Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Now Let Us Praise Famous People

Someone said to me yesterday, "Seasons Greetings" and I immediately wondered what I had ever done to them? It seems that as children we enjoyed Christmas immensely (for all the wrong reasons), then had to pay for it the rest of our lives. What? You think I'm about to start on some self-absorbed rant about how stressful life is and particularly the Christmas season? That I should just man-up, relax, and find meaning? Well, Mister, I have two questions for you. Haven't you read any of my previous posts? And when exactly did you retire?

Wasn't this supposed to get better and easier as we get older? Every year I reach a point of maximum frustration. Too much to do, not enough time to do it. Through the years I've tried every play in the playbook against the nickel defense we call "Christmas". It is 4th down, 18 yards to go and on top of everything else, all the outside Christmas decorations are not up yet; I'm the last one in the usual.

Why do we celebrate Christmas at the end of the year? Most jobs I've had called this season the fiscal fourth quarter, setting up budgets for the next year, wondering where the money would come from, wondering if lay-offs would occur, or how meager the salary increases would be. Add year end personal tax planning to the mix and the angst that comes with trying to figure out the dreaded schedule D form. If we want to have wars with less casualties, we just need to threaten the offending country with the implementation of our tax code if we are victorious. Don't send a written act of war, send a schedule D.

And shopping. Not my favorite activity. I was just in a Target today and they moved everything. How could they do this to me! What was in the front of the store last year (make that two years ago - I was in recovery last year - the best Christmas ever!)is now in the back and the goods in the back I couldn't find because now they the sell food! It gets worse. After the shopping comes the strangest practice ever: I married into a family that gift wraps presents - so now we have to wrap everything. Didn't anyone think this through? We wrap so someone can tear the wrapping off and get to the gift which would be easier if it had not been wrapped. The Mullen house never wrapped; if my mother saw wrapping paper in a store, she would probably think the rolls would make for colorful shelf lining. But not Donna's family. On Christmas day, I'll bet if Donna's mother asked for a life saver, someone would run upstairs and gift wrap it with a bow.

And worship: the most meaningful aspect of Christmas. Let's see - I get off work at 4:30pm, make it to church by 5pm, then show up on time (7pm) to the "once a year family Christmas Eve if anyone is late the Holiday is ruined dinner."

God disappointed us. Why was he born in December?

Isn't there anyway to salvage this" Joan Didion said that time is the school life uses to educate us. Can I get my time back? If someone told me that I would wake up dead tomorrow, what thoughts would ride the night? Would I be full of "if only?" If only I took those 2 inches off my waist (OK, 4 inches), if only I saw the horses run at Sienna, if only I had been able to impress one important person, if only I had been a better husband and father, if only my mind was filled with highfalutin thoughts? If only I had more time.

Well maybe...maybe not. I think the answer for finding value in life, at least for me, may lie with some guys I met two weeks ago Saturday in Fuquay-Varina. The three guys, Ken, Tim, and Jack are friends of Larry the bee guy (See last post, Burn Notice). They spend their Saturday's cutting, splitting, stacking, and then delivering firewood through the auspices of the local food bank to families in the area. I forget if they said they had made 120 deliveries or delivered to 120 families, but their effort is consistent and impressive. I don't know them, but they worked with ease and without fanfare. I doubt if they had a notion of "good work", i.e., I'm now going to do "good work." I sensed their charity was part of them, natural, like breathing.

Marc Clark, picture above, has also assimilated God's intention into his life. Marc, in his spare time, helped work on a Habitat for Humanity house in Sanford. He and many others worked on the house over a long period of time. I know Marc and know that he shares the wood guys' sensibilities. His sense of purpose and charity is not second nature to him. It is his first nature.

There are many people like Marc, Ken, Tim, and Jack. They have driven God's van full of charity and love, parked it in their respective driveways, removed the wheels and put the van up on blocks making it a permanent part of the property...and of them.

We (I) can learn a lot from them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Burn Notice

I've never lost a person for 20 years. I lost my wedding ring once. I put it down someplace, the ring not the person, while I was doing some repair and, well, misplaced it. Wife Donna told me I should never loose the ring...or else; so I never told her and she always seemed to be pre-occupied with something very important whenever I was about to bring it up. I didn't want to burden her. I'm a caring person.

I eventually found the wedding ring just where I left it - two house moves later. It was in the top drawer of a toolbox under some screw drivers, so I guess you can say it was never missing, just misplaced. Same with the person.

Gene Burns had the premier talk radio program when I lived in Boston back in the 80s. There were many talk radio programs in Boston, but his was by far the best. It has been said that the major preoccupation of Bostonians is "politics and revenge" and "revenge" not only took a back seat; it spent a lot of time locked in the trunk. A minor political appointment on the Board of, say, Parks and Recreation gave life to more animated conversation and discernment of twisted motivations than an overcrowded lifeboat in a very stormy sea. And that would be just the first day.

Gene Burns was a master at lifting discussion of those events to a higher level. His knowledge of government and mastery of common sense, mixed with a zest for life pushed his show several rungs above all others. His political slant was libertarian and had in fact run for President in the Libertarian Party. You would have to ask him the finer points of libertarianism, but if the platform of the party took on the shape of interior decoration then I think the walls would be white, sans doors, windows, furniture, or drapes (nihilism on the other hand would be painted black and any entrants would be required to wear a blindfold). His familiarity with the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers made listeners bring their "A game" to the calls. One would think James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were in the next room on a smoke break and could be beckoned at any moment. Gene also discussed things of narrow interest, but with such skill and affability that he engaged his listening audience. I remember one time he spent three hours talking about photography (before digital); not an easy thing to do on the radio, and he had the listeners' attention from beginning to end. Lastly, he was not doctrinaire and at times would change his position on an issue after listening to callers' differing points of view. Imagine that! In short, he created a forum where opposite ideas could shake hands.

I'm not sure when he left Boston, I left in 1990. I found out he went to San Francisco to radio station KGO, but pre-internet, pre-computer, I lost track. Every once in awhile, on certain issues, I wondered what he thought and if his diastolic possessed a comma, but without web casting I never knew. On a recent search, the KGO website now allows us to listen to his program. Give it a try if you like superb radio.

Here's How:

-Goggle "KGO"
-click on "810am"
-click "On Air" then scroll down to "Gene Burns"
-Find "Gene Burns daily podcasts", click "listen"
-If you need to download the supporting player, take that option.

I must say I was surprised how much he has mellowed. I haven't listened enough to hear if he has changed many fundamental positions, but even if he has - so be it. Changing seats in the political area can sometimes afford a better view of the fireworks.

Mr. Burns is a two-fer. If you give him a try you may just learn (like me) that the "Reserve Clause" is not your favorite restaurant's reservation policy. And if it applies, you may learn something else as well.

I don't want to overdo this, but I think his show provides for many of us some needed purchase into community. TV was hailed as a "global village" back in the 60's, an expectation it could never realize. TV is a wonderful and valuable medium, but not an interactive one. Radio, although not perfect, can let us ride the ripples of conversation and for some of us, an entree into something larger than ourselves. Talk radio is not therapy, a substitute for companionship nor should it comprise a large part of our lives, but it can be a purpose for good. It can forge connection or at least be a condiment for that connection.

Again, I don't want to overdo this, but at times I think we Americans (meaning me: I try to remember CS Lewis admonition to look in the mirror before you look out the window) tend toward the solitary, and at other times toward comity. In other lives I've led, the solitary was usually dominant. I didn't have other people's voices in my life. I'd work among people all day, go home at night and keep my own company. My choice...except when the loneliness visited and settled in for the night then self worth and value gets questioned. I had a feeling I was a character in an Edward Hopper painting. I was of life, but not in life. Like the usher in Hopper's New York Movie painting. This is the time when you may may want to turn off the TV, turn on the radio, talk to God, and talk to another person - get connected to something outside yourself, something bigger than yourself. Now I am out several nights a week - with other people! There were past times in my life when that would be as unlikely as seeing a nun dressed in full tunic and scapular seated in the 2nd row of a World Federation Mixed Martial Arts cage fight, but you just never know.

The opposite of me is my friend Larry Williams of Fuquay-Varina. His avocation is beekeeping. Can you think of a more solitary endeavor? I don't think the bees hold up their end of the conversation too much, but Larry likes people. He enlists friends to help him harvest (harvest?) the honey; bottle, then sell at the local Farmers' Market. He is past President of the NC Beekeepers Association and goes to meetings on a regular basis. Very social. Larry will love Gene Burns! They will be like two bees in a pod.

There are a lot Grumpys and a lot of Larrys in the country - we can both benefit listening to Mr Burns with his curiosity of all things and a willingness to share. He is good at what he does and as my friend Judi Gaitens said...the nature of good is to give itself away.

I think even the nun in the 2nd row may agree with that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Disturbing Thoughts

I hate this.
I hate thinking about it.
I am probably over-reacting.
Help me out.

I was part of a group that was asked to make a contribution to help feed the poor in the Caribbean, specifically Haiti. After being told many times that the organization had the highest rating from, I made out a very modest check. I have used charitynavigator to investigate worthy charities in the past and have found them to be an excellent resource. Unfortunately, and I do mean unfortunately, the website also publishes the annual salaries of the rated charity CEOs. I have stopped giving to certain charities, many of them Christian, because of (in my view) the excessive salaries of the charity heads.

God did not put me or anyone else on this planet to judge other people or their salaries, but when Jesus told Simon Peter to, "Feed my lambs", I think that command informs donations to those who do. The monitoring websites provide valuable financial information vis-a-vis administrative expenses and direct mission expenditures. Besides these figures, the only other place that can give a potential donor a clue about the Board of Directors is the salary of the CEO - so I give that weight. I was on the internet shortly after I wrote the check and for no particular reason, I checked the website. The CEO salary was $340,000.

I sent a letter to the charity requesting my donation back, never expecting to see the check again. To the organization's credit, I promptly received the check and the letter below. I have blacked out specifics in the correspondence because I have no desire to attack a particular charity on a practice that seems to be wide-spread. Besides, I admit I may be totally wrong on this so when I am driving up this avenue of inquiry I don't want to hit any innocent bystanders on the way. Charities rely on voluntary contributions, not taxpayer funds.

"August 9,2010

Dear James,

I hope that you are well and enjoying God's peace. We are in receipt of your letter regarding the salary paid to ***our President and C.E.O. *** came to *** at a reduced salary from his previous position. He is a strong leader and was brought into our organization because of his ability to reduce costs effectively. Our Board of Directors voted on the amount of his salary when he was hired and members of the board continually evaluate his performance. According to all surveys that have been published by non-profit watchdog publications, our managing directors' salaries are well below the average of any non-profit organization of this size. Please be aware that the salary figures also include the cost of insurance and other benefits - medical, dental, long-term care, long-term disability, life, group travel and unemployment insurance, as well as 403 (b). Please also note that the Chronicle of Philanthropy has ranked *** as the **** **** in the U.S. Last year we grossed approximately $1 Billion in donations for the poor in the countries we serve, so it would be only fair to compare salaries at *** to charities of a similar size. Salaried professionals employed by *** have the necessary education, background, qualifications and management experience required to run our organization. In order to fulfill the goals of our mission, we must remain competitive in the job market in order to attract the very best people in our specialized field.

As you might imagine, because of working so closely with the poor in the 17 countries we serve, many of our employees from the very top to the bottom of the pay scale choose to support *** with financial contributions on a regular basis. They are our extended family, and it would be difficult for us not to do so. We are anxious and grateful to help the poor, and this is a voluntary and a very personal decision prayerfully made by each individual. We do respect the privacy of all donors, including ***. Because of our strict privacy policy, I cannot divulge amounts donated to our ministry by individual donors, but I can say without reservation that I am personally aware that *** has always been extremely generous to the ministry of *** over the years. In fact, he and the *** family totally supported our ministry during its 1st five years of existence.

We are very proud to report that in 2009 less than 4% of funds received were used for administrative expenses, which means that over 96% actually went to programs that help the poor. You will find that we have excellent rating with Charity Navigator, Ministry Watch and Forbes Magazine. I truly hope that I have answered your question satisfactorily and that you will seriously consider joining us in our fight against poverty. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at ***. Please find your gift of *** enclosed.

May the peace of our Lord be with you.
A servant of the poor
Director of Donor Services"

The Director makes some strong rhetorical arguments defending the salary. I have no argument with the CEO. I have yet to refuse any income offered to me or said, "Wow, you paid me too much last year!" Nor have I seen a sign by a store register proclaiming, "all prices as marked; non-profit workers take 30% off." We all live in the real world and contend with real world prices. No, my concern is with the Board. The compensation may be reasonable, but $340,000. per year is in the top 1% of wage earners in the US ( -$340,000 and up). As stated previously, many charity heads, many Christian charity heads, make a lot more money than this CEO.

I am bothered that I am bothered by these thoughts. I regard myself as an optimist, but we seem to live in a time of constant stress and events that engender cynicism. In the age of Wall Street wretched excess fueled by their Board of Directors' compensation committees, the federal government's assault on capitalism through bailouts and inept regulation, and the always lurking presence of the twin sisters of power; accommodation and lack of accountability: I admit to confusion.

And this may be my problem. When I give to a cause, I am under no illusion I am on the parapets feeding the poor. I worked with someone that in the past that had signed up an an Aid worker in Africa back in the 70s. As I remember, he intended to stay for a year, but only lasted 3 or 4 months. He told me that he never had one good night's sleep, knew he was exposing himself to unknown illness, and not always given the basic resources to do the job. His feelings about this occupied a territory between personal disappointment and begrudging pride of accomplishment. I know that when my pen moves across a check I am performing a very, very small part of the "Feed my lambs". The organizations and workers are the ones doing God's work, but the donors do play a part and my perception of that part may be the problem. When I give money, however modest, it is still my money. A donation is not like a commercial transaction - I give you money, you give me stuff: when you give me stuff, I have relinquished ownership of the money. Charities aren't like that - the donation becomes wind of the charity's sail - the donors are always there because their money is always there: no product is ever exchanged.

This point is simple and self-evident, but when I see a charity's board of directors awarding extremely high salaries I wonder if that point is forgotten. I don't believe there is malevolence in this - just human nature. I also realize that everything is relative. If I made $340,001.00 a year I would consider this CEO underpaid. So after reading the letter and some thought I was going to send back the check, but that 1% still bothered me.

Res ipsa Locquitor

I sent a check instead to Doctors Without Borders. A smaller charity, but one whose CEO makes $118,000 per year.

My thoughts are still unsettled about this.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Walter Gets 5

And by the way, isn't the internet wonderful? You can buy all sorts of interesting things online, saving time, money, and the environment. I don't know about you, but I absolutely hate to shop. It is a big waste of time. I especially don't like going with wife Donna since I always seem to spend too much time and money when she is with me. I always dutifully keep a list of items, go to the store, then find I've left the list at home or in the car; I depend on memory and subsequently miss about 1/2 the things I went shopping for. When Donna comes with me, she remembers everything on the list and consequently drives the numbers on the receipt to high elevation and nixes a fast getaway since proper shopping takes a long time. This is, of course, Donna's fault.

I was hoping at this point in my life that needed things, if thought about, would just show up at my house, closet, bookshelf, or refrigerator. Guess I'll have to settle for the internet. It always amazes me that I can order anything I want at 4:00am or 11:30pm hereby imbuing my life with an unaccustomed time management component and allow me to wade into moments of gravitas and the unrelenting search for life's tautological truths.

OK, that too, I'm lazy.

If I could go to Confession online I would. The internet allows me to sample, review, and criticize all things purchased and then go onto sites like and listen to my favorite jazz ballads.

OK, that too, I'm cheap.

I was so impressed with a guitarist on YouTube, Walter Rodrigues Jr, that I went to the directed website,, and bought his guitar CD on hymns, My Favorite Hymns Vol.1, I never knew thumbing on strings could bring such goodness to life!

When something is ordered online, a confirmation by email follows; very businesslike, prompt, and boilerplate. I wasn't expecting what I received;


Thanks for your order with CD Baby!


(1) Walter Rodrigues, Jr: My Favorite Hymns Vol.1

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.
A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.
Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.
We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, July 9, 2010.
We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as "Customer of the Year." We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
We miss you already. We'll be right here at, patiently awaiting your return.
CD Baby
Very fanciful. And then I received this email:

My Favorite Hymns Vol.1 (Walter Rodrigues, Jr.)
Walter Rodrigues
Add to Contacts
Dear James,

I would like to personally thank you for purchasing my new album "My Favorite Hymns" Vol.1 from CdBaby. I hope you've enjoyed the music as much as I've enjoyed making it available to you.

I would love to hear your feedback on the cd. If you have a chance, please feel free to add a word or two to the review section of the album.

Thanks again and God Bless!

Walter Rodrigues, Jr.

Well. It got me to thinking. What if we were all able to exceed the speed limit on the alternate time line expressway and converse with all humankind. Kind of like an review with star ratings:

The Old Man and The Sea - Ernest Hemingway (3 out of 5 stars) Yo! Ernie. Loved the book! Great fish story, but next time enter the old man in a bass tournament at Lake Martin, Georgia. It would be more interesting and you could introduce some girls and beer - and maybe a shark. Oh yeah, way, way too long. If you want anyone to read your books you need to make them a lot shorter. Work on that willya?

Lives of The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius (written in 121 - 2 out of 5 stars) Dude - like the one name thing. Did you get the idea from Sting? I only gave you 2 stars. You did a really good job on the corruption and depravity (way to go Sue!), but you left out the all the war parts. Didn't you read any Tom Clancy?

Holy Bible - God (4 out of 5 stars) SPOILER ALERT, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE BOOK. You call that an ending?......

Well maybe the alternative time line is not a good idea, but I tell you though, in my book guitarist Walter Rodrigues Jr get 5 stars. He has the ability to have his heart run down through his fingers to the guitar. His musical expression lifts my spirits every time I put on the CD. Good art affects, His music affects.

Thank you Walter Rodrigues Jr, the world is a better place because of you and your work.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wing and Wisdom

I don't know about you, but I find it is getting harder to know the truth and wisdom of things. As I get older, intelligence or "smarts" has lost its glow. A lot of very well intentioned, smart people have taken themselves and us to places we shouldn't be. Think government.

I value wisdom more as I get older even though it is hard to define. Wisdom is like pornography. In that famous statement, Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward said he couldn't define pornography, but knew it when he saw it. Same for wisdom. A 30 year old could analyze his/her situation and start a Roth IRA for retirement; analyzing expense ratios, asset allocations and then rebalencing periodically after consistent investment. None of that is wisdom. Wisdom is knowing that the investment program, once in place, should not take up too much thought, not take up too much life. That is not what we are here for and that gained insight is wisdom.

So I'm happy to report I found wisdom last week when I went to visit the new wing of the North Carolina Museum of Art on Blue Ridge Road. The visit had a low priority. I've driven by the Museum several times, glancing as I went. At first blush, it appeared the powers that be decided to commemorate an aspect of North Carolina life hidden to most of us in the populated areas - a hog farm or a correctional facility, but as I pulled into the entrance, the structure took on interest. After parking I wasn't sure where to go. I followed a small sign that led to what appeared to be the front entrance. The new wing had no concern for placement among the roadways and I then followed a walkway that looked like it led to an exterior glass panel...or a door. The means of entry was not self-evident. I was prepared to suffer public humiliation, walk up to the side of a building and try an open it.


The glass panel opened up though. It is as if the structure was saying to entrants, "Pay attention Buster. This is not some Walmart you're heading into, this building is special!"

And it is.

When you walk in you are immediately impressed by the interior's clean lines and sparseness. I usually don't like minimalism, but it works here. In some places the tall, white metal, paneled walls reach the sky, literally. Area skylights shed muted but natural illumination that enhance the works of art; in other places whole glass sections welcome the outside coming inside. It must be fun to be there on a rainy day. This is the closest an art museum will come to a convertible or retractable dome sports stadium. The warren of exhibition areas rest on lightly shaded bamboo hardwood floors. The building's design effect lets the art breathe.

How hard it must have been for the designers and museum board members to make sure the space served the art? We all have a need to be liked, including architecture, and to be liked means to be noticed. It would have been easy for the designers to add a "wow" factor, to overshadow the art, to forget its mission, to dance fast to the slow music. How easy it would have been to stick some design embellishments here or there; to say, "Heck with the art!" But no one did. The space serves and honors the art because everyone's eye was on the same ball. If art is a boat then the building is the centerboard. That's wisdom.

What of the art itself? That's up to you. I've always enjoyed art, but I'm no expert. Being in front of a painting beats being in front of a TV anytime. It's always fun to find out what the attraction is to a particular painting or sculpture; trying to find out what the creator is conveying. Many moments can be spent seeking a personal connection with the painter. Why that scene? Why those colors? Why that theme? If writing is thinking with words then painting is, well, thinking with paint. The painter stood in front of the canvas possibly several hundred years ago creating something of value and now we stand in front of the same canvas several hundred years later trying to realize that value. Isn't life interesting!

I won't go into a litany of the works I like because what should matter to you is what you like. The Wing has an eclectic collection and some new acquisitions, a Picasso for one. During my visit I saw people drawn to it. I looked at it and it has incredible strength and power, but to me it's a kerfuffle of power without direction, flat, and without nuance. But what force! As if Picasso randomly opened a shelf full of exterior house paint cans, dipped the barrel of a colt .45 handgun into the cans and then coated the canvas. Rambo after a fine arts course, but a Rambo with talent! Others see things in that painting and as I quickly walked away from it, others lingered. That used to bother me, but as I get older I am comforted by other people's appreciation of things that remain a mystery to me.

So you want a splendid surprise? Go to the North Carolina Museum of Art and open the side of the building. If you tell them Grumpy sent you, they won't charge you admission. Sometimes art seems to be surrounded by a pretension that is off putting, but don't let that put you off. When I go into an art museum I always hope to find the definitive family portrait of Huey, Dewey and Louie. No luck so far but I'm enjoying the search.

I hope you have a search too.

Worth noting: Designed by Thomas Phifer of Thomas Phifer & Partners, NY
Local architects, Pearce Brinkley Cease and Lee Architects of NC

NC Art Museum
2210 Blue Ridge Rd, Raleigh
Hours: Closed Mondays
Tues-Thurs 10am-5pm
Friday 10am-9pm
Sat-Sun 10am-5pm

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On Hiatus

Hey - I am taking a month off from this. As usual I approach things backward. I am taking a course on learning how to write and spel and won't have time for this blog until the end of June.

Happy Trails

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Grumpy Gets Better

I am my father's son.

During the last ten years or so of my father's life, either my sister or me would take him to get tested at his oncologist and then subsequently visit his family doctor. He had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor on his prostrate when he was about 85 and his prostate was checked yearly for growth. During every visit, his doctor would say, "Well Mr. Mullen, the growth of the tumor is so small, it poses no threat to your life. You will surely be dead from another life threatening condition before the tumor becomes a danger".
"Well Doctor, that's just wonderful news! What a great report!"

I would then take him for coffee and donuts during which he had his customary cigarettes - a life-long smoker. He lived to 96 and the doctor was correct; he died of natural causes and met death the same way he met his days of life - with good cheer and comity.

I went to see my surgeon for a 6 month checkup. If I was a Boeing 777, it would not be considered a "D Check", but enough time had gone by to give some standard outlook on my artificial ankle. I was anxious to know if I was in the "fairway" or the "rough", medically speaking. Was the stiffness and occasional pain normal? Will the discomfort stop? And when? He said I was on the fairway, but that the ankle had "shifted". It may stabilize or I may have to have a rod in my left leg in a year (just what I need - more metal). We'll see.

The doctor and I walked half-way up the hill of artificial ankles, looked over the rise....and saw more mist. That's OK. I felt very relieved and quite good about the visit. I just wanted to know. I think the relief comes from the knowing, both for me and my father.

Actor and writer, Robert Benchley, had it wrong when he said, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't". I think the world is divided into those who want to know and those who don't want to know. I am definitely the former. I guess it must be some strange combination of control issues and curiosity, but I have always been that way. I secretly admire people who "don't want to know".

I recently read an article done by an Emergency Physician called "Avoiding Black Swans". I expected health tips (don't eat anything that tastes good and stay away from anything that gives you pleasure), but the article, apparently based on ER experiences, was filled with, "drive the biggest car you can afford", "don't clean gutters on a ladder", etc.

The article drove home the point that we are all on a clock and some of us want to know when the battery dies. We need time to assimilate, plan and maybe manipulate. I also don't always know how I am going to react to things. This week our computer crashed and I lost 15 years worth of financial information. Not happy about it, but not all that upset either. Life surprises.

With all that in mind I can picture the following at my death;

"Who are you?"
"I'm an Angel. Who are you?"
"I'm Grumpy".
"Well...let's see...good news Grumpy, you're going to Hell! wait...that's the other, you're going to Purgatory!"
"Great...what's that?"
"You go into a room for 500 years and watch a soccer game".
"No! Not soccer! Look I played soccer in High School and it is a fun game, but boring to watch. I'd rather watch my fingernail grow for 500 years".
"Look, when I died I had 25,000 frequent flyer miles. I want to upgrade to another channel - any channel".
"You can't redeem miles in Purgatory!"
"Why not - don't they call Him the Great Redeemer?"

Well, you get the idea.
I need to plan.
I need to get more miles.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

You're Scaring Me

When we observe something and don't understand it and immediately know we never will, it can be jolting. That ignorance can cause fear and right now I've got ignorance and fear in spades. This I hope will be the only, even remotely, political entry I make.

My two cents.

I've been watching on TV and reading about the illegal immigration mess current in the news. The scariness comes from the strong emotions and feelings this issue generates in a lot of us - and I mean very specifically - people I see during my day. Watching an issue on TV gives a certain distance that allows us analysis and further thought. Listening to people in conversation, people you know, is more immediate and sometimes jarring. I do not understand the emotional purchase this issue (both for and against) takes up in people's minds.

Back in college in the 60's, I did a paper on the country's immigration trends. Over the previous 100 years, the entry "spigot" was uneven; some decades a lot of people entered, other decades, not so many. The motivation always seemed to be the needs of the country. I'm sure some motivations were political, but for the most part America became a country of immigrants and immigrate we did.

And believe me.

You could not find a better pathfinder in the country of complaint and the land of feeling put upon than a college student in the 60's, i.e., me. If there was a hint of unfairness, I could and would have blamed the previous generations with great delight; Like Martin Luther, I would have tacked list of grievances to the door of the political science department that would make Luther's list look like a "post it" note. I had no such list - the river of immigration meandered in some places and flooded in others, but it always seemed to flow.

Why can't we see that flow now? Some would say the reaction is born of racist tendencies. If you want to look through that glass darkly, help yourself. Our history has given some cause. All ethnic groups could pull up a chair at Oprah's table with justification. But I don't believe people's lives are consumed with racism. I don't base that on extensive study and thought. I base it on the fact that in my entire life I've only known two people I would call racist. They deserve pity and prayer, but no consideration in American thought. They are vastly outnumbered.

Others see the the question in moral terms and it is not without a moral tinge. A father in Renosa Mexico that has to feed his family and has no prospects in Mexico may not give another country's immigration laws all that much weight. I know which side of the fence I would be on if I were that man and I think you do too.

But the problem is not morality, but mathematics. If you want to use this issue to delve in liberation theology - don't. If you want to encase the issue with every slight and injustice you've suffered - don't.

The federal government needs to solve this problem. Politics is the art of compromise. We are not going to arrest and deport the estimated 12 million people and we should not give them a pat on the back for being illegal. Set up a worker certification program and a explore a path of eventual citizenship for many. Perhaps not for all, but for many. Like Canada and Australia, we may find reducing general worker visas and increasing highly skilled workers is the way to go. This may cause problems and a rise in illegal migration again, but at least we can work inside a rational framework. One-half of the "Google" founders is a Russian immigrant, Sergy Brin, and he has done a fair job at creating wealth and jobs in America. Long term, the country, the economy and even immigrants benefit. We'll be fine if we remember that this country has been and should continue to be a shining torch of liberty and individual freedom to the world.

That torch is fueled by immigrants.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Sunflower

"When I was a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind."
1 Corinthians 13:11

Still working on it.

When I was child, if someone hit me, I hit them back. If someone took something from me, I took something from them. Rough justice in the adolescent, formative years. The actions correspond to the way we are naturally wired - perfect worldly logic in a worldly world.

We're not supposed to act that way? We're not supposed to react in kind? And on top of that, we're supposed to forgive? You've got to be kidding! How inhuman!

But that is exactly what we are called to do. A priest one Sunday, in a short homily quoted Luke 4:11 and said that when we forgive, we are as close to God as we will ever get. Forgiveness is a divine act. That sentiment is not limited to the Gospels. If you open any part of the New Testament, it would be hard not to trip over the concept of forgiveness. To miss it would be like putting on a Beatles CD and not hearing music.

Always knew I was supposed to forgive and always struggled with it. Grudgingly saw it as a duty. My main obstacle is the fact that I tend to be a very judgmental person and judgment blocks the view to forgiveness like a high stone wall that has to be scaled to get to forgiveness and a sense of God. Wife Donna's church, Hope, had a wonderful service one Easter where everyone was given some "post it" notes to write a personal sin/failing and place it on a very large wooden cross. Everyone was being very thoughtful, mustering sagacity for the right word. Not me. Without hesitation, I wrote the word "judgment." If there were a race to that Cross, I would have won. Nice to know I'm good at something.

Hopefully I am better at forgiveness after all these years. Practice may not make perfect, but repetition gives birth to improvement. Some days the stone wall is almost insurmountable and composed of coarse, craggy rocks easily slipped on. Spanning can be difficult, but over the years the routes up the wall have become more familiar and some of the stones have lost their sharp edges. Sometimes, the rocks move and I have to retrace, but as long as I'm moving forward I think I'm doing OK. I don't think God looks for perfection, just effort. Once I scale the wall, I look for guidance and most times prayer works. Enough about me.

If you have the same problem I do, you may find a book I've just finished interesting; "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness" by Simon Wiesenthal. It is one of the most unique books I have ever read. It came out in 1979 and a revised edition in 1997. In the original, the entire story is printed on the outside cover. The interior pages are full of commentaries about a question the author asks, "What would you do?"

To give a synopsis, the author was a prisoner in a Concentration Camp in World War II. A nun singled him out and brought him to the bed of a dying German soldier, a lapsed Catholic. The soldier told Simon of a horrific war crime and his part in it - he asked for forgiveness. Simon said nothing and left. The soldier died. After the war, in 1946, Simon went to visit the soldier's mother. She talked about her son and how proud she was of him. Simon said nothing and left.

Simon Wiesenthal went on to become the famed "Nazi Hunter" based in Vienna, dedicating his life to bringing Germans responsible for the "Final Solution" to justice. He did his work with documents and information. Perhaps more Mr. Peepers than James Bond, but he was so successful that he retired when he felt all the guilty were caught - so he had a defined sense of the end of things. But clearly, the incident with the soldier, Karl, haunted him. In 1997 he wrote a "revised edition" adding 100 pages to the meeting with Karl; giving more context and detail - and again asked 53 of the "best and brightest", "What would you have done?" I just finished it and even after the second reading, I am still stunned by some of the commentaries, so if you read it, be prepared. There is no commonality of answers or beliefs on forgiveness. We pick a lane in life and run in it. The lane and our run is framed by our beliefs, experiences, and sense of value; they all seem to be different and sometimes in conflict.

The power of the book is that it makes you feel as well as think. What would I do? I thought about it a lot and cannot honestly say, but I think my response would lead back to Simon and Karl. Perhaps the forgiveness is in Simon's urge, his lack of certainty, his writing of the book. Perhaps God knows our limits. Perhaps God lives in Simon's haunting and uncertainty and in Karl's confession. Perhaps for God, that is enough.

If you want my copy and then perhaps pass it along, let me know. I can give it to you or send it to you. It doesn't have to occupy space on the shelf. It occupies space in the heart. let me know

Friday, April 2, 2010

Say It Ain't So Joe

"In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." - Alfred Lord Tennyson

"and baseball" - me

You do not have to be a baseball fan to know that recently Joe Mauer (great baseball name), Minnesota Twins catcher, just signed an 8 year, 184 million dollar contract. Yes folks, that's 23 million dollars a year, or $142,000 per game, or $47,000 per hour, or $568.00 per catch (average 250 pitches in a game). One would think that these numbers would require their own "contract", but actually in baseball, the 184 million signing is just called an "extension" of his contract. I tell you.

Here's the intriguing part, he probably could have signed for more money if he bid himself out to the major market teams on the East Coast. To his credit, he's a local guy from St. Paul, his family is settled, and he likes going to his cabin in the North woods of Minnesota every chance he gets. Joe, you like the North? Make Canada an offer for the Province of Manitoba. No don't stop there, how about Hudson Bay?

I haven't seen him play much, but when I did he seems to play with confidence, natural ability and a selflessness not necessarily attendant with today's players. In other words, he's not New York Yankee material. He has averaged 162 games over the past 6 seasons and is a .350 hitter - very, very good. The catcher is the "quarterback" of the defense. Most catchers will determine the type and sequence of pitches thrown to a particular batter, direct field placement of players, and coordinate overall strategy with the manager. They are a combination of field general and CEO. They are required to know their pitchers' strengths and each opposing batters' weakness. They have to have mental book on every player they face throughout the season. In fact, since quarterbacks no longer call their own plays, the catcher is probably the most mentally difficult position to play in all of sports.

But what about the pitcher?

After all, catchers, well, just catch the ball. The catcher can call for a split-fingered fastball, but the pitcher is the one who has to execute it. I don't know how much the Twins' pitching staff gets paid in a season, but I would think they wouldn't cover Joe's salary.

How does his contract compare to past players? Consider pitching. Smoky Joe Wood in 1917 made $15,000 per year; adjusted for inflation that comes to $419,000 in 2010.In this century when baseball always seems to threaten not having one 20 game winner, one year, Smoky Joe won 45 games and lost 5. In 1917, he had an off year, he only won 16 games, but 10 of them were shutouts( no runs scored against him). Pitcher Walter Johnson (The Big Train), no slough himself, said, "no man pitches faster than Smoky Joe Wood". And take Cy Young (The Cyclone), by the numbers the greatest pitcher ever, he was a 30 game winner over 5 seasons and held the strike out record for over 55 years. In 1890, Cy was "sold" to the Cleveland team for $300.

In 1960-1963, Ted Williams (The Splendid Splinter), Willie Mays, and Micky Mantle crashed through the $100,000 per year ceiling. To watch Williams at the plate was an appointment with grace. His strikeouts had more natural refinement that most players' hits. Their 2010 equivalent salaries would equal $150,000 today. Of course, the average ticket price at Fenway Park in 1960 was $1.76 - so everything is relative.

You can argue (and in baseball - argue we love to do) that early last century, the players really weren't that good. Today's good players hit in the 300s and play 162 games per season. Pitchers throw in the mid-80 to 90 mph range. They are in better shape and play deeper into their careers.

I would not argue that.

Although it is difficult to compare with any certitude, Cy Young in the 1930s was taken to a ballistic factory and had a pitch speed measured at 92 mph. I don't know for sure, but pre - radar gun, his throwing velocity must have been compared with a gunshot (why else at a ballistic factory?) Talk about faster than a speeding bullet. The average season for the first half of last century was 152 games.

I think we tend to view the past in sepia. The players back then had a lot of beer consumption (even during the games), chewing tobacco, and no spring training; we have Oaklies, spandex, Red Bull, free weights, and well, human growth hormones. But answer this. Best against the best. Why did it take so long to break Cy Young's strikeout record, Babe Ruth's multiple records, and so far no player has hit Williams .400 for the season since 1941?

But I'm arguing against my feelings.

If the Twins want to pay; good luck Joe. Baseball season will start in a few days. One of the things I love about baseball is the traditions. Prior to every game played, at every level, the opposing coaches meet the umpire at the plate to review the rules of the game. With sweeping arms, the umpire points out the chalk borders running down the field by first and third base. If seen from above, the borders represent a diamond. At the apex of the diamond swats the catcher. Not always, but many times, the umpire will finish the conference with the command, "Have fun and enjoy the game." The chalk frames a picture of summer. Joe Mauer at it's apex.

This Easter on ESPN at 8pm, Red Sox vs Yankees. I don't ever remember watching baseball on Easter and probably won't watch the entire game, but may tape it. I want to see if the Easter Bunny comes in as a reliever. May be interesting if the Bunny's performance is dependent on a contract "extension."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Numero Bruno

One thing I have learned while writing this blog is how much I like dogs. Like many of you, I've had dogs cycle in and out of my life. The former was always more enriching than the latter. Dogs were the first pathway I took to explore unexplained thoughts and emotions. They were how I learned responsibility growing up - washing, feeding and caring for them. My son moved out of the house last week and took his dog Bruno with him. Bruno (pictured above) was with us for about four months and became one of the family. Why am I missing him so much? He wasn't my dog and wasn't with us that long.

As with dogs, I've had people cycle in and out of my life with varying effect. Sometimes with great feeling and sometimes not. I'm better now, but I have to say that sometimes I've regarded people like creme brulee; rich, tasty, and best taken in small, infrequent quantities. But dogs, never. What does this say about dogs, and more importantly, what does this say about me?

As stated before, is it that my fondness for dogs goes back to early childhood when God used our family mutt to prospect and have me discover a vein of caring I didn't know existed, then use it to bump up against a big wet nose? Growing up is growing out. Why is it that some of us read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls (a plug) and are moved - and some of us not? Maybe with some of us, life decided to use the dogs as an outlet for emerging love and for others, life decided to use something or someone else. I guess I should be grateful. Whatever else dogs are, they're not as fattening as creme brulee.

Look at dogs' lives. Some would say they have the life of Riley. Dogs get an occasional tennis ball to gnaw. They sleep when they want, live in a climate controlled house, get steady meals, and are able to run around outside when permitted, and my favorite, don't have to work. On the other hand, they survive on the sufferance of owners and we can be a mixed bag. They are limited to one liquid, water - their entire life - get pretty much the same food every day; looking the color of landscaping bricks, tasting like buffalo chips with the consistency of #40 grit sandpaper. Construction re-bar would be easier to chew.

Their deliverance seems to be their attitude. They seem to greet all people with wagging tails and exclaim, "Life's a beach, what's to eat!" I remember one of the best parts of my life; the period when my son was growing up and was always at the door to greet me at the end of the work day, "Daddy's home!" Best feeling in the world, especially when the day fed you a steady diet of anxiety, disruption, stressful activity. Problem is, children grow up, but dogs are always there to greet when you come in the door - showing affection and gladness in greeting. Dogs grow old, but they never grow up. They provide that rare thing in life; unconditional, consistent love.

Its also amazing that there is so much agreement. Every dog I've ever talked to has agreed with me on political issues, sports outcomes, and well, life in general. Agreement without rancor involved the distaste of books over 300 pages, admiration of craftsman architecture, the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and the glory of French Impressionism. Amazing!

And of course, like me, every dog I've ever had likes to take long walks on the beach.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Church Project - Guess the Caption

Someone important said that public humiliation is good for the soul. Or I just made it up. This post is for my wife's church group project, Hope Community Church in Cary. One weekend, instead of going to church, everyone went out and did a community project. Donna's group decided to help split wood and stack in pick-ups for delivery to low income families - under the direction of the City of Raleigh. I went along to supervise.
It was of course a Spirit enriching and humble task....and of course one to made light of.

Guess the photo caption!!

(thinking) "Was that 2 blue pills every 6 hours, or 6 blue pills every 2 hours"?

(thinking) "Just stick to the plan Greg !"

(thinking) "I thought we hid all the axes from Kristen"?

(thinking) " That hat would complete me. What handsome haberdashery! Should I offer 4 pieces of wood or 6 pieces?"

(saying) " You did what! Before you left to come here you were worried it was too cold for the bees so you let them in the house"?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker Hurts

I guess when a 3D graphic cartoon goes against a war picture at the Oscars, the war picture wins. I happened to see the "Hurt Locker" on Netflix, thinking at best it would be a mad bomber movie with a lot of Hitchcock tension. But it was more. The story line informed the bomb disarmament procedure as a metaphor for war. It was a perfect metaphor. Like combat; trying to disarm a live bomb must be  tension filled and either complicated or simple but always unpredictable. That part, you learn from the film. The film teaches that how you approach the bomb is how you approach life while stationed in  modern day Middle East during a military tour.

It is of course, just a movie but delivered under the aegis of authenticity and wrapped up with a semi-documentary style. If you pitch that tent, you better make sure of  high ground. A movie is another form of art. Like painting, writing, play production, and sculpture, etc, through the creative process anything is allowed, but good art has to be built on a foundation of truth. Yes, to forge creativity, if you want one of the characters to sprout wings during the story, you can; as long as it services the plot's truth. Stories are important and need to be told for what they say about us and the human condition. I will never live Jay Gatsby's or Hamlet's life, but when I read, I learn about them - and so learn something about myself.

The Hurt Locker fails as art because it fails as truth - I'll tell you why.

As a quick synopsis, the story revolves around 3 GIs during a combat tour in the Middle East. The story contains a private (unsure of rank) who barely confronts his perilous environment and is unsure of his next move. A Spec 4 who has experience, follows proper procedure, is competent, and wants to complete his tour and get on with his life. The third character is the sergeant who supervises the bomb unit. As the movie progresses, the main content becomes the sergeant. He is slowly seduced (or has been already) into a combat junkie. He is attracted to the excitement and tension of war. Although the film portrays the price he pays as the war consumes more and more of him, you are still left with a notion filled with tragic romanticism. The problem with this portrayal is that it is false.

War is hell and you don't get addicted to hell.

To be addicted to something is to give it value, even knowing its destructive power. Anyone who has ever been in combat knows this truth. You could call a meeting comprised of the bowmen of Agincourt (either side), riflemen from Gettysburg or Cold Harbor ( either side), and men from the Battle of the Bulge (either side), and have no trouble getting a quorum on the commonality of the experience - and every one's revulsion to it.

I only knew of one man who thought combat was beneficial - a path to maturity and manhood. He was a sergeant during the Vietnam War. he was a brave man and had what we called a lot of "time in country", wise in the ways of that particular war. He was cool under fire and had saved lives. But he told all replacements that war was a passage into adulthood that would mold character. He never tired of giving this speech and I came to believe he meant every word of it. He may not go as far to say, war is addicting, but he believed in its uses and its ability to forge manhood. His words and beliefs, for me, were an anathema. We did what was expected from us, protect ourselves and our buddies, suffer the least amount of violence, then go home safe. And if you think he was some yahoo without any reflections on life, you would be wrong. He was from Chicago, had an MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago, planned to do another tour, then get his PhD and teach college. He had a wide range of interests, but because of his views, to be honest, I didn't like him much.

May 13th,1970, Quang Nghai Province, Vietnam

I was in an infantry company, 2nd platoon, 1st squad. A platoon is made up of roughly 20 men, 2 rifle squads of 10 each; our platoon was commanded by the sergeant. We were helicoptered into an area invitingly called "Leech Valley". . We were told that "tank-like" noises had been heard in the Valley the last few days. Everyone thought, "great...tanks." Because of the nature of the conflict we hadn't been exposed to US tanks, let alone any enemy tanks. We had no idea what they looked like, but decided if we saw any and they started shooting at us, then we'd know.

Our company started a slow sweep of the Valley. Elements then came across a large, natural, fort-like structure that looked like it belonged in Beau Geste more than Southeast Asia. There were multiple openings, almost like natural gates leading to the inside. My squad was given other things to do and the sergeant was ordered with the other squad to investigate inside these berms. Some other elements of the company would simultaneously enter the other openings. The sergeant had been uncharacteristically quiet that morning. Two days before in another part of the country, he had led a patrol that had almost walked into an ambush. The enemy prematurely fired their automatic weapons and the patrol returned fire. The sergeant killed an enemy soldier. She had a North Vietnamese uniform on, was young and pregnant. She was firing her automatic weapon at the patrol when he killed her. I don't know how you begin to assume that reality into your life.

As soon as the squad entered the area of the dirt berms, the place became a killing field. Many, too many, North Vietnamese Regulars were inside; having been patient, well supplied, and thorough at planning. They had taken careful advantage of the terrain. What the sergeant's squad had walked into was more murder than war. During the gunfire, my squad was set up as a blocking force outside the berms, but we were really just witnesses to the carnage. Those who were left from the squad that went into the berm started crawling, running, and stumbling out. Even though I had lived with them for 6 months, many were covered in so much blood I couldn't recognize them. A passing helicopter gunship came in to ferry the wounded out. A medivac helicopter also arrived. It usually took 20 minutes, but they both must have been in the area and heard the radio traffic that increasingly had a desperate tone. Our squad assisted getting the wounded on the two helicopters. I don't remember specifically helping the sergeant, but he was close and had a glazed look of someone in mental shock. He looked lost and afraid. He wanted out and although stumbling badly, ran to the helicopter as fast as he could - to get as far away as he could.

Some days out in the bush we had the upper hand. But not that day. The North Vietnamese ruled that day and the evil of the morning was not through with the sergeant's squad. The North Vietnamese cleaned our clock. Like a rogue wave that increases its malevolent velocity just before it attacks land and dies, the evil of the day rolled up into itself and unleashed its full fury. We were outgunned and outnumbered.

Once we loaded both helicopters, the gunship ascended about 10 feet into the air, was hit with multiple enemy rockets, and slammed into the ground with a violent shutter. Most inside the cab were killed including the sergeant. That same process was repeated with the second helicopter, the Medivac, seconds later.

How do you become addicted to something like that?

Later, I used to have imaginary conversations with the sergeant. It was not about me being right and him being wrong. No one has complete traction on the truth, but I think he would have changed his mind. I believe he would have seen the fallacy in his thinking. I support the troops, but as individuals with foibles, not people careening down some a path of self-absorbed mental illness or complete destruction like in the movie. I am not a pacifist, but I am anti-war. If he were alive, I like to think the sergeant would agree with me on that.

Sorry to go on so long. This was hard to write and maybe hard to read. I know it's just a movie, but it's important. If we see soldiers as combat junkies, we demean them and they should never be demeaned. They should be loved. I realize most adults will see the movie and understand its nuances, but teenagers may see the movie, understand some of its nuances, but still think it's "cool." We just can't have that.

They need to know the truth. We need to tell them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Five Things

Guess what happened to me the other day?

I was working on my second cup of coffee the other morning, trying to come to grips with the coming day. It was 8:02am exactly. I was told by a member of my family, her name will not be mentioned, that I could be, well, grumpy, judgmental, and hard to be around in the early am. Imagine.
Judgmental? Me? She should talk!

So in that light, I decided to stop complaining (if I ever did!) and try to discover the good in some simple, mundane things over the next few days. And guess what? I did... five things.

Kyoto/Tic Tac
Did you ever click on "NEXT BLOG" at the top of this page. You may not have the time, but I do right now. There's a great deal of music/cinema/young family blogs and strangely more blogs than you would think on knitting and food. I never thought that food or knitting engenders words, but there you have it. I came across a blog from a 20 something computer engineer from Kyoto. He was uncomfortably honest about his inability, despite conscientiously working out with free weights, of developing a physique that would impress his friends and help him find his female soul mate in life. No six pack, no girl. He took his deepest fears and put them to words, sentences, then paragraphs. Some would say that this was an exercise in narcissistic drivel. I do not. He reached me because he was shadow boxing with his existence; in his own way, trying to come to grips with his failings and his future. He was saying to himself "I matter", and then he put all his fears on the blog and shared them with us; saying, "you matter too". That took courage.

Tennessee Williams wrote in A Street Car Named Desire, that Blanche, one of the characters, "depended on the kindness of strangers." We all do, but I pray he learns that we don't measure our worth against their approval. I also hope that life assuages his loneliness and youthful angst, and soon, perhaps walking down the street, his heart will whisper and another heart will hear and they will connect.

Ditto the young pregnant woman whose journaling blog elucidates her emotions about her upcoming motherhood. Her words give voice to her perceived inadequacies, maternal insecurities, and imagined thrills. She strives to be the perfect mother, but hasn't yet gone through the process and therefore learned that's impossible. I can tell by her wants that she will be a wonderful mom to the him or her she calls "Tic Tac."

Sometimes life is like reading a map in the mist. You get a vague sense of topography and a warren of squiggles without clear orientation. We shoot a moral azimuth and hope for the best. Unclear exactly where we are going and where we have been, but sometimes we know. Sometimes we are led on a path clearly defined to a good place we know with certainty. We call this place a happy ending

Donna showed me the attached picture from yesterday. Prior to moving back home last year, my son had two dogs that always got along famously until one day they didn't. He brought one, Kali, to live with us temporarily while we looked for another home for her. He was moving back with the other dog, Bruno, shortly, so there was a pressured, time consideration involved. As you may or may not know, giving a pet away is not easy. Kali was a wonderful dog that would be a great pet for any family. We dreaded giving her up and dreaded we wouldn't give her to the right family or worse, no family at all. The process is also overloaded with luck.

But sometimes luck is enough. Donna met a mom with two boys. Long story short, after several meetings, Kali found a wonderful home with a wonderful family. If you look close in the picture below, Kali is smiling. I can tell. If you never think anything ends happily in life and you can't point to any examples, you can borrow this one.

Bad Weather

It snowed this morning - about an inch. It is a pleasant reminder that we live inside nature and are dependent on it. I am no environmentalist, but anyone can see we live in a cell phone society, cut off from our surroundings. We give nature adoration after subjugation and then just plain ignore it. But nature finds ways to subtly remind us of our limitations and let us know those limitations are sagacious and life affirming. It's not us then nature, it's us and nature. Genesis established that symmetry in the first few pages. Have you ever lived without electricity? Even for a short time, summer camp or mountain hiking perhaps? Your body quickly gets into a natural rhythm with daylight. You do activities when the sun is up and don't when the sun is down. It is restful and relaxing. Thomas Edison did us no favors.

The snow came with that lesson. Eric Hoffer, the philosopher/longshoreman from San Francisco said that man's progress is measured by his supremacy over nature. To clear a forest to build a factory is man at his best. No, Eric. Clearing or not clearing the forest for the factory is not the measurement. The measurement is the decision not to clear the forest for the factory if it is not needed. That is man at his best because that is man at his wisest. (I love arguing with dead philosophers - you always win because you always get the last word.)

Mark Twain

I read yesterday on the internet the following quote by Mark Twain, "I didn't attend the funeral, but sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." The net is filled with a lot of mendacious attributions so I can't be sure it was him, but it sounds like Mark Twain.

I wonder if the subject of the sentence perhaps told Mr. Twain prior to his second cup of coffee that he was grumpy...around 8:02am.

Charlie, Kali and Willem...All smiling...All happy

Friday, February 26, 2010

Pain and Peaceful Co-Existence

I just received a very nice card from a group of people I know. One of the entries from John (thanks John), told me to "Keep up the good fight". That fit me perfectly. Pretty much my whole life when dealing with any type of chronic pain, my response was to fight it. Some people embrace pain, others manage it, accept it, still others ignore it - I always fought it. I don't think I came to this naturally; just swimming with my genes. In her 80's, my mother's diagnoses filled the first 400 pages of the Tabers Medical Dictionary. Her physician told me he couldn't understand how she stayed alive, but I did. She always lived her life under God's tutelage, but willed herself to live those last five years. So my response to pain was to build a defensive position, set out a perimeter with plenty of tripwires and then when the pain arrived, throw every resource I had at it. It was not my friend and unlike Brother Lawrence, I could not see God in it. I didn't want to learn from it, invite it for supper, put its picture on the refrigerator or send it a card on the appropriate holidays. The pain didn't care and worse, wouldn't even give me a senior discount (10% less pain on Tuesdays). CS Lewis said that pain is God's megaphone to the world. All I ever wanted to do was give the megaphone a knuckles sandwich.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've never particularly regarded myself as a couch potato christian, but I guess in some ways I am. Whenever something big happens in life, I try to see what God is trying to teach. After the last operation, one item was that God is everywhere and involved in everything. Like most, I carry my thoughts in categories, only recognizing God in the categories I thought appropriate. "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est"( where there is charity and love, God is there). He had me recognize He was strongly present and strongly felt in my deepest fears and dark corners as well as in the everyday. His embrace has no constraint. He also had me revisit some of my failings. I learned several years ago, hobbling around on crutches in public, it was always the young person with 6 body piercings and as many tattoos that would go out of their way to hold a door or help in some way. Always someone I would have crossed the street to avoid if locomotion allowed. If you are going to rebel against current society, you have to pay some attention to it and try to make things better. Given the facility, I would be too involved in my interior musings to offer such help if the positions were reversed because I wouldn't be that aware. Funny how you learn things and who God uses as teachers.

So after this operation in November, I've been a christian couch potato laying in wait and prayer. What am I supposed to learn? Maybe just this. During the recovery, without realizing it, I didn't fight the pain. I recognized it for what it was. Maybe it's my age, maybe it was the centering prayer I do, maybe it was the drugs; but I didn't expend energy on the pain battle. I'm still learning and learning is uncomfortable and lacks clarity until learned so I can't be definitive. So I'm stuck in the in-between.

Is this important? I think so. Lately, when I've wanted to know the great philosophical questions in life; I've googled. Not the important stuff like how many stitches on a baseball (108), how many square feet on a football field (58,000), or when your toaster oven breaks down why you can't toast a piece of bread in the microwave just catches fire..or so I've been told; not those. But why is pain useful? Google I did and obtained no answers so I've got to go to plan B; I've got to think.

Maybe it's as simple as this. Once the pain is accepted, some degree of honesty takes form, more authenticity and movement closer to God. When I'm fighting, I'm not progressing, learning, or being humble. Just fighting. It doesn't change at age 28 or age 62. It's the same. Acceptance can lead to movement, to the truth of possibility, realizing who we are and our place in the world.

I see this authenticity and acceptance in other people. Wife Donna is one and Kristen Symank (2nd entry blog - Get Shorty) is another. They are special people because of it. Meeting them is memorable. How they obtained it I have no idea, but maybe it was through what Wikipedia called "an aversive feeling."

Something called pain.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Winter Olympics BC.

Thinking of creating a new summer Olympics event. Calling it the "scoot".

I don't know about you, but I sit in front of the boob tube entranced over the winter Olympics. That fact is really strange since I'm watching sports I've never done or plan to do. Yes, as a youngster I learned to ice skate and of course sled down a hill or two after a snowstorm - always distinguishing myself by hitting something on the way, like another sled or a tree.

But I am just in awe of downhillers, lugers, skeletoners (skeletoners appear to be lugers who think it's boring to fly down icy tracks on their backs at extremely high speeds so they travel on their stomachs), hockey players, snowboarders, cross country, ski jumpers, and biatholoners...but not ice skaters...which I'll get into.

Things Good About the Winter Olympics..Eh!

The scenery is stunning! It is my first Olympics in HD. British Columbia is the perfect venue. Bad weather never looked so good. the games are located in a part of the earth we would all try and avoid in February. No one wants to sign up for the Athabasca tour this time of year. The Canadian Rockies and panoramas of Vancouver are simply breathtaking. TV should show more of the area.

Except for ice hockey and the dancing, its an individual sport which is the purest form of competition and for the most part very simple. You succeed by GOING FASTER
All events are timed. If you are the fastest, you win.

-It's also non-gendered. Because most participants wear spandex and helmets with sun screens (which you would think highlight sex differences, but don't), it's not always obvious if it is a "female" or "male" competition. I don't know why, but I like that. It could just be me.

Most of the events are an extension of life - at least life if you live in a cold country with snow. Downhill skiing, hockey, cross country, etc are derivative of daily life. Someone figures out you can move faster over snow if you put boards on your feet. Makes sense. Two guys with boards on their feet spy a mountain, look at each other and say, "Let's race" (downhill). Two other people spy a mountain with lumps on it and say, "Let's race"(mogul). Ditto luge, skeleton (sledding), snowboarding (short board surfing on snow), even ski jumping. As kids, I never remember seeing anyone in their hockey skates on a frozen pond saying, "Let's dance". I'm not saying figure skating is easy or not enjoyable to watch. Just saying I'm not sure it's a sport.

It's spirited and life-affirming that we have the ability to use daily activities in life and make them fun. Think about it - cross country is just walking, but with skis. I know if I grew up in fairly flat, remote snow country and mom told me to go out and get milk; I'd get plenty of exercise and be a great winter athlete. As I usually did in my youth, I would come back with the wrong item, ("I told you 1%, not 2% milk"!) and have to go back to return it and get the right item hereby doubling my training time. Who knew I'd be participating in an Olympic event. I coulda been a contenda!

I know the same probably applies to the summer Olympics. Throw a ball into a crowd of people and they will know what to do with it (soccer), but how did basketball really develop? OK, it's derivative of life, but with a great deal of thinking and planning. Biking, running, swimming, all natural, but waddling (creepy) and sailing (see ice dancing: why is this a sport?, it's one step above going to the beach: even I can sail, except for that one time, no make that two times). Judo?, don't get me started. Marathons are impressive, but different than watching Bode Miller going up to 80 mph down a steep hill. Marathoners want to stop forward locomotion during a race, they stop moving their legs. Alpine skiers want to stop forward locomotion, they have to hit a fence or a tree.

I love they way the cross country skiers pass the finish line and just collapse in their lanes a few feet later, leaving it all on the field. A basketball player will finish an Olympic game, scan the audience for scouts, sign a contract for about 10 million dollars; for what is essentially, well, winter work.

I do love the summer Olympics, but the winter Olympics have an edge. There are just too many "did they really do that?" moments. I've watched a lot of the short track ice racing and I still cannot figure out how they pass each other. Amazing!

Needed Improvements in the Olympics

I'll try and be brief. I don't know about you, but memo to Bob Costas and NBC; show more events! Please! Enough of the personal interest stories. Some are good, but if a participant had their #2 pencil stolen from them in middle school, we do not need valuable air time taken up by face-to-face, family, and coach interviews back grounded with stringed adagio. And then have a recap.
It's great Wayne Gretzky lit the Olympic whatchamacallit display, but it doesn't warrant an interview the length of a hockey game. We've all lit a candle.

NBC: Cover the event and the entire event without breakaways. If NBC covered a baseball game like they do the Olympics, it would take 22 hours. After each at bat, there would be a personal story on the player, then of course family interviews and recap. by the 9th inning, the poor catcher would need two knee replacements - and the TV coverage would ensure he would have enough time for a lengthy regimen of physical therapy.

I love Bob Costas, but he has to start showing age. He's the Sean Connery of sports announcers. If you could pull his broadcasts from 20 years ago and compare it to one yesterday, I doubt if you could pick the most current.

Bob, at our age we develop little lines in our faces called wrinkles and guys over 45, never, ever see their belt buckles once dressed. If you will not change (and frankly, I don't blame you), take the bag of Doritos away from Al Michaels and give him the microphone. Al looks more like us.

I could be wrong, but shouldn't you be representing a country that has snow if you are in the Winter Olympics? Last week I was watching a female (no, you really couldn't tell until the graphics appeared) cross country race. The entrant was representing Brazil. Now I've never been to Brazil, but I don't think they have snow at the lower elevations - elevations conducive to flatness for cross country. Could be wrong. Just guessing.

Let's face it. The Canadians are nicer than us. It's a wonderful country and unlike us, has always been a good neighbor. From this country, no one has ever apologized for invading Canada three times - and they still like us! I hope Canada wins all the medals going forward. Except Sweden and Norway can have a few. The only negative thing I know about Canada is that it uses the metric system - but only a little bit. You want political bi-partisanship? Next election we need to vote for a Canadian!

While I'm at it - why have country designations at all? Stop the country medal count. Individuals win competitions, not countries. If most of the athletes want to represent something appropriate to their lives, given their continuing injuries, they should represent health care facilities. "Medal count today has Mayo clinic in the lead. UNC Medical Center thrashing Duke University Hospital Systems - Mass General pulling up the rear". Makes sense to me.

Finally, as an aside. If proof is needed again that God's favorite sports team is the Boston Red Sox, I will provide. Hannah Carney of Vermont won USA's first gold in the women's mogul. Huge Sox fan, wore a t-shirt at the opening ceremonies with Jacoby Ellsbury's picture on it..Red Sox center fielder.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Picture is Worth...

Just thought I would give you an update. I go to see the surgeon next week and hopefully he will let me put more weight on the leg. Still using the sticks with a small amount of weight on my left leg, but my mobility is still inhibited. I've gone from about 8-12 pain pills a day to 2, so I am not resembling a zombie so much anymore. I have cabin fever in spades, but do manage to get chauffeured every once in a while.

It is said that when two people view a mountain they see different things. That is probably as it should be, but when I see the x-ray (sorry - hope it doesn't gross you out)I hope you see some of the things I see. I think of all the medical skill and time that went into me - by many, many people; the staff at Duke Orthopedics, the staff at the Durham VA, the staff at Duke University Hospital, and not least, my wife and son. All the notes and cards I received I was again reminded that John Donne and Paul Simon had it wrong, no man is an island. I think of all the people around the world who need the appliance more than I and will probably never receive an artificial anything (especially Haiti). And last, but most importantly, I think of all the prayers in my behalf by some people I know, and most amazingly, by people I do not know: all wrapped in Ernestine's prayer blanket. We are all God's paper clips, connected in ways that are beyond thinking, but connected none the less.

I am grateful.

PS: Don't you think the "erector set" plate - the titaneum strip with the holes remind you of a flying buttress from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris?
Wonder if one day I'll start speaking French.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Take Two Bananas And Call Me In The Morning

I'm starting to get out more. Unfortunately, it has been mainly to medical destinations. It is nice to finally get out, but I think I'm starting to get on Donna's nerves. I have another medical appointment in a few weeks and I fear she will bringing my "living will" and "DO NOT RESUSCITATE" directive with her - passing it out to every healthcare worker in the place...several times. I hope she doesn't interfere too much with the care...I need to have the dental hygienist clean my teeth.

A few days ago I went to my doctor to have a pro-time test done. The test checks the efficacy of a blood thinner drug I'm taking due to a cardiac arrhythmia. It prevents clots passing through the heart chambers which I'm told is a very, very bad thing.

Got to thinking, I've been getting the test done monthly for a long time, but couldn't exactly remember how long. I do remember that I included the initial finding in a Christmas newsletter we put out and checked the computer files for past ones. The newsletter went back to 2002 so it has been a while. I don't know what it means when you have to reference newsletters to remember important things in your life, but there you have it. Hopefully, I wrote about our marriage and the birth of our son in one of those old ones.

Anyway, thought I would include it even though it was from 2002.


"This year I seemed to have settled into a more evenhanded and certain life. I approach things in a mature and thoughtful way. A keeper of the routine. In other words, I've become more like my dog. I get excited by food and in a few more years I'm sure I'll expect to be taken out for a walk.

President George Bush (the senior) and I have the same cardiac guy! During a routine physical exam last winter, my check engine light came on. My regular physician, Dr. James, sent me to a cardiologist, Dr. Englehardt, who explained that my heart chambers were working fine except for one that didn't quite pump - it vibrated - like a Skytel pager. During my first and subsequent exams, Dr. Englehardt kept being interrupted with phone calls from around the world. It seems he consults a lot. The number of phone calls got to be so much he gave me the story.

He was a resident at John Hopkins, the very junior member of a senior cardiac team that diagnosed and treated George Bush when he was President...ditto the connection. During Dr. Englehardt's residency, a medical research team was doing studies on some aspect of elderly cardiology and since baboons' hearts are just like human hearts, they were using baboons to do so. Who knew. I didn't ask if they lounged around in the day room wearing old cardigans and smoking cigars...the baboons that is. To make a long story short, the gerontology teams needed a baseline on EKGs. And guess what. No one had ever done EKGs on baboons! Being the junior member, Dr. Englehardt was chosen to analye the EKG results. He took out a calculator, averaged numbers of all those tested, and whallah!...became an international expert. He published a paper on this in a medical journal so now zoos call him every time J Fred Muggs overdoses on bananas or whenever I have an appointment. I wonder if their exams ever get interrupted."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Act of Nuitrition

I've been thinking about what I am going to do first when I'm able to be up and about again. As I've mentioned before, I'm very grateful my ankle has a second chance at mobility and I've resolved to be smarter, wiser, and generally more temperate in all things. I plan to exercise for an hour every day, be nicer to the neighborhood children, and consume only food and drink with the word "diet." I may even get taller.

I'm planning all of that; right after a day trip to Carl Sandburg's "city with big shoulders", Chicago. I plan to fly up in the morning and back that night. I'm calling it my "cholesterol tour." Going to hit Lou Mitchell's for a late morning breakfast, then Mr. Beef for lunch.

Lou Mitchell's is located across from Union Station. Donna and I stopped in there prior to taking the Chicago Zephyr out west and we found the best, the very best coffee and donuts ever consumed. You can go South. You can go East. You can go North. You can go West. You will neva, eva, have a better cup of coffee or donut. I may get a plateful before I order flapjacks or some other comfort food for breakfast.

If, during the Battle of Waterloo between the tactical parry and thrusts of England's Duke of Wellington and France's Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon asked the Duke where he could get a good cup of coffee and donut; I am sure the Duke would respond, " Lou Mitchell's...just sit down on that stump over there, wait about 130 years, go to Charles Degaulle Airport, hop a plane to Chicago, then take a cab downtown. You can't miss it".
"Who is Degaulle?"
"A French general who helped re-invade France during World War II."
"I am, Napoleon, Emperor of the First French Empire, what did they name after me?"
"A puff pastry and a drink."
"FOOD! I almost conquered the known world! FOOD? Monsieur, France names an important public facility after this rinky dink General, and I get FOOD?"
"Go sit on the stump and wait - you will die a happy man after you have Lou Mitchell's coffee and donuts."
"Did you tell this Degaulle about the coffee and donuts?"

Now when we were at the "Lou" as the locals call it, I didn't see any autographed pictures of Napoleon on the wall so I'm guessing he never made it. Probably couldn't get his sword and scabbard through airport security.

I will then proceed to Mr Beef. Never been there and I understand Mr Beef may be having some IRS issues, so I hope it is still open. The sandwiches are supposed to be so thick that when you bite down, the beef starts shooting out the other end! It is not food consumption. It is an Olympic event! I'm told if you order a bunch of sandwiches at Mr. Beef, and let them dry out, they can be used as attic insulation.

After lunch I will head back to the airport and start a life of Cobb salads. If I have time though, I may stop at the hospital for a cholesterol test. Hope the results don't involve four digits.

I'll let you know.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Help Them

How do we explain or understand the aftermath of nature declaring war on itself.

Since I have a lot more time than you do, I've been glued to the TV watching the coverage on the Haitian earthquake. The coverage has been very good. I've mostly been watching CNN, but I'm sure the other channels provide yeoman's service as well. I'm always ready to criticize television, but not for Haiti.

The news correspondents stand in the devastation repeating the same short phrases tinged with incomprehension. Their lucidity gives way to vague repetition, their slick professionalism gives way to humanity. We live in a world where we use words to define emotions, but the correspondents' words are the emotions themselves. We connect with the on site reporters not through their presentations, but through their witness. We see what the camera sees, but aren't able to feel what the correspondents feel. We may get a glimpse of the terror and numbness in the Haitians eyes, but the correspondents feel that terror and numbness and so convey it to us. God bless them all.

They stumble over words and keep repeating the same phrases peppered with "unbelievable","horrible", "hellish", and "tragic". Their minds go back to the same phrases, as if by repetition the truth of the situation will form. Like losing the car keys and repeatedly visiting the places the keys should be. The reporters offer good witness.

As I watch, I think. What can I do? Me, recuperating from a sophisticated surgery of choice involving thousands of dollars while some Haitians could gain a footing on the future for want of antibiotics that cost five cents. Why is life so unfair? Why does this happen? I don't think the answer to those questions are of this world. Not even in scripture...the first place I would look. I think scripture offers the map to the answer, but not the answer itself.

I can give. Don't have much, but again the news channels list viable and effective charities (and also some that are scams). I've also looked on
that lists many (not all) organizations, their financial effectiveness, and payroll (shame on some of them).

I can pray. I don't pray enough. I sometimes think I need to use words of careful consideration and deference to God. I sometimes look up prayers of tradition and those written by others: all good. But I think all prayer is the same to God. It can be a thought, a silent pause in the day, a sound....even just the phrase, "help them".

Whether you have firm faith, little faith, no faith, or aren't sure what life is all about, I hope you hold those words in your heart and share them with God or what you believe to be a higher power...."help them".