a request for help.  Perhaps this is as good a time as any to begin to think of ways we can help each other.  

Help Me if You Can

“When I was younger, so much younger than today…
I never needed anybody’s help
In any way…..” so go the lyrics of the famous Beatles’ song and they are so not true according to my experience.    I have always needed help from infancy to old age.   Asking for it?  Well that’s another issue!  In my early years I discovered if I played coy around the right people someone would say, “Do you need a hand with that?”  Of course I did so once it was offered I jumped at the chance.  Funny expression about needing a hand.  I guess it is derived from the concept that most situations require lifting or carrying things hence additional hands are always welcome. 

My situations were usually more involved.  As the years progressed that coy technique became a little counter productive as I was supposed to feel a bit more self assured (borrowing another lyric from Help).  I think that is the root of difficulty for me to ask for help.  It would show my weakness, my insecurities at a time when I was maturing into adolescence and supposed to be coming independent.  HAH!  So I struggled.  I had great ideas but many went unfulfilled because I just couldn’t get the words out, “could you help me out here?”

I wonder if it is a guy thing?  Or I just know many insecure guys. When I have asked for help I have always been rewarded not just by the actual project but by the camaraderie and friendship that it enhances.  But why is it so difficult to get those few words out?  Other things are easy to say like, “I’m sorry,” “I Love you,” “Could you please leave me alone?”  et al.  But those “I need help” words just won’t come out easily.

Funny thing is, I love being asked to help somebody.  Oftentimes just offer help before being asked.  Love being asked for advice because that means somebody thinks enough of my intellect or opinions to seek it out.  Makes me feel important and smart.  Much more important to me than physical help as I carry the remains of a scrawny little kid around with me who couldn’t do much physically or mechanically, or technologically as Hen and Wal will attest to.  Anyway, you get my drift!  Let me know if I can be of any help!

Codgers United

Well George, the rest of that stanza goes: 

But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured 
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors 

That hones in on an interesting point. As we get older, what’s our greatest fear? A survey of seniors indicates that it is the fear of being marginalized – because we are no longer instrumental. Here’s the dilemma: we’ve reached a point where we realized that it’s not a crime to ask for help, but worry about the consequences of being seen as incapable or ‘past it’. Those consequences for older individuals can result in real life changes (such as how much independent living you may be allowed to engage in).  

So when do you ask for help? Laurne Sanderson nailed it: 

I need help 
It’s so hard to admit when I ask myself 
If I need help 
I need help 

The question is HOW to ask for help. Now I had an elderly friend who sort set the right tone. He looked at asking for help as not “doing for me”, but rather “doing with me”. The focus is participation – helping one another. He would invite folks to work with him. Another friend adopted a “home and home” approach where one visit is devoted to a project of his choosing – and the next visit is the partner’s project choice. These are effective ‘guy-solutions’, due to the reciprocity inherent in the activity. No one feels indebted or inadequate. (Actually, most of the time, we are inadequate together, but in a good way)! In fact, struggling through projects with someone else — or several ‘someone elses’ — is a terrific opportunity for learning and laughing. At the least, it establishes a basis for later legends.  

George mentions that he feels good when asked for his opinion. Of course! That just underlines the fact that he is still instrumental… the problem is when you are never asked for your opinion.  That’s why I think it is important to build a social network of friends who can be asked for their opinions. It’s as important for them to be asked as it is for you to get the feedback. 

It takes a village to raise a codger, so start early! 

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Take Time to Smell the Roses

During this time of sadness and concern due to the intersection of this horrid election season and COVID-19, a time when little is happening to be positive about I actually became surprised.  In fact, when I think of these last 7 or so months, where days pass by almost unnoticed, one sliding into the other without much distinction, it is hard to list anything good to take note of.  We’ve been living more in our own minds and inside our homes oftentimes cause a kind of negative reflection and poor me-ism!  I have been stuck in that space for a longtime until just recently. 

I think it started about midweek last week.  I was staring out my bedroom window as the sun was rising and I noticed something on my neighbor’s lawn that I never noticed before. It was always there I just never noticed it.   There is a clump of white chrysanthemums in full bloom but the shape of it looks just like his white SUV parked next to it in the driveway.  It hit me like a brick and I began to scan the whole neighborhood that I can see from my bedroom.  It was amazing what I saw for the first time.  Door decorations, a broken window, a package on Gail’s stoop that I realized has been there for at least a week.  I was always too busy to look closely at things right in front of me.  And that began some soul searching about what else I may have overlooked.



Last night, Sunday night, as is our ritual, my daughter and I had dinner at a favorite restaurant, sitting on the side deck, lit up by white lights and heated with towering propane heaters.  It is our “check in” time and we share feelings and events of the week.  We have been doing this since restaurants reopened.  But this time I realized that as a result of these Sunday night meals together we had become really close.  There it was in front of my eyes but I just never saw it til now.  In this case it wasn’t just seeing something that was there but there was an incredibly warm realization of our connection and how important it was to both of us.  We laughed and cried.  We relived events that went on in the family over the years. We talked about my relatives and things she remembered about my parents and her uncle.  She reminded me of times I embarrassed her as a teenager and chided me that she’s almost 50 and how I shouldn’t treat her like a teenager still….point well taken!
When I drove her home and said good bye last night it was different.   We hugged and kissed good night, but held on longer and looked into each other’s eyes and we were both tearing up!  We both acknowledged who we are today, how life is different but how our bond grew a little tighter and closer because of what we are currently experiencing.  Guess I have a lot of things to be thankful for that I wasn’t even aware of and may have never seen without the current situation we are all experiencing. That old expression, “take time to smell the roses” may apply.  Glad I did!

Surprised by Joy (Apologies to CS Lewis)

My wife and I have vastly different modes of experience. Linda can sit on our deck and enjoy the birds, flowers, and outside awareness, becoming refreshed and renewed. Me – I usually see this as an impediment to finishing one of those tasks that I’m woefully behind on completing. So, when we sit together in an idle moment, my impatience usually trumps enjoyment.

Except last week. 

On an enforced hiatus after returning home from my colonoscopy, I helped Linda disentangle a wild grapevine from a forsythia bush. We pulled out the invasive plant and in the process noticed the tendrils that wrap around host branches in order to support the climbing vine. The tendrils are tough, forming spirals and curling shapes. Hmmm, perhaps they could be used in a woodturning project that I’ve had on the back burner? 

Well, I started unraveling the tendrils and cutting them off the main vine. After a small space of time, I realized a real peace of mind and enjoyment in harvesting these little guys – hence, the title of this piece: the feeling of joy sort of snuck up on me. Of course, the title of CS Lewis’ autobiography dealt with something far more significant, but I hope he would not mind me stealing his turn of words.

I kept at it for the good part of an hour, resulting in a box full of curlicues. I was having such a good time that I hardly noticed that it was raining. It resulted in a bit of an epiphany: ‘you don’t need much to be happy’. Even in this time of isolation and tension, happiness is literally right at our feet.

Part of my joy had to do with the anticipation of how the grapevine could be used in my project. I felt in the creative flow — and that is where I find my best self. Linda achieves that state much more frequently; I admire her capacity for joy. 

Perhaps, I’ll try sitting on the deck for a while each day…

The Positive Side

 “The bad things in life open your eyes to the good things you weren’t paying attention to before.”― N.M. Facile, Across The Hall

It looks like George and this author have much in common.  And what I like most about George’s piece is that he uncovered this understanding naturally.  It wasn’t like he read the quote and then told himself to pay more attention.  He fell into it on his own, perhaps without even looking for it.  I find it rare to “wake up” to those experiences without prompting, searching, or following the guidance of others.  But when it does occur, it becomes something one owns and feels rather than something one learns and understands.  Here’s wishing us all, such awakenings!

It is not easy to see joy and beauty and normalcy lately.  If we’re fortunate to have friends and family who spend more time being and less time focused on the heavy and threatening issues before us, we can be uplifted when we spend time with them.  

Thanks to George, I’m even more aware that looking deeper at what I see and do each day can be a powerful antidote to the toxicity of the negativism that surrounds me.  And, like George, I’ve found my relationships with family have gotten stronger.  Even the close connection I already enjoy with my daughter has changed.  We have more honest and open conversations, I feel more accepted and appreciated (a term that carries much meaning to both of us), and I’ve gained a new-found respect for the way she juggles the additional pandemic challenges of a working wife and mom with humility, perseverance and love.  My son and I have more contact than ever before. Our conversations are deeper and more thoughtful as we talk face to face via FaceTime on a regular basis.  His care and understanding were always there but I’m more aware of the feeling behind his words and we smile and laugh together more than ever.  And while they both live too far to enjoy an in-person weekly meal together, I recognize how much I have to be thankful for as they fold me into their busy and often overwhelming lives, with sincerity and love.

Recently, the Three Old Guys discussed what we thought would become the new normal following the pandemic.  Many thoughts were offered and analyzed.  But if those new normals include an increased sense and appreciation of the present moment and the maintenance of those meaningful relationships we’ve grown to further appreciate and nurture over these many months, perhaps the post pandemic future will be even better.

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One Sigma

Once upon a time I won an award for achieving outstanding quality in an organizational context. I also taught six sigma concepts to managers in the company for which I worked. If you missed the six sigma effort, it had to do with reaching 99.99966% accuracy in deliverables or products by engineering efficient and repeatable processes. Sigma, of course, represents one standard deviation from the mean in a normal distribution (bell curve). Six sigma exudes absolute confidence in (close to) perfect achievement, all of the time.

Now you might suspect that the discipline of six sigma would also seep into the personal life of its practitioners, but sadly, that is not always the case. My workshop motto is “Oops!” and my crooked headstone will read “This Will Have to Do”.

How could a person sink so low?

Well, as I age, the goal of perfection seems further away. It’s like the Big Bang: the universe is expanding faster than my ability to keep up.  Certainly there is a red shift in my ability-to-aspiration ratio. Pursuit of excellence has been replaced by pursuit of ‘okay-ness’.

Social psychologist Gordon Allport used to say that individuals generally adjust their goals, based on a recent track record of successes and failures. This concept was strongly brought home in a recent project I attempted – installing a planked ceiling and crown moulding in my second floor stairwell. Naturally, I researched different methods of cutting compound angles and I built a stair box to support my ladder. However, try as I might, I could not envision the correct method of cut… and due to a long standing reversal problem, one third of my stock was wasted. However, despite uneven walls, ladder balancing, and (what is the opposite of ambidexterity? – well, that), it got done.

In retrospect, I wonder if pursuit of excellence is at times hijacked by a simple desire for personal control – a goal that is usually self-defeating. In that regard, it’s easier to understand the artists who intentionally mar their work as a recognition of impossible standards. Clearly, my work embraces this wabi-sabi approach.

So these days, I’ve attuned my goals to pursuit of small successes… anything more falls into the category of ‘minor miracle’. But you know what – that’s okay. Maybe one sigma is enough…

Pursuit of Perfection

As Wally suggested, I’m one of those people who missed the Six Sigma program.  But after admitting my lack of knowledge in this area I  think in my field of work,  perfection is rarely achieved and we settle for doing our best, at least the conscientious ones do!  I can’t imagine what perfection even looks like in education, or in my second career of innkeeping, for the simple reason that our final product is people and I don’t think there is anyone perfect (to the chagrin of those who think they are!)  How is perfection measured when you don’t know the results of your input for years to come? 
But loving what you do makes the striving for excellence easier.  And when success is reached the pleasure and pride is shared with those who are benefiting from your hard work!  That is a feeling that is unlike any hallucinogenic drug can deliver.  And it propelled me to do it again tomorrow, maybe with modification or maybe not. I did that for 35 years and it never got old.  Don’t get the wrong idea.  As much as I would like to think that level of excellence was reached everyday in my classrooms, I know there were low days and bad days interspersed with the good ones but there was always tomorrow to win my respect back!


Innkeeping is similar.  The end product is a happy tourist.  I was good at that too.  We always went out of our way to please and delight our guests.  If they mentioned something they were looking for, kind of off the cuff, we arranged it for them to their delight.  Cleanliness and good food are requirements in hospitality so that was a given.  Excellence came in the trimmings.  One of us met them at the door after dinner every night just to see how they enjoyed it.  The fire was always going in the living room for late evening schmoozing with a glass of wine, and a willing ear to listen to their stories.  But once again we were doing what we loved so striving for excellence was an achievable goal not an obligation to merely get through the day!


Now, however, with advancing age and social distancing the trouble is I have lost my purpose, my definition. I was a teacher, then an innkeeper, but now I’m a lonely old man with inertia.  I do believe I’m probably pretty good at inertia, too.  After all my entire life I strove for perfection.  I know I’m good at it cause when I try to get out of my chair, there is this weird groaning noise and I realize there is no reason to get out of my chair.  Looking for purpose is hard, and I’m not really good at it now,  but hopefully as the world opens up new purposes may provide themselves to me and I will find another one I love and strive for perfection once again!

The Stigma of Perfection

I am a firm believer in personal growth and self-improvement.  I have a dear friend who displayed a quote on the wall in her office that said, “If you’re not working on yourself, you’re not working.”  But even the six sigma model allows for a small degree of error affirming that perfection is not the goal.  And if the quest is for improvement in efficiency and effectiveness then doing the best we can under the circumstances can be pretty darn good.

I’m also a firm believer in “good enough isn’t.”  Let me explain.  I once worked for a boss who would often challenge my idea and requests, especially if they exceeded standard norms and resource distribution.  Her response would usually boil down to, “Can you live with what you have?”  Even now, I feel a visceral reaction to those words.  Of course I could “live” with it.  We don’t need even what we already have to “live.”  But to excel, to improve, to energize, and to engage my staff and colleagues to provide excellence, good enough just wouldn’t do it.  So when I talk about doing the best we can, I mean, doing the best we can which is definitely more than okay or good enough or even the infamous – “I’ll try” which, of course, allows for failure.

But none of this implies perfection.  Early in my career, I would hear the wise words of my senior colleagues who would remind me that I’d never get it all done because no one is perfect.  And while I understood them, I secretly strove to prove them wrong.  Even when, at times, I may have reached a six sigma level, it not only didn’t last, but it took its toll from other parts of my life.  Later on I would learn that balance and working to be my best self were necessary companions in living a good life.

Today my best isn’t what it once was.  And while it’s better in one or two areas that have unfolded from the wisdom of many years of experience and self-reflection, it cannot, nor should it be, compared to days of yore.  “Oops!” and “This will have to do” accompanied by an understanding and accepting smile may also be a sign that not everything that used to matter, still does and what didn’t appear to carry much significance, now holds more of our attention at doing the best we can.

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Simplicity

My red-tinged maple 
Duke by my side 
The sharp line of shadow and sunlight on my garden

My own schedule 
Freedom of choice to do as I may 
Time to wonder while I wander

The gentlest of breezes 
Perfect coolness 
Endless blue sky

Learning to be in stillness as an end in itself 
Accepting the rush of others without judgment 
Trading later for now as well as I can

I am 
We are 
This is – enough.

Simplicity/Serenity

Simplicity is a word I have not been familiar with for most of my life.  Simple does not exist in my vocabulary, well at least my pre Covid Vocabulary.  My life has always been complicated and I have succeeded in surrounding myself with other “complicated-lifed” people.  I know there is no such term but the condition exists.  See, maybe this is why my life has been complicated. Plus my progeny also learned to be complicated and so the cycle continued!  

Then slowly at my increasing age several goal posts were reached. 35 years in education and then WHAM- retired.  And immediately 25 or so lives were out of my jurisdiction but no, I opened an inn in Vermont and suddenly groups of people regularly entered and left my life.  I loved both occupations but , come on-  simple?  Huh uh! 

And then……Covid 19 came to

my house!  At first there was the scramble to figure out how to socially distance and self isolate.  Do I barricade my front door and move heavy objects in front of it?  Worry and confusion muddled my life until I found a routine to follow and the realization that I would be spending most of my time alone, which immediately eliminated a huge portion of anti simplicity in my life.  

I first was uncomfortable with the quiet.  Initially people stayed off the streets. There was very little traffic noise in my area. Even the dog stopped barking because there was nothing for him to bark at!  Simplicity was seeping into my life a little bit at a time.  And I didn’t like it!  But like a numbing gas seeping under my door I was getting used to the quiet and the simplicity of life.  The biggest complication was what to have for dinner.  Hell, I can always have pasta!  Simple!

Then at night I began sitting in the dark on the back porch.  My neighborhood is quiet at night and dark.  I can feel the gentle breeze and the cool air and I have learned how to sigh. It sounds like this, “Aaahhhh!”  My dog and I are pretty much in sink and often our sighs are synchronized!  He gives me a lick on the face and then goes and cuddles in a pile with the two cats.  I watch, feeling a little left out and wonder why we as people can’t get along as well.  My wine glass is getting a little empty so I refill and sit back in my rocker and just as I close my eyes to chill and listen to the silence.  I hear the train whistle as it comes over the trestle across the creek and I smile.  I imagine hoboes hitching rides in the boxcars taking them to new adventures and I let my imagination go wild.  Simplicity has its advantages!

Simple is a Reprieve

Simplicity is a reprieve. It is a respite from the daily ‘busy-ness’ and complications of daily life – I sincerely doubt it is a steady state. But, hey, I’m no expert – so a quick survey of the internet was in order. I checked out a paper from the Journal of the History of Ideas, called Simplicity, a Changing Concept. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too complicated to easily apprehend.

Next steps: poems, quotes, and sound bites – my go-to’s (now there’s simplicity in action)! Usually, poetry expresses larger concepts in fewer words… however, I found no real affinity in the poems that I looked up. Again, they were not delivered in the shape of simplicity. In fact, one poet wrote about morning: “Whether it’s sunny or not, it’s sure to be enormously complex—“(William Meredith, Poem About Morning). He goes on to suggest, why take it on again (i.e., the complexity), when you were duped yesterday. Yikes!

The philosophers have more succinct quotes. Lao Tzu wrote that he had only three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. I’m pretty sure that Lao Tzu did not write the pictograph instructions that came with the ‘shed-in-a-box’ that I just constructed to store my woodturning logs!

Even Thoreau, the prophet of the Walden Pond, may have been seeking refuge from more than life’s usual complications (although working in a pencil factory wouldn’t appear to be like a telenovela at first glance). Apparently, two years before he moved to the Concord woods, Mr. T almost burned it all down by starting a forest fire (the consequence of trying to barbeque a fish in a hollow stump). Perhaps he relocated because he was tired of being called ‘Hank the Skank’ by the angry townspeople. It sort of gives new context to his quote: “We are happy in the proportion of things we can do without”.

Even Albert Einstein weighed in with his three rules: a) out of clutter, find simplicity, b) out of discord, find harmony, c) in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. To test this out, I reposed to my messy office, but after two days – dehydrated and weak from hunger – my wife showed me the path out of the room. Strangely, I did find some measure of harmony in the disorder, as though that was meant to be my steady state. However, in regard to Einstein’s third rule, I found that in the middle of difficulty lies more difficulties. (Try filling out a grant application for COVID Personal Protective Equipment).

In sum, I learned that my state of harmony lies smack in the middle of chaos — not apart from it. In homage to Hen, however, I found a quote I think he would like from author Sharon Salzberg:

“We can travel a long way and do many things, but our deepest happiness is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary, and knowing ourselves to be always at home.”

Sharon Salzberg

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As the World Turns

This past winter slowly, almost imperceptibly melted into spring. Winter temps were very mild and snowfalls almost negligible.  But as spring arrived so did Covid 19 and the accompanying isolation. Spring, usually accompanied with people spilling out of their houses, going to yard sales, nurseries, flea markets with their friends were stifled by the need to socially distance ourselves from one another.  Spring temperatures revved quickly up to the 80’s and days became indistinguishable from summer. 

The Spring months were lonely, solitary, fearful months as we began to learn more about Covid.  Instead of spring clothes we adorned masks and carried hand sanitizer whenever we dared venture out of our domiciles.  Days flowed one into the next unnoticeably, I lost track of the day and the date and it really didn’t matter.  Because of the heat of this past spring I hardly noticed when the solstice arrived and the season changed.  The brightest day and longest day of the year was hardly discernible because sequestered inside the house, little seemed different.  Perhaps the only recognition of the change of season was the sound of mowers more frequently resonating around the neighborhood.  Little social interaction between neighbors occurred cause we were all trying to feel our way safely through this pandemic.

Now with Labor Day over we are about to slide into the next season.  As a kid, autumn was always exciting.  In NYC we used to rake all the fallen leaves into huge piles on the edge of the road and jump in them.  Running, leaping, screaming into the piles. Then our dads would light the pile of leaves at the curb and we would all stand around and watch them burn.  That’s something you can’t do today but on any fall day, on any block in the suburbs of NYC,  you could find a pile of burning leaves to warm your hands with. The smell of the burning leaves is emblazoned in my nasal cavity for life and the thought of it, not it’s presence, still warms the cockles of my heart!  Autumn was for kids, for artists who tried to capture the incredible colors of the leaves, for bakers, with apple and pumpkin pies in the oven and their aromas wafting through the neighborhoods.    

During my teaching years, fall brought the first day of school.  I loved the excitement of setting up my classroom, loved decorating it for fall and meeting all the new students.  During my innkeeping years in Vermont it was the start of “leaf peeping” season and dealing with a month straight of full houses and   welcoming new people from all over the world.  It was exciting, special, I was surrounded by people in both experiences and loved it.  At the inn in the evenings it would mean schmoozing with guests in front of the raging fire and bottles of red wine.  There was joy and laughter and incredible conversation with people from all over the country and around the world.

So how am I going to distinguish the arrival of fall this year?  Of course, it comes with the 19th anniversary of 9/11,  an event emblazoned in my mind  and heart.  We are at the beginning stages of socializing and I have noticed a red tinge on some maple trees.   The light in my house has shifted slightly- the light from outside entering with a slight yellowing tinge.  I am grateful for that.  My dog and I wake up to a dark sky now which I can deal with because it is the natural progression of the world and it comforts me.  But little else is different from summer.  I suspect soon I will smell the wood burning stoves and fireplaces as they come into action and rubber gloves and masks will be replaced with knitted gloves and scarves, or at least I hope so!  I’m too old to do flips into piles of raked leaves and you can’t burn them anymore at the curb.  I’m ok with

those traditions passing but I would like to find a way to celebrate the autumn and would appreciate any suggestions as to how we can acknowledge the world turning during a smothering pandemic and once again discover some joy and youthful excitement.   Suggestions greatly appreciated!

Time Passages

The lead in to autumn is my favorite time of year and September my favorite month. George is right — this has been a time devoid of social landmarks that help keep track of the seasons. It is a shame, because we like to celebrate the seasonal transitions: winter into spring, spring into summer, and the coming of fall. The sameness of limited activity through the pandemic has dampened our collective activity. Unless you are a potential super-spreader, you have likely narrowed your social outreach. Schooling, zooming, or working from home has you staring at a screen of one sort or another for a good portion of the day. Is it possible to get a “blue tan”?

Yet, there is something about the fall which you feel in your bones. The high pressure weather systems and cooler temperatures encourage me to move, finish projects, and prepare for winter. Autumn is large muscle time – outdoor projects and sports take center stage. Growing up, the Fall Classic was the World Series which was played out in September. It was football weather in October, marked by homemade confetti and the smell of oak leaves. These days it’s the start of the indoor tennis season. I don’t see this time of year as the end of summer so much as the beginning of a new round of events. 

If summer is the celebration of flowers, the fall is celebration of leaves – and the harvest. Vegetable gardens are bountiful. Nothing better than fresh tomato sandwiches! Farmers markets share the bounty. It’s time to plant mums! 

This year has dulled the social aspects of the seasonal celebrations and looking back, it seems as though we have been robbed of our preparatory rhythm. Rhythm is important. Many of my friends are having difficulty remembering the day of the week, so it’s no wonder the weeks have passed in homogenous similarity. George asked for suggestions… I’d offer these:

  • The nights are cooler. Take advantage open windows and regular sleep patterns
  • Buy new shoes. Go for a walk in your new shoes… be aware of the new bounce in your step
  • Pretend you are starting school – get up at a regular time; dress for the day
  • Prepare your garden for winter rest – spend an hour a day outdoors
  • Start an indoor project
  • Take vitamin D – less light, more Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Less TV, more book
  • Celebrate the bounty of the season with fresh foods, a new coffee, a different tea

We can make our own seasonal markers. Make your kitchen table the center of the celebration. As Joy Harjo writes:

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”

Moving Through the Seasons

My blogging partners raise the question of how the pandemic influences our movement through the seasons. Certainly the transition of summer to fall is most noticeable to those of us who have connections to schools. Whether we have children or family and friends who are school employees, the summer vacation typically comes to an abrupt halt after Labor Day and marks a shift from more leisurely living to more rigorous schedules

The pandemic has certainly impacted this tradition.  While children and staff are back to school, they are returning in new and untested ways.  Hybrid models of in-person to full time virtual learning have unfolded with uncertainty as each district and state interprets the data and readies their school communities for potential shifts and adjustments over the coming months.  Add to that the challenge for working parents, who may or may not be working from home, to supervise their children when they are not in school, and we have a fall season like no other.

Yet autumn still signals us with diminishing daylight, cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and flowering grasses.  The days no longer sit heavy with heat and moisture and the cooler temps and falling dew points encourage us to get up and out, to breathe deeply and to enjoy our natural surroundings.  Duke and I have more energy and a quicker step during this time of year.  In this pandemic fall season I am still able to hike, garden, split wood, and sit on the porch with my laptop.  What’s changed is the lack of group gatherings around the fire pit and visits to see my grandchildren and to help out with their online learning while their parents are at work.  Not being able to help is my biggest challenge and not knowing when this will change, adds yet another layer.

However, fall only lasts so long.  Right now I am still able to have a friend or two over to sit on the porch for a meal or for a walk in the woods and to play outdoor pickle ball in the local park.  When winter arrives, these options will no longer be available and I must ready myself for a season of solitude (SOS). While the last few ideas Wal offered can apply, like George asked in his opening post, I welcome suggestions for those indoor days.

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I-dentity

I’m sitting at the dining room table with my grandsons. We’re discussing the use of semi-colons. Yikes, why? Well I read a squib in The Week, indicating that young people find it hostile when older people, such as myself, use a period in a text message. I wondered why and asked my two young consultants. My youngest grand said that periods are called for at the end of a thought and are not a signal of hostility; my older agreed with the The Week, feeling that the period expressed a position of stark finality – in the vein of a proclamation from an adult — and possibly too strong for a short informal text. He felt that lack of a period leaves a sense of open-endedness in the exchange.  That led to a discussion about other punctuation, including the misunderstood semi-colon. I mined Wikipedia for its guidance on the “;” and we had a lively conversation on punctuation. Who’d a’thought?

Let’s segue to the well-used pronoun “I”. It is used four times in the paragraph above – four times in nine sentences. If we add the use of ‘my’ or ‘myself’, that is nine times in nine sentences. Sounds like it’s all about me, doesn’t it? Sometimes this is called ‘self-reference’ writing. Does it seem to you that self-reference is an over-used trope in both writing and speaking? Perhaps it is a sign of the times that one’s point of view overshadows all forms of communication. When was the last time you heard a reporter simply read the news, versus opine about it? Maybe it’s time to consider a different approach.

A book (Wake Up and Live) written in 1936 explores the idea that self-reference discourse freezes a person in their own opinions and hardens his/her/they/one’s point of view. Sure, describing a personal experience requires the use of personal reference, but perhaps that need not be dominant form of daily communication. The author, Dorothea Brande, suggests avoiding the use of “I” or “my” as an exercise in damping down the subjective or egocentric nature of our thinking. Her thesis is that substituting “we” in our conversation nudges a person to find common ground with others – and may in fact make a person a more interesting communication partner.

Since common ground seems like a diminishing resource these days, it might be worth a try. As a homework assignment, she asks her readers to write an essay or report without using any self-reference – no “I” or “my” or “me”. Sounds like a tough task for us who are members of the “Me-generation”. But there’s help. Check out ‘Avoiding the “I” Trap’ https://www.livewritethrive.com/2015/12/09/writing-mechanics-avoiding-the-i-trap-and-other-irritants/ and ‘3 Methods for Avoiding Personal Pronouns’ https://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Using-Personal-Language-in-Writing.

But enough about me….

Beyond the _I_

Walther Conkite was the trusted voice of reason.  In an article written by Scott Simon for NPR, Simon says:

“Cronkite was a great broadcaster. He spoke to masses, not niches. He grasped that when the news was urgent, people would turn to the broadcaster not only for information, but for sincerity and calm.  Millions of people felt better to hear from this man who seemed experienced, but not jaded. He had a visible sense of grief in tragedies, and a little boy’s delight in the glory of space shots. He had gray hair and hound-dog bags under his eyes, but ageless sincerity.

Wal (another Walter) nudges us past what is, to what might be, and in the case of Walter Conkite, what was)

The notion of speaking and writing from “I” is something well practiced, especially in the United States.  Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine writes:

“In all honesty, if we say, ‘This is like the flu, we’ll be all right,’ that attitude is going to harm other people,” Landon told The Post. “And it’s really hard to wrap your head around that, especially in American culture: We’re individualistic and we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and find a way to make it through. And that’s not going to work right now.”

On April 1, 2020 Jane Hyun wrote an article for Fast Company about the impact of culture on how we approach the current pandemic.

“Geert Hofstede, renowned social psychologist, measured the differences in individualism vs. collectivism across nations. The “hugger” approach is a prime example of American individualistic culture. It is expected that each individual act for him or herself, make their own choices, and that individual needs take precedence over the group’s. In South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and China, where the collectivist orientation is prevalent, preferences are given to the rights of the community, team, or organization and standing out is not encouraged; therefore decisions are made that take into account the best interests of the group. Employers (and institutions) take responsibility for their employees and recognition is given to groups and teams as a whole. In times of crisis where we need to move quickly to contain a pandemic, the collectivist orientation perspective has its benefits.”

We are a country that fiercely celebrates independence, so it is not surprising to find the “I” influence in our communications.  Earlier in our culture, it was more common to find families living in closer proximity and each member accepting responsibilities that contributed to the greater good.  It could also be argued that family elders were looked upon for their life experiences as well as the stories that bound the kinfolk.  This interdependence was often necessary for the survival and success of the family. Perhaps this is a seminal time for us to consider a shift in our way of thinking that goes beyond the “I.”  Perhaps, in addition to the benefits of independence, there are significant consequences we wish to avoid and the bygone benefits of interdependence are worthy of renewal.

Me, Myself, and I

I am the oldest member of this blog group.  Henry won’t be my age for another 2 or 3 months and Wally, well he’s much younger!  So, I’ll just say that if wisdom comes with years,  I should receive respectful deference for my opinions!  I’m glad Wally didn’t talk to his grandchildren about the use of exclamation points cause I use them all the time!  Not that everything I say requires emphasis because of it’s value but I’m old and need humoring!   I will,  however, adhere to the concept: one sentence, one period at the end.
I am not very cerebral.  I think with my gut.  I often use wrong parts of my body to do different functions than were intended.  But I digress!  After several readings of  both Wally’s and Henry’s pieces I began to understand the concept of I-dentity.  I slept on it…I contemplated over late night snacks on it,  I mused over how to write without using it.  And(never start a sentence with “and” nor end one with a preposition) I questioned what the heck was I going to write about!  After several failed attempts I realized my writing was about my personal feelings and experiences.  I always value hearing other people’s personal experiences and feelings about those experiences.  In a political time when social discourse is mainly “them” vs. “us” I would rather hear about you personally. I am comfortable reading an entire story about someone in the first person. I don’t feel that the decline of western civilization is based on our ending I-dentity in our literary genre.
I commiserate with 3 important people in my life I this time of pandemics,  Me, Myself, and I.  Therefore,  I will write in the first person. For me my ideas, experiences, and struggles are valuable to be shared. If something I write gives someone an idea how to deal with something, I have done a good thing.  If you are experiencing something that I may have already gone through, it may make you feel good to know you aren’t alone!  I know that has happened to me. If just for a moment something I said put your mind at ease, I have succeeded!  If something I said gave you an idea of how to deal with something, I have succeeded.  If you chuckled, I have succeeded.  It has to do with authenticity.  This IS who I am.  But now, one must stop and get one’s butt into bed!

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When We Struggle

We all have different thresholds for what moves an inconvenience into the struggle category.  And, because words have different meanings for each of us, to acknowledge struggle doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone – anyone for that matter.  

Some define struggle as  “work hard to deal with or overcome a difficulty or challenge.”  Notice this is written in the singular, which implies that we perhaps “struggle” with one thing at a time.  But wait!  It has been my experience that when one thing stands apart from the many, I am more easily able to marshal my energies to focus on a solution or best choice scenario.  In fact, I am often energized in this case because most everything else is in synchrony, relative harmony, and in alignment.  I have the luxury of allowing an unrelenting focus on my issue.  Yum!  Nope, that doesn’t define struggle for me.

For the purpose of this post, I need to pluralize the definition to include the feeling of being bombarded by multiple difficulties and challenges for a significant period of time.  Add yet another factor of not always being able to clearly identify all of the assailing projectiles, and you might better understand where I’m coming from when I say, I’m struggling.  And now add the component that there is no convincing evidence to support an end-date by which most of these trials will resolve.  Ugh!

I recently went for my physical exam.  Prior to and throughout the process, I was asked as a matter of a new standard protocol, if I was feeling depressed.  Is this not a sign of that many of us are struggling during these times?

It’s one thing to know about struggle and how to address it.  It’s another thing to be able to step back to see yourself more objectively as others may see you.  But it’s an entirely different thing to be able to apply what you know and what you’ve learned to move forward toward improvement and out of that almost seductive black hole that spirals downward into an emotional abyss of despair.

Throughout my life I’ve ridden the roller coaster of good and bad, happy and sad, fulfillment and desire, success and failure.  When I look back though, I realize how thrilling it has been, how much joy I’ve felt, and how many people I’ve interacted with and with whom I’ve influenced and been influenced by.  The bumps and bruises of the wildest part of the ride have left scars, yes.  But they also taught me when to pull the seat belt tighter and when to loosen it, when to hang on tight and when to weave and bob and be more flexible.   Each incident gave me more reason to keep at it.  It always, always, got better.

One of my secret weapons against struggle!

If you asked me last week, I would have told you the current events in my life during these extraordinary times have given me good cause to say I’m struggling.  Today I would say I’m not!  Not so much has changed since last week.  But the few simple things that did, allowed me to remember to have faith, that life is good, it all works out, and the struggle makes me stronger.

Some things that help me with struggle:

  • Reach out to friends, especially those who know how to listen.
  • Nature heals, even when it’s too damn hot to feel it.
  • Exercise, keep moving, motion is lotion (for my old achy joints)
  • Laugh
  • Hug – thank goodness for my dog Duke.  (He’s much softer than the trees.)
  • Get back up – every time
  • Keep an attitude of gratitude, even when you’re not feeling it.
  • Drink chocolate ice-cream sodas with whipped cream.  (My two secret ingredients are a splash of heavy cream and a squirt of raspberry syrup.)
  • Be helpful to someone other than yourself.
  • Life is uncertain so eat dessert first. (Did that last week with George and Wal!)
  • Let go
  • Accept

A Struggle Snuggle

I’m glad Henry raised this topic.  I’ve struggled my entire life for all kinds of things, mostly trying to hide who I really was.  That was a struggle that took somewhere upwards of 40 years to resolve.   It was a struggle I had to manage all alone and without help, advice, or encouragement from anyone.  That’s probably why it took so long!

Historically, I have always had trouble asking for help from anyone.  For most of my life there have been unresolved issues that were easier to let sit and fester than to resolve by asking for help.   Simple kinds of things, decisions about career and family, daily life stuff.  Just let time pass, they will work themselves out.  Of course my internal worry system would have time to kick in and often built the struggle way out of proportion from what could have easily been resolved yesterday. 

But I notice now we all seem to be struggling.  Not just from the virus and the quarantine but the news cycle as well. The struggle is an internal struggle.  How do I deal with the loneliness, the isolation, the news of hardship and pain, the inertia that months of separation have allowed to set in?  Things are easing a little and I find it becoming an effort to get out of my chair and do things.  I miss people and touch. Reaching out isn’t easy.  Each evening as I climb into bed I have an overwhelming feeling of sadness oftentimes driving me to tears. The sadness is sometimes brought on by something I saw or read about someone else’s misfortune but sometimes it is just a heavy dark sheet that covers me in self pity! The cause undetermined other than these crazy times in which we live and the lack of knowing if letting time pass will bring back NORMAL!

Things are so strange.  The other day my neighbor introduced me to someone who was working on his house.  I reached out automatically and we shook hands.  Immediately we both apologized but it was automatic, sincere and comforting to do it. Something so natural has become another struggle. Common daily practices become part of the problem.  

Living alone now has intensified my struggles.   Not because I would have asked for advice or help but because my struggling is always easier with a snuggle when someone just understands you are going through something that a hug, cuddle, or pat on the back could help.  I, like Henry, have a dog to hug who isn’t a bad snuggler and seems to have a sixth sense about when the dark sheet starts to cover me.  We are all dealing with our own demons, and I’m afraid each of us has to find our own way to slay them!

Inertia

Struggle — whether you oppose, contest, fight, endeavor or find yourself in a conflict, encounter, or skirmish – means you are rubbing against the grain. 

I admire Hen’s ability to profit from a struggle involving multiple and/or serial difficulties, but I can’t seem to embrace a positive position on this subject. Mandy Kloppers writes: ”With struggle there is no joy and rarely any reward. In fact, for some people struggle is the reward. They are a little lost without it. There is comfort in what you know.”(mentalhealthnet). 

Perhaps that better describes my position – I expect to struggle, so I do. I expect to contest, churn, and endeavor – but not to enjoy it. When it seems like a flight of arrows forces you to tuck and roll – my primary focus is simply to survive. Generally, I put my head down and grind through it. When it’s over, the overwhelming feeling I have is relief – and the satisfaction of remaining somewhat intact. And perhaps a little lingering adrenaline high.

Hen says what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The Jamaican version goes ‘what doesn’t kill you, just gives you gas’. Struggle is a case of indigestion with a heartburn topping. Struggle is roadwork on your metaphysical highway. Struggle of any kind looks just fine in the rearview mirror, but there are plenty more visible in the road ahead. What’s to like?

I suppose I’m a big fan of inertia in the sense of moving in a straight line at a constant speed, unimpeded. Inertia isn’t laziness – it’s the need to channel energy to stay on track to reach a targeted goal. George is right: most of our struggles are internal. My guess is that many internal struggles are manufactured distractions. Perhaps that’s why Matthew Wilder’s anthem sings:

Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride
Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no
I got to keep on movin’
Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride
I’m running and I won’t touch ground
Oh no, I got to keep on movin’

Granted that presumes a limited amount of self-reflection. But I can identify with the aspect of powering through some internal doubts or struggles in order to face the basic conditions of life: we do our best in the moment, understanding that we have limited control of all the variables and we may not make all the right choices, but we move on and hopefully live to fight another day. In the end, it is not clear that ‘struggling’ improves the choices that we do make. And yet, I’ll likely continue to struggle with this concept.

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Holy Mary, full of grace

During this quarantine and period of reflection my daughter and I have been ordering in food on Sunday evenings and the three of us(my dog) enjoy each other’s company for a couple hours.  We sit in her living room and watch movies on her super gigantic Smart TV screen.  The movies we have watched are mostly historical in nature and have led to some very interesting conversations afterwards.

Let me preface this by explaining that I am the sole survivor of my family with the exception of my kids.  I regretted not asking a million questions of my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. Not to mention my brother who for the last few years before his death was the verifier of family lore and associated historical family events!

Last Sunday we settled down with Mexican food and watched a movie called, “Motherless Brooklyn.”  It took place in the 50’s in Brooklyn and Queens and dealt with racial discrimination and unethical politics.  Very timely and appropriate to today’s conditions.  After the movie ended my daughter asked if that was what it was like in the 50’s in the boroughs.  Of course the cars and the architecture took me back to my childhood, but so did the politics of the time and the accents.  And at that moment I had that “AH HA!” realization.  I said to her that I regretted never asking my family about so many things.  Did my grandparents ever become citizens?  What was life like in the little hill town of Pietrapertosa in Basilicata?  What happened to Gramma’s brothers when they arrived in Ellis Island and had their names changed from Matiacchio to Madison and why did they lose touch?  And a million other questions that I am still sorry I never asked.

unanswered questions about grandpa’s family



I then told her, with tears in both our eyes, to ask away.  Now is the time!   We don’t know how long we have together to fill in the blanks, and I don’t want her to regret living with all those unanswered questions like I have to do.   Her questions began to spill out.  She had heard stories all her life about Holy Mary,  better known as Aunt Mary, who we would always laugh about because she would always tell us to say a Holy Mary, meaning Hail Mary,  after we prayed each night.  My brother and I coined that name for her and would laugh whenever we thought of her.  She was my dad’s uncle’s wife.  My daughter never met her but heard about her her whole life.    And who was Muddy Ette?  Another name she had heard about her entire life and had no idea who we were talking about.   That was Aunt Eleanor’s best friend in NYC who grew up with her.  Her parents came from the same town in Italy as our family.  Her name was Marietta but with our regional accent it sounded like Muddy Ette! 

We sat that night laughing and crying together as her questions kept coming.  I know there will be more thoughtful questions coming and I welcome them. I look forward to sharing whatever I know about our family with her.  It was a significant moment in our relationship and so glad I had thought to open that door for her.  It was apparent she has a lot of questions to ask.  I savor the opportunity to share these moments with her!   We said good night and gave each other a long overdue, real, long lasting, unmasked hug for the first time in 5 months.  Covid-19 be damned!

The Story of Us

I took away two major conclusions from George’s piece: a) the sweet need to connect to a story and b) the importance of making the story interesting.

After all, we are simply the latest product of a long line of forebears – we’re one chapter in a very large book. In a world that hungers for prequels and sequels, it’s no wonder that we dig in to our origin stories – the story of us. What’s really nice is the closeness it can bring to the teller and the listener. It says you are not alone in the wide world – and we have special stories that should be handed down, so that ‘our’ people are not lost. How many of us have boxes of old photographs that are not labeled, featuring individuals we can no longer identify? I know that I do. Seems a shame.

Of course, our stories need to be interesting in the telling. Carl Jung called this myth making – in a positive sense. A friend of ours – possibly, the best story-teller I have met – explained it this way: she read a book which detailed a series of dramatic events in an elderly woman’s life. However, the book did not develop the characters very well; the facts were simply stated. So, even though the events were compelling, the reader remained disengaged, because it was hard to care about the central character. She said that it could have been an excellent multi-generational saga, if the author had spent some time putting the events in a larger context, making the character more three dimensional.

George uses the story teller’s hook to make his history interesting: providing monikers that have a back story. It makes Holy Mary and Muddy Etta special. They have earned a brand for which they are remembered! They are elevated into heroes and heroines – legends of a sort. Our story teller friend also populates her tellings with individuals whose Damon Runyon sobriquets include Wayne the Flame (alleged arsonist), Lancer the Romancer (local playboy), and Dead Betty’s house (used to be Live Betty’s). Now, here are characters who are larger than life (except poor Betty)! It makes you want to know more about them.

How do you pass along your family stories?

Tell Me a Story

When my grandchildren were younger, the first thing they would ask me as soon as we got into my car was to tell them a story.  It didn’t matter if it was something I recently remembered and hadn’t yet told them or if it was one of the stories that they heard me tell dozens of times before.  Over the years we’ve spent hours laughing at my childhood and family adventures and mishaps.  They especially enjoyed hearing stories of their mom when she was a little girl.  

As they got older and it was harder for me to infuse my energy and silliness into stories I’d told over and over, so I introduced them to a new approach. We began to use “…and then!” to mix fantasy with family memories.  We took turns starting a story, usually made up, and after a few minutes of developing a character or plot the speaker would stop at a critical juncture and turn to the next person and say, … and then!  Of course it was then that person’s turn to continue the story in his or her own way. It provided wonderful opportunities for us to share ideas, our fears, and, of course our silliness, while passing the time and having fun.  

More recently, we would play “farm.”  Each of us assumed a role as a member of a family who lives on a farm and, while tending to our animals, had to prepare for a town festival on our property.  Either we were driving to pick up materials or food or delivering horses or pigs, or we would scatter about the property of whose ever house we were at, pretending to set up booths and parking areas, etc.  I’m wondering if these times will be the family stories my grandchildren will tell when their children ask them about the “old days.”

George reminds me of the importance of family connection and history through story and conversation.  While my playtime with my grandchildren is now limited, I do spend more time with my children on the phone or in weekly video-chats.  Perhaps the next time I speak with them, I’ll ask them if there are any questions they have or stories they might want to hear of days gone by.

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The Ties That Bind

We’re sitting in our truck, parked along the periphery of the church parking lot. It’s a hot morning and we’re taking advantage of the shade provided by the catalpa trees. There are a number of vehicles around the lot, spaced like a string of pearls. Only two brave souls are in the middle of the asphalt field.

Each of us had options: we could have stayed home and ignored a call to worship. We could have stayed home and participated by Zoom. Or we could drive to the church and park. The folks who drove to the church are listening to the pastor broadcast from the sanctuary on our FM radio… his broadcast range is about a quarter mile radius. We are listening to the organist sing and play from her Zoom connection.  I look at the other folks, all gray headed and think: how many more years can this last, before we all die off and leave the church without a congregation? What would be the consequence?

When we three old guys started this blog, one of the main objectives was to express how we experience the aging process – things that you aren’t taught when young. I would tell my grandkids that you might expect that worship in a group is an act that you may find more pleasing as you grow older. If you are wise, you may realize it sooner than later.

Certainly, I didn’t. The idea of attending a worship service seemed a waste of time when I was a teenager and young adult. There were better things to do than spend time in a boring service with hypocrites that prayed in one fashion, but acted in an entirely different fashion. Besides, who has a monopoly on the ‘real truth’?

So, why are we at this service in the hot sun? I think there are two reasons: a) the act of exercising faith is important personally and collectively b) we are community-building.

My opinion is that by worship, one humbles oneself before the great unknown. In addition, it is part of a compact to improve oneself morally. It is a discipline that is common to all faiths. It is a visible act, witnessed by others that says I’m willing to do better, to be better — to think of others. Worship in a group multiplies the effect in my mind – it’s an implied public commitment. Participants are joining in common purpose, if only for an hour or so. Is it perfect – are we perfect? Of course not. But it is brave. And what would be the consequence of never honoring the possibility that we are purpose-made? The consequence would be the negation of the second reason: community-building. As an example, our congregation is a mix of people with all kinds of varying opinions. Yet we put all that aside for a weekly meeting to focus on spiritual matters. People chose to drive to this place of worship to sit in hot cars – because we have a need to see our neighbors and recognize a common purpose. Showing up expresses mutual respect. I call this community-building. It is quiet affirmation that the larger community in which we live still binds us together, regardless of our political persuasion, personal pursuits, or aspects of our lives where we miss the mark. We are not here for a party, nor for protest – but rather to remind ourselves that there is a great beyond which deserves homage.

Note: the image is from a 1945 painting by Marianne Appel, who was a member of the Woodstock School of Art. She later focused on puppeteering with Bill Baird and later, the Muppet Show. She remained active in the arts community in Woodstock. I wanted to reference a local artist who depicted a community working together — what better than a barn raising? Although this Indiana community is pretty homogeneous, it shows inclusion of all neighbors, regardless of age or sex. In other words, I value the spirit of people working together to build something; doing the heavy lifting made easier by many joined hands. Do you have a favorite piece of art that represents your view of community building?

Being in Community

I appreciate this message Wal leaves for his grandchildren.  Faith, self-improvement, and community are words that hold great meaning for me.

I no longer worship as a member of a religious congregation but I once did.  I fondly remember an instance when we were all singing a well known, uplifting prayer and my friend glanced at me and smiled.  It was a look that said, isn’t it great to be standing here with all these people, giving thanks and feeling good?  It was a powerful moment that could only happen in community.

Years ago I was a member of The Caring Community.  We defined our community as a place where people felt valued, accepted, and connected. We came together regularly for two reasons: to participate in personal growth and to provide service to others.  I never thought of it as a religious organization but it served similar purposes.  We were a diverse group and while we did not live in the same area we were committed to each other and to our intention.  We had lots to celebrate despite (or because of…) our challenges and struggles.  For five years we endured and when we realized we could no longer sustain the rigors and responsibilities of our group, we met in solidarity to honor what we had learned and experienced and then went our separate ways.  I am wiser, more self aware, and a stronger person because of this amazing collaboration of people.

For fifteen years I was part of another extraordinary community – my place of work.  And because we built this union of some seventy-five people around respect, hard work, cooperation, celebration, and fun, it never really felt like work.  It was, in many ways, a second home for me.

Recently, I was part of an Alliance created to provide support and guidance for a friend at her request.  It was an example of a brief but powerful community of service.  I hope to be part of one again in the near future.

And finally, during this time of continued isolation and restrictions due to risk of exposure to COVID-19 I realize how fortunate I am to be in community with two remarkably wise and caring men, Wal and Geo. Working, serving, and playing with groups of people continue to be, as Wal puts it, the ties that bind.  I always feel more complete and fulfilled when I am part of such a community. 

The Need to Belong

Ever since I started school I always wanted to fit in.  Even at a young age I knew I was different but didn’t understand it.  (That just intensified my need to be accepted.  Later on, I would define that difference and still struggle to be a part of a group).  I was too small and too skinny to be much good at sports.   In school it was hard to be a part of a group if you couldn’t make a  basket because of your skinny arms and lack of muscle structure.  Team sports was an opportunity to fit in with a group that was denied to me.   And, though I was popular in high school, I never had a clique to belong to. 

Finally, in college I was accepted into a fraternity and for the first time I had a group of friends with a common purpose and a place to belong.  It made me feel special and accepted, and made friends that have lasted a lifetime.

The need to belong followed me into my adult life and I became a part of groups with common purposes that changed as careers and interests evolved.  I became president of my kids‘ PTA,  president of my local teachers’ union and active in regional teachers unions.  When there was no professional group to join I helped organize one for innkeepers to talk out common problems and encourage tourism to our area in Vermont.  I even fulfilled a lifelong dream and auditioned for a part in local community theatre where I achieved the official part of Salesman #1 in “The Music Man“ and suddenly I was a part of a cast of some 40 people working together to entertain our community.  That further led to joining the Northeast Chordsmen, a barbershop chorus out of Dartmouth College.  All of these organizations had the common purpose requirement that I so desperately needed all my life!

Now in retirement, that need is still present.  Unlike Wally, my faith has always been individually practiced, praying silently or out loud at bedtime!  It gives me comfort in that I usually pray when something is eating away at me and it forces me to focus on the prayer rather than the irritant until the irritant lessens!

Today I belong to two very important groups in my life with common goals that help me find purpose.  I have a community of LGBTQ friends where I finally fit in like the last piece of the puzzle waiting to be positioned to create a beautiful landscape. The other and  equally important group is this 3 member blog that has become all the more important to me  due to this crazy pandemic with which we are all infected.

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The Pets in My Life

The Pets in My Life

I’ve always been drawn to animals.  When asked what animal I would choose to be other than human, I immediately think of wolf.  But, since I can’t become a wolf or have one in my home, I’ve enjoy the companionship of dogs.

When I was eight and my father still lived with us, he brought home, what he said, was a direct descendant of Rin Tin Tin, a dog hero in a 1950’s family western TV series.  We named this beautiful German Shepard, West.  He was a perfect pet with one minor exception; he hated children.  And, since my sister and I were children as were our friends, having a dog that growled at us and bared it’s teeth every time we approached, didn’t bode well for anyone.  West was returned shortly after he arrived.

Mickey came next.  My parents got him from a nearby farm when he was a puppy and he lived with us until he wandered off to some unknown resting place when he was seventeen.  He was a beautiful Shepard Collie and while he was no relation, he was the spitting image of Lassie.  In addition to his kind and playful attitude, he was a problem solver.  We had an outdoor kennel for him but he dug tunnels under the fence and would sit on the front porch as if to say, sorry, I need to be free.  When we tied a long rope to his collar and the other end to a stake in the ground, he turned around, backed up until he slipped the collar off, and headed to the front porch.  So, we replaced the collar with a harness.  And then we watched him from the window as he turned around, backed up, put one paw through the strap, then the other, slipped the entire restraint off and, well you know, proudly walked to the front porch.  Finally, we would put him in the garage when we needed to keep him in (my mom didn’t allow dogs in the house).  This seemed to work until we arrived home from shopping one day to find him sitting on the porch.  The two-car garage door was closed and no one was around.  The second time this happened we decided to see if Mickey had enlisted the aid of another or if one of my friends was playing a prank.  We put him in the garage, closed the door, and peered through a crack in the basement door that led to the garage.  He walked over to the side of the double door, grabbed the rope that hung to the side, backed up with great effort pulling the double wooden door up maybe a foot off the ground and then, released the rope and dove though the opening, as the door came crashing down.  I enjoyed his antics but what I loved most was the companionship Mickey gave me. 

While I was in college I met several dogs that came in and out of my life (and other dog loving students) at different times.  Thor was a jet black German Shepard who would often come to the pond behind our dorm and loved to fetch the puck as we attempted to play hockey.  He soon realized we wouldn’t follow him if he left the ice so he learned to run and slide, as he stayed close enough for the chase but never close enough for us to catch him without great effort and coordinated teamwork.  

Wazu was a campus beagle who wandered daily for food and hugs and seemed to be one of the happiest creatures I’ve known.  He would often join me on short local hikes.

Sam was a large mutt who would find me, often, and who would walk me to classes, wait for me to come out, and walk me home.  In the extreme ups and downs of college life, it was comforting to know Sam and Wazu seemed to be there for me.  I assume he gave many college kids a similar gift.

In my senior year, I happened upon Josh, a small, white, terrier mix who belonged to someone I knew but can no longer remember.  For some reason he needed to find a home for Josh who had a personality that was compatible with everyone who met him.  My future wife’s parents and Josh were a perfect match and home he went to live on Long Island.  Josh was so friendly that when my in-laws’ house was burglarized, he remained in the house throughout the experience, with little to no trauma.  In fact, we’re convinced he either unlocked the door for them or at least showed them around the house.

Soon after beginning my teaching career, the parent of one of my students offered me one of the kittens from her cat’s litter.  My wife and I were both working and traveling about an hour each way so the idea of a self-sufficient cat seemed to fit the bill.  Mew (short for Bartholomew), was jet-black, full of piss and vinegar, and used his claws, often.  We were given the name of a retired vet who would neuter Mew for far less than the usual fee.  You know the phrase “you get what you pay for?”  With his shaky hands and uncertain manner and Mew’s fierce dedication to independence, we witnessed what looked like a movie scene where the mad scientist was chasing the cat from hell all over a large cluttered room with a hypodermic.  Finally, in desperation, the former doctor (we wondered if he was ever a licensed vet) threw the syringe like a dart into the cat and then pounced on him to plunge the tranquilizer into his system.  As fate would have it, it wasn’t enough and now we have a groggy but angry wildcat stumbling through the room as the determined doc reloaded for another dose.  By now we decided it was too late to grab the cat and leave so we sat horrified as Mew was knocked out and neutered.  After the surgery, the vet announced that our cat might not survive and needed to stay with him overnight.  Convinced that this man who was nursing his bloody hands from the scratches Mew induced, was determined to seek revenge and make sure recovery was not an option, we put some money on the table, grabbed the cat and ran for the car.  After a night and a day of care and attention, Mew awoke and went on to live a long and even more fiercely independent life.

Years later, I took on a second job managing an after-school center for elementary aged children.  It was there that I met Cocoa, a beautiful bronze colored collie mix. 

He lived in a small apartment with one of the kids in the program and the child’s mom.  She would often bring him to the center to pick up her son and it was there that she mentioned she needed to give up Cocoa for numerous reasons.  I brought him home for a weekend on a trial basis and while he and Mew had little to do with each other, Cocoa was hit with our two children.  He was a mellow, gentle soul who loved everyone, including the neighborhood bully dog that would frequently beat him up every time Cocoa approached him.  Not necessarily what you would call a quick study, but he added many years of pleasure and love to our lives.

Josh, who had been living with my in-laws, joined Mew and Cocoa after my father-in-law died and my mother-in-law moved to an apartment.  The three got along well and each, in their unique way gave us joy and affection that would last beyond their years.

Fast-forward to a time when many things had changed, all three pets having lived twelve, fifteen, and seventeen years were gone and our children were now adults.  My wife and I were no longer together and I was once again ready for another pet.  My adult children came to visit to help me find an appropriate rescue dog at a local shelter.  The match was instantaneous as we all agreed that Jeb, a three-year old black scrawny mutt who was a mixture of Shepherd, Newfoundland, and Rottie was the one for us.  After we brought him home the kids went to visit their mom.  When they returned they gave me a newspaper clipping of a rescue dog being advertised as needing a new home that their mom had clipped for me knowing I was in the market.  Unbelievably, it was Jeb, the same dog we had just brought home.  If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.  Jeb, who grew to over one hundred healthy pounds, exceeded his life expectancy and died well into his seventeenth year.

Now there’s Duke.  His alluring photo on a dog-rescue website captured my interest and that of my partner.  He was being shipped up from a kill shelter in West Virginia to a pet supply store for adoption on a first come, first served basis.  The doors opened at nine but we were advised to come early, as there might be a crowd.  So, despite the heavy snowfall that morning, we arrived shortly after seven only to find twenty-six other pet lovers waiting on line, in the snow and cold with almost two hours left until opening and more and more people arriving every few minutes.  When we were finally allowed in to meet the dogs, we waited while one of the hopeful adopters was getting to know Duke.  When she stepped aside we sat by his side and were hooked.  A member of the adoption team approached and asked if we wanted him, we were clear in our desire to have him but mentioned there was another who had expressed an interest and we didn’t know how the process worked.  After a quick check of the list of visitors that was written in order of arrival time, it turns out we were one place in front of our competition.  We later found out that the person second in line had also come for Duke but fell in love with another dog.  Another case of Karma?  

Duke

Now it’s just the two of us as we give each other comfort and companionship during these limited times for social interactions.  I am so thankful for this guy.  And, so is my former partner who Duke happily gets to visit from time to time.

I Paws for a Moment…

When we moved into Queens I was 5.  My dad and mom got us a dog.  We named him Tim and he was a sweet mutt.  But never having had a pet he scared me cause he moved fast and licked everything!  Shortly after that my brother “found” a puppy and brought him home and now we had Tim and Tiny. I got over my fear and picked up a few cats over the early years.   Tiny and Tim died when I was entering high school, and my dad bought a pedigreed German Shepard he named Baron Ludwig Von Vlushinger, better known as Sarge!  I picked up a few parakeets along the way and several goldfish.  One lived in a round flat bowl for 6 years and was big enough to eat by the time he passed.  We called him Goldie.  That was the story of my early years through high school. 

In my senior year of college I snuck a puppy into my apartment every night for 4 months who moved with me to my first teaching job and our first house.  He met a rather unfortunate demise at the hands of my neighbor who shot him one day and never told us.  We found out months later and moved into the big city of Kingston immediately after.  My wife surprised me with Dagmar when I got my masters degree. She looked like a black Irish Setter.    Dagmar lived with us for 17 years.  She was a sweety and learned to love the kittens and strays my kids brought home, including a great chocolate lab mix called Daisy!  He came along with a beautiful all white kitty named Pegasus who lived a long and healthy life many years after moving to Woodstock.  All my pets were family members!  My last dog came after my wife and I split.  Julie was a Shepard mix and I found him one day driving through the country when I saw a sign saying, “PUPPIES.”  How can you pass something like that!  

Fast forward- years go by, the dogs passed of old age, I retired and was moving to Vermont to own and operate an inn.  Couldn’t own dogs cause they wouldn’t insure you if you did.  But I managed to adopt two beautiful little kittens who loved mingling with the guests!

Devon

Fast forward again to the present.  Sold the Inn, moved back to NY and for the first time EVER I am alone with my two kitties.  But I missed having a dog!  So I began my search.  I went online, visited shelter after shelter , nothing!  After over a year of searching I had given up but had some quilts from the inn that I wanted to donate and went to my local SPCA to help them out and just casually asked if they had any puppies.  I was told they just took a mom and 3 pups in the day before.  They let me into the play room and released all of them.  I sat on the floor and this one guy came over to me, crawled in my lap and laid down.  The rest is history!  But this time is different.  In the past there were other people playing with them and feeding them, usually my dad.  They were always his dogs.  Then my kids were there and played with them and I was at work.  Suddenly there was no one but me and my little pup!  Nothing took me regularly out of the house.  Devon followed me everywhere, if I sat down he sat on me.  If he was hungry he let me know, if he had to go out he pulled my hand.  Suddenly we were reading each other’s body language.  He began to sense my moods and knew when to stay away and when to cuddle. It was a whole new experience with my dog.  I never shared this with my previous pets because there were always other distractions.  Then came COVID-19 and Devon and I have become the best of friends.  We finish each other’s sentences!  Without him I’m not sure how I would have made it through the sheltering in place.  I will forever be grateful to him.  He is my buddy!

Dog-Gone

Well, I love pets, but dislike the term ‘pet’. I prefer ‘companion’ – or even ‘familiar’, if we can get past the supernatural subtext — or ‘partner’, if the animal is purpose-bred or used for a functional project, such as hunting or herding. The point is that there ought to be an implication of choice, mutual benefit, and some autonomy in the relationship. Pet seems entirely too one-sided.

That said, a healthy relationship with an animal companion is amazing. For a young kid, it teaches respect and responsibility – but more important: empathy and love. At least that’s how it worked with me through a succession of cats, dogs, guinea pigs, turtles, chameleons, and one surprisingly large lab rat (Rosemary). But my favorite companions have been dogs – and I’ll focus on three.

The first was a slap-happy, peripatetic Boxer provided by my uncle, after my Dad’s German Shepard (Dick) passed away. My parents asked me to name her – and without any hesitation I said “Juno Virginia”. I don’t think they expected that moniker from the four year old sitting in the back seat of the 1950 Plymouth. They laughed and the name stuck. Juno was an outside dog who was generally tethered in the dirt floor, detached garage. Letting Juno off the leash would result in a neighborhood manhunt – she was an official flight risk. Happy to follow her nose, she would have reached the Pacific quicker than Lewis and Clark – I should have called her Juneau, Alaska! Over the years, we have received postcards from Juno in a number of exotic places.

A longer term companion through grade school and college was a Dachshund titled Baron Dach von Spritzen, AKA Doc, AKA Rug Rocket.  Doc’s last appellation was derived from his habit of sliding across the carpet on his belly. He would rev up, tuck up his front legs, and surf the rug, sliding past my brother and me as we watched TV or played a board game. Doc literally rubbed all the fur off his chest. When we took Doc out in our small runabout in Great South Bay, he would launch himself like a canine dolphin through the shallow water, leaping rather than swimming. Doc had a zest for life and lots of affection to share — how could you not love such a being? He was both friend and confidant. I’m reminded of the Kingston Trio song, ‘Speckled Roan’: “I used to ride a little old speckled roan. I told him lots of things I wouldn’t have told at home”. I shared all my thoughts with Doc as he laid his head on my leg in-between surfing sessions. 

One Thanksgiving I came home from college and called for Doc – but no Doc appeared. My Mom confessed that she had let Doc outside to run instead of walking him, as was our custom. He ran into the road and was killed. It’s hard to tell which of us felt worse. I missed the old guy terribly – and the subsequent animal boarders did not begin to fill his absence. There was a succession of nasty, abused rescues my softhearted Mom brought home: Chico (AKA the Couch Cobra), Charlie, the four-legged prostate (AKA the Urinator), as well as the canine formerly known as Snarl – who didn’t stay long enough for a naming ceremony. 

However, good things eventually happen. After Linda and I were married, we rented the first floor of a house overlooking the Hudson. Our next door neighbor was an elderly lady who was in the process of moving back with her children – she begged us to take her dog, a Collie-Shepherd mix she named Beauty. We rechristened him Toby and he was a pleasure. Toby was likely between a year and two when we received him and subsequently moved with us through several relocations over twelve years. Initially, Toby stayed outside in a fenced-in area, until our upstairs neighbor came home drunk and left the gate open – and then backed over poor Toby with his truck (he later confessed what had happened). We came home to find Toby huddled on the open porch, quietly enduring the pain. The vet reset and put a plaster cast on one broken leg, but his tail was permanently damaged – no more wagging to signal his mood. Toby made up for that by swinging his hips when happy… playfully batting our three year old son – and us around. 

We had plenty of adventures… our second move was to a farmhouse near a large forested ridge and next to a stream. Toby and I tramped the many deer trails, hill and dale, summer and winter. Old Toby thrived — he loved to be outdoors. Yet he stayed close and showed no urge to follow Juno into the great beyond. However, as he aged, he began to have fits: epilepsy was diagnosed. When he started to meander in confused, tight circles, we knew he was pre-seizure. Phenobarbital would usually do the trick. Toby seemed restless with our last move to a more constrained neighborhood — whether it was the increasing bouts of epilepsy or lack of woods to wander, I’m not sure. He had moved indoors during cold weather and one day pushed the porch door open and vanished. Two weeks later the NYS Thruway Authority called to say they found his body miles away.

Old Toby

Perhaps he made a decision to exercise his freedom – maybe, he was in the midst of another confused seizure. Either way it was a heartbreak. We had a family pow-wow and reached consensus that we would not try to find another dog. The end game was just too rending.

However, that did not stop us from enjoying our friends’ animal companions. Without a canine companion, I’m so aware of the number of household dogs. Many are professional yardbarkers and I wonder if they are trying to say “Set me free!” These days I’m partial to animals who can find their calm like Hen’s Duke or my friend Steve’s Jonesy. I miss sitting on the outside steps alongside an alert, but peaceful dog, the two of us augmenting our senses in the early morning or late evening natural world.

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A Special Place

I have always lived in old houses. Not historical old houses just old.  Since I was a kid I have lived in 7 houses.  I always found comfort in each house by finding a place that made me feel safe and invisible.  As a kid those places were away from the family usually in the attic.   The attic was a place for boxes filled with previous life stuff that for some reason was not needed in whatever house I was in at the time,  but it was great for searching through stuff that used to mean something to somebody.  And in every house there was always something left there by the previous family and when I found a treasure like that I could spend hours looking through the box or examining the item and wondering why it was left behind.  Each time we moved I was sure to take something left behind by the previous mortgage holder to the next house we were moving to. 

 I felt safe nestled between the eaves looking through old boxes often mislabeled and tossed aside.  I was safe from my brother finding and taunting me, from my parents yelling at me for some chore I failed to do and the treasures were so rewarding.  As a young teenager I found a box of my parents’ love letters from the war.  They were from before I was born and I could not match the two lovers in the letters to my parents at all.  There were sweet names of affection used for each other that I had never heard.  Seemed like two different people but there they were in black and white. They were in those funny envelopes with the barber pole stripes around the edges and airplanes on the stamps.  Years later I shared them with my brother.  We sat on the floor in the cold attic and read through every single one.  He remembered some of those pet names and I remember seeing him shed more than a few tears.  Years later after my parents passed away that box wound up in my brother’s attic. 

Probably the most treasured treasure I found and kept, other than the love letters, is an old clock that was left in our very first house by the previous occupants.  It was an old two faced wall clock, a Perpetual Calendar Clock.  It was left in a corner of the attic by a window, lying on the floor with its back against the wall planks and leaning to one side.  It fascinated me because not only did it tell the time on the large face but it also told the day of the week. Underneath that was a smaller face that told the month and the date.  It is a Welch, Spring & Co. clock dated 1864.  What I didn’t know at the time and didn’t learn til many years later, it actually kept proper time and dates even in leap years!


When developers came and bought up our entire block I made sure the clock moved with us to the new house and then eventually to my first house.  It never worked and there was no key  but I had a friend from college whose dad loved to fix old clocks and offered to fix it. That was over 50 years ago and it still works today with a minor adjustment of the hands needed which I am afraid to try for fear of breaking them.  It has hung in every house, including my inn, that I ever lived in.  I have to get the hands fixed professionally so I can again enjoy its company. 

As an adult that special place evolved to sitting on the floor in front of a raging fire in the fireplace late at night staring at the flames.  I guess I no longer need to hide but it still makes me feel safe! 

Funny what your mind conjures up when you have a lot of time on your hands and nothing to do. With this crazy virus still attacking us I could sure use to feel safe again! 

A Spectral Place

George and Hen’s discussion of special places – particularly in regard to their homes – brought up a different type of recollection.

My formative years were spent in an old two family house my parents owned. It’s difficult to picture a special place in this structure, because the house was always in flux. Early days, we had a variety of boarders and my father was constantly making changes – my brother and I had at least three different sleeping arrangements, including a stretch where the whole family slept in the same room. 

Eventually, we took over the second floor and my brother and I had separate rooms… but we never felt comfortable being in this space alone. The second floor bathroom was located at the end of a very narrow corridor. It had room for one large window looking down on the backyard.  My brother’s bedroom connected to an unused upstairs kitchen through a passage that likely was a pantry in past times. All the windows in the top two floors were large and seemed to grow up from the floor, providing the sense that one should not approach too closely.

However, unlike George, the one space that we never came to grips with was the attic. It was special – but not in a good way. Access was gained through a door which was always closed. A narrow staircase led to the two-room attic. All, including the staircase, was clad in floor-to-ceiling wainscoting – likely varnished spruce. At the top of the stairs was a spacious area with cathedral ceiling tapering to six foot knee walls. Large, rattling double hung windows had sills which were knee high ((for a kid). When looking out the window, I had the feeling someone was right behind. Piles of boxes populated the main room, complete with porcelain dolls peeking out, showing cracked faces. The effect was not conducive to exploration – it rather screamed “Touch me and die!” A second room contained a bed and mattress, unused for years it seemed. Our attic gave the sense that this space had been long abandoned and never contained a happy spirit. Stephen King would have been very comfortable here.

On a number of occasions, my brother would rush into my room and beg to sleep with me because of the sounds. Oh yes – the sounds. We would lay awake listening to the footsteps walking back and forth across the attic above us. We were frozen in place, too scared to run downstairs to our parents’ room. We dreaded the time when those footsteps would find their way to the staircase descending toward the closed door. It would not be good to be asleep in that eventuality.

Naturally, we reported this activity to our parents, who comforted us. They even moved their bedroom upstairs. The sounds seemed to go away after that – except one night when our parents were out for the evening and our babysitter (Cousin Paula) was sleeping downstairs. That evening kicked off a marathon of wandering above us. I t was an episode where you felt your own pulse in your ears and you tried so hard to be small and undetectable.

Years later my parents admitted that they too, did not venture much into the attic; that the boxes belonged to the prior owner; and that the folklore was that an elderly person had died in that bed in the attic.

A few years later we moved to a smaller, more modern house – with no attic!

Places of Comfort

George describes the attics of his old houses as places of sanctuary and exploration.  As a child I lived in a two-family house in the Bronx that was shared with my grandparents, a relatively new ranch house in central Westchester when I was eight, and then my grandmother’s two-bedroom cottage throughout my college years.  I would have to say that in each instance, the place that gave me the most comfort, was in the kitchen.

My mother and grandmother were both extraordinary in their ability to prepare delicious meals and create tantalizing baked goods. The kitchen sourced the aroma of comfort foods and was the place to go if you were feeling down, or happy, or celebratory, or bored.  There was always something yummy to taste and, it was the place where I could most often find my mother or gram.  Either they were cooking or baking or cleaning up.  It seemed they spent most of their time in the kitchen; clearly it was their “happy place.”

Meals were always eaten together at a table tucked in a corner within arm’s reach of the stove.  We rarely used the dining room or went out to a restaurant and take-out was an occasional pizza on special occasions.  At the table we shared the stories of our day, tried to remember what we learned in school, renewed our membership to the “clean up plate club”, and always had room for dessert.  It was a ritual I could always count on.  And despite how routine and boring it may have seemed at the time, it provided a place of safety, nurturing, and comfort.

My place of solitude was (and still is) the woods.  There, I could stretch the boundaries set by my mom, knowing my dog Mickey would never tell on me.  I could take chances climbing a dangerous tree, set rabbit traps with a box, a string, and a carrot, jump off of high rocks, and even utter bad words!  It was a place to be comfortable with myself.  On rainy days, I was drawn to a section under a thick canopy of leaves where I felt particularly free and yet secure as I remained protected and dry while the rest of the world seemed to be relegated to their houses.  Even today, I enjoy the feeling of being in a tent in the rain especially when I’m playing with my grandchildren.

And, like George, I am most comfortable in front of a fire, inside or out.  Alone or with friends and family, it is always my “go to” place.

What, Me Worry?

It all developed at lunch on Monday with Henry and Wally in our old stomping grounds in New Paltz.  Henry came up north from his new digs in Delaware and it was a nice reunion.  My idea took shape at lunch as it often does when the three of us begin conversing about ideas, emotions, and feelings. This time though, due to my vast storehouse of scholarly research, I am finally able to quote an authority with substantial credentials in the field of psychology, intelligensia, and a myriad of other fields too numerous and hard to spell to mention.  In the words of the world reknowned intellect of Dr Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” I reply, HELL YEA!

I learned early on that worry was my friend!  If I worried strong enough, and painted the mental picture dark enough of whatever event led to the worry in the first place, chances are when events unfolded I would be pleasantly surprised.  Deep relief sighs would emanate from this small 5 year old body and the world order could return to normal.  That practiced and improved living technique got me through most of my informative years. It started mal serving me as I grew into my adult years and took on more adult responsibilities. But old habits and practices die hard. 

Glass half empty and half full began to be used to describe me.  I couldn’t see the half full part.   But I had to try cause I was no longer the only one who had consequences of my actions. I hoped I could find a better way! I had to find a way to trade worry for hope.  I hoped that the situation  would improve, but I worried it could be much worse!  I worried that intense worry could lead to real anxiety but then intense hope that never came to fruition could lead to the same place.  Henry, Wally and I discussed how useless and unproductive worry is. There is nothing beneficial that comes from worry, nothing to take away that improves one’s life.  I can see that.  Nothing tangible, nothing helpful, nothing material changes with worry.  So if that is the measure of an emotion, we should ban it from our emotional index and lock it away.  

Hhmmmm, But……..with more reflection, when I dredge up hope from my thesaurus I wonder, is it not just the other side of worry?  If I hope too much do I not risk incredible disappointment?  Just like worry, what do I take away from hope that is tangible, helpful or material?  And if the answer is “nothing” then what is the difference?

The difference is that I am human.  Hope springs eternal! Hope and worry are tools we use to get through our lives.  The use of one over the other may help to label us and define us but I’m not sure one is anymore productive than the other.  Try to get through a conversation with someone without either using the words hope or worry!  I dare you….As for me, I am more comfortable with worry because over the years it was a tool of survival.  I can’t discard it now!

Elpis

George, I get it – I’m a worrier as well. I think that what Hen and I were trying to say is that worry can be helpful if it spurs a motivation to set a plan of action and assists you to examine all the possible options to relieve your situation. My normal approach is to make lists of all the worrying problems I face and to do my best to break them down into digestible bites. But I’ve also used worry as an ‘amulet’ to imagine the worst-case scenario in order to console myself that anything short of that would be a positive outcome. Call it a hedge against disappointment. James Reston coined a term ‘preventative worry’ which fits in that case.

You’ve raised a point about the relationship between worry and hope. I think an old myth holds part of the answer. The story about Pandora addresses the situation where the gods have given Pandora a box that holds a number of spirits. The box – more accurately, a lidded clay jar – isn’t quite a loving gift. She’s told not to open the jar, although it is a foregone conclusion that she will. When she removes the lid, the Furies are released upon the world, causing all sorts of havoc.  But one spirit gets stuck under the jar’s lid – Elpis, the spirit of hope, which remained inside Pandora’s vessel of clay.

If it stopped there, I might have surmised that our vessels are strengthened by hope in the face of chaos. I was surprised to learn that elpis can be translated not just as ‘hope’, but as an expectation of the future, be it positive or negative. In that context both worry and hope are simply expectations. Expectation is a way of toting up the probabilities of success. Therefore, it makes all kinds of sense that individuals cycle between hope and worry as they evaluate their changing landscape. Perhaps both hope and worry serve you well, given the state of play at any given moment. It’s probably also true that excessive worry, just like false hope, never solves a problem.

I like poetry… it’s amazing that such descriptive and profound thoughts can be captured in a few lines. I’m going to try to find a poem for each post that makes some sense about the subject at hand. Here’s one by Mary Oliver:

I Hope You Don’t Worry Too Much

It seems to me that worry precedes anxiety.  That is, a worry is a lower level baseline for a concern that often grows in scope and intensity to actions that are indicative of anxiety, fear, and anger.  After examining what worry and hope mean to me, I came to the conclusion that I often skip the worry stage and move directly into anxiety.  

I don’t believe that I’m a worrier.  I have learned to anticipate and prepare for what I need to do each day with hope that they turn out as I have anticipated.  And, I do so with less and less dependency on how it actually transpires.  For the most part this works well for me and I don’t “worry” about how my day will turn out.  Of course I do have certain parameters that, if not met, move me swiftly into an anxious and much less easy-going mode of operation.  For example, (and by the way I wasn’t always like this,) I like to be early to a scheduled event or appointment. (I would also add that George and Wal are also early-to appointment-people.  In fact, if it’s five minutes before we’re scheduled to meet and one of us is not yet there, some of us would argue, it’s time to WORRY!)  This takes the “worry” out of concern for something out of my control that could make me late – traffic, unexpected phone calls, etc. However, if I’m reliant on someone else to get somewhere on time and they have a more laissez-faire attitude about timeliness, I move directly into an anxious mode.  My brain fires in multiple directions from blame to fear to anger.  This is not a place I want to be and I’m working on letting go of the outcome once I know I’ve done all I can to stick to the timetable.  I’m fairly certain I’ll never completely overcome this glitch but I hope to make progress in both the frequency and intensity of my unwanted reactions.

And since I used “hope” in the previous sentence I’ll explain my relationship with this word.  I see it as a desire for something good to happen.  I often use hope when I wish someone a good trip or a speedy recovery from a medical situation.  I like the word.  It feels optimistic, positive, and light.  For me, it doesn’t carry the same level of intensity of a worry or concern.  It’s a preference for something nice or pleasant to happen but usually not designed to counter a worry that something bad will take its place.

One last thought on this subject.  I sometimes find myself using wonder rather than a word like worry.  For example, I wonder if this rejoinder is too short.  I’m not really concerned if it is.  And, if it is and my blogging buddies tell me that it needs to be fleshed out more, I’d do so.  No worries!

Here’s hoping you all have a pleasant and worry-free day!