Sunday, December 23, 2012

I'm Grateful

At our Thanksgiving dinner, Donna asked me to say grace and continue our yearly Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and mentioning what we are thankful in that current year.  I've been married for 32 years and don't ever remember doing that before - no,  not grace, the going around the table part.  It seems like a nice thing to do though so we did, and as I recall I was thankful for family and the food on the table.  I was brief, the turkey was getting cold.

I'm sure we did that blessing every year, but I just don't remember.  I used to work with a bookkeeper, Jenny, who gave her son the same Christmas card every year, put it away and gave it to him the following year.  She used the same card for 21 years, then got a new one.  I guess the son and I share certain traits.

But I've been thinking about gratitude, since I gave it such short shift that day.  Here's some thoughts:

I'm grateful for my son Adam, his wife Alexia, and of course, pictured above, their son Gavin, now 15 days old.

I'm grateful for a loving wife who has put up with me and my grumpiness for years.  I'm sure she will be rewarded in heaven.

I'm grateful that...."I still haven't figured it all out yet."  Just when I'm ready to turn off the light switch and leave the room of people's charity and love, life shows me things.  We all saw the recent internet photo of the NY police officer who gave the person in need some new boots and socks. As a police officer, he must see more misery in a month than I see in a life-time, but it didn't seem to make him callus - charity and love must fire his heart or he wouldn't have responded the way he did.  I'm grateful to God for that realization and for him..

We all hitch hike through the combination of life's speed bumps and open roads.  I concentrate on the bumps too much, and I'm grateful that in the past two weeks, three people I can think of, have committed acts of kindness.  It's not about me, they don't know me personally, so I know that the kindness they displayed must be an important part of who they are.  Last week, I lost my wallet in a DC hotel (Crown Plaza, Tyson's Corner.)  The bartender in the restaurant went out of his way to recover it, even after I had searched myself without success.  He saw the wallet and returned it to me.  He could have kept it..  I'm grateful for him.  Then several days ago, Amy, an event host of  the group, Raleigh Write to Publish, went the extra mile and made sure me and others were allowed into an important (to us) overbooked event this coming January.  She didn't have to do that either.  And last, and not least, I asked a free lance editor, Victoria Shockley ( to do a developmental edit of my book manuscript.  I told her it didn't need copy editing, but after reading, "the aurora of bliss," and "She weighted at least one hundred and ten pounds," she went ahead with a complete word-for-word assessment - again, over and above what I asked or expected.  Kudos and appreciation to all.
I'm grateful for strong black coffee in the morning.

I'm grateful for the chance to get into the day;  those first few seconds in the morning when you open the door  to witness God's first draft of the day;  whether it be raining, clear, sunrise, or snow.

I'm grateful for good pizza.

I'm grateful for the absurdity in life. We have a President who's a smoker, thinking he can reform the entire healthcare system and a US Secretary of the Treasury who advocates higher taxation, but fails to pay his own income tax.  I'm also grateful I can see the absurdity in my life.  When I turned 65, I though I would morph into Henry Fonda with a cardigan sweater and a pipe.  Instead I spent part of that afternoon dragging a small magnet at the end of a piece of twine around a pear tree in our front yard.  A small machine screw had fallen off the bracket holding the noise suppressor of the chain saw I was using on the tree's branches.  I knew the screw would be hard to replace and expensive - ergo, the magnet.  Just then a car drove by the house and I could only imagine what the driver was thinking:  I started to laugh.  I'm grateful for that.

I'm grateful for our dog, Bruno.  He was with me in the above incident and he's quite comfortable with the fact he possesses no sense of observed humiliation. No matter what, anything I do or say is ok with him.  I'm comfortable with that too...and grateful.

I'm grateful that in an age when many seek their own accommodation which can lead to sometime selfishness, my son is part of the US Coast Guard.  When others see calamity and try to work around it, or away from it, the Coast Guard  moves toward it.  They may not always be called upon to be heroes, but their job is heroic.

I'm grateful I can bench press my resting pulse (so far).

I'm grateful for the gift of travel and especially the Alaskan cruise we took in September.  We were pampered beyond belief.  When we decided re-filling a water glass during a meal would require too much aerobic exercise, there were always waiters to do that for us.  They fluffed the pillows and made the bed, turned down the bed and fluffed the pillows again - we cruisers all became quite accustomed to the service.  I'm surprised they didn't carry us around the ship on a cushioned litter, one steward on each corner, so we could be presented to the main dining room like Cleopatra.  Next time we'll ask.  But I'm really greatful for guy we shared a cab with after docking and heading back to the Seattle Airport.  He carried a fishing rod with him and explained one of his uncles (wasn't sure which one) paid for his passage for a family reunion.  He didn't care much for the trip.  When the boat docked in Ketchican, he moved down the dock about 300 feet and threw his line in over the edge of the pier - wanting to catch his supper.  He was assailed by a flying squad of Ketchican police, Alaskan fish and game wardens, and some ship's crew; all  pointing out numerous legal violations.  Let me tell you he sounded bummed.  He was forced to eat cruise food.

He kept repeating to us in a pleasant, but fanciful way, " Back home, I'm off the grid. They don't know I exist because I don't believe in banks or credit cards.  I'll only pay cash if I really need something and can't barter for it."  Seems he is an illegal gold hunter in the California Sierras.  He used to be able to get short-term permits to explore for gold, but the government stopped issuance when the Mexican cartels sent marijuana growers to the mountains of Northern California.  From personal experience, he told us the growers would  fire weapons at anyone approaching their plants, but that didn't seem to stop him.  Gunfire, no problem:  no permits, no problem.  He spent his days avoiding government wildlife wardens, the DEA, and drug growers;  all in his pursuit of the yellow. After telling the cab driver he really liked his ride, he mentioned he had a similar SUV, but with the windows shot out (I didn't ask.)  He then got on his cellphone and called his sister, who was cabin-sitting his place, and inquired as to whether any of the wild bears had eaten his dogs (I didn't ask).  He was one of the most pleasant and manic freebooters Donna and I have ever met in our travels, and without knowing exactly why, I think the country is better for having him in it.

I await his reality show.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I Remember Raymond

I just attended a funeral of a friend, Raymond Kelliher, PhD, in Easton, Massachusetts.  Let me tell you about him and if you don't have anyone like him in your life, read this as quick as you can, then go out and find a person like Raymond and don't stop until you do.

He had many outward accomplishments in life, but let's face it, that's not what's really important - it's how a person lives their life that matters.  You can't feel, embrace, laugh with, and experience Raymond's impressive advanced academic degrees or his careers in education and business.  I look back at the too few conversations I had with him, and those conversations felt like absorbing a warm sun on your face during a cold winter day.

He had a gift.  Meeting him was life giving you extra credit.

When there was an upcoming gathering, I always asked,  "Are Christine and Raymond going to be there?"  When he met me, he would immediately push me (or anyone else he was talking to) into the front of the line of his thoughts and become genuinely interested in the events in my life; and then later, share his life with me because he honestly cared about  what I thought.

Nope, he wasn't perfect.  We're all complicated and he had his particularities as well.  At the service, his beloved wife Christine talked about his tendency to stockpile.  She once counted 78 cans of tuna in the basement with expiration dates spanning over ten years ("Christine, don't throw them out, they're still good").  Most of us food shop to satiate hunger, Raymond must have been looking for long-term relationships.  The supermarket checkout should have given him adoption papers instead of purchase receipts, but there you have it.

I don't know about you, but sometimes in conversation with people, I run out of words before the conversation ends.  I then put some effort into taking a knee and letting the conversation's clock run out while still trying to keep eye contact so as not to offend the other person.  Raymond never had that problem.  The only break we had in conversations together was when we would laugh so hard the words wouldn't come.  He didn't discriminate.  His empathy, kindness, and humor shook hands with all comers - the man's auto mechanic came to his wake.  Let me state that again, his auto mechanic came to his wake.  He had that effect on people.

I will miss him, but I will carry his voice with me and remember him fondly.  It's hard, sometimes really hard, to understand why God needs a person more than we do here on earth, but acquiescing to that taking does not negate Raymond's kind and gentle existence in any way.  Perhaps it honors him more if we, in life, find and value something honest, something funny, something kind...something Raymond, .

His last lesson to me was a stanza from a poem read at his service, Mary Oliver's In Blackwater Woods:

"You must be able
to do three things;
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing 
your own life depends on it;
and, when the times comes to let it go,
to let it go."


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

118 stitches

When you retire, you may want to visit the grandeur of Machu Picchu, the stunning beauty of Phuket, Thailand, or repose in one of the geo-thermal lagoons outside Reykjavik - I want to do that too, but first, Donna and I are taking in something of equal interest and esthetic:  we're visiting baseball stadiums around the country.

When you watch the games on TV and the camera scans the stadium, you get a sense of the fans.  Boston fans have the look of people that were subject to the business end of a Tazor, New York fans are constantly on their cell phones, St. Louis fans are engaged in the rhythm of the games in a knowing way, San Diego fans are happy and smiling (Is it possible to live in San Diego and be depressed?), Seattle fans look distracted as if they're trying to remember the last time they saw someone within the City limits who exceeded their body mass index.  Baltimore fans tend to have jerky eyes, as if trying to follow the ball and not succeeding..

But some of the best fans though, seem to be in that Paris of the Plains, the City of Fountains, the Mecca of the Mid-West:  Kansas City, Missouri.  And go there we did:  Red Sox versus the Royals.  Kaufman Stadium in KC was constructed in the second half of last century.  During that period, stadiums were poured concrete:  it's a building material that oozes coldness, density, and a paucity of personality.  When they get torn down, no one's going to buying a chunk of stadium concrete as a memento.  If you have any doubt, I give you the baseball fields in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Comiskey Park in Chicago as examples, but Kaufman's concrete must have been poured by people with good karma. The Park is friendly and impressive.  The concrete smiles.

 Red Sox lost and the game set a record for having three balks by pitchers - never been done before, but the KC fans made the game enjoyable with an air of good feelings.
They reward a good plate appearance with a cheer even if it's not productive.  Good people, good barbeque.

The baseball fans in Boston, before the game, get their game faces on and fret about how the upcoming game might be lost.  In KC as you can see from the picture above, it's a time to party.  I do have a complaint though, but it's not directed just at the Royals.  Baseball was always a game of leisure - the national pastime- where you could bring a book, take a cell call, and talk to those around you.  Watching the game was one of many options.  No more.  From the lst inning to the last the air is filled with as much noise as a NASCAR event.  PA announcements,  loud music, overblown baseball commentary fills the air every second.  If you go to a hockey, football, or basketball game, loud noise is part of the experience, but baseball was always a venue where we, the fans, make the noise, not them.  I always liked going to the Durham Bulls games and listening  to the triangle high tech guys or the Duke students sitting around me and  planning exactly where they were going to vacation in the South of France or other places I couldn't afford.  The conversations provided comity and a certain egalitarianism.  Now I can't even yell at the umps.  They can't hear me.  It's like deciding to go vegan after you're dead.  What's the point?

Leslie is pictured above.  She was one of the Royals staff who covered our section.  She did something I've never seen at any sporting event.  She went up and down the steps asking people in our seating grid if they were enjoying the game and if  she could help in anyway.  She was magnanimous to everyone, even the guys on their fourth beer.  The first time she approached me, I was suspicious and  looked at her as if she was passing the church collection plate and was expecting me to top it off, but it turns out she was the real deal and just wanted Donna and I to enjoy the game.  I finally responded with, "Get Gonzalez to hit a two-run homer in the 8th,"  and she good-naturedly said she would see what she could do.   Leslie, you were worth the trip.

The next day we drove to downtown to see what we could see.  The City is impressive.  They built buildings downtown, maintained them, then left them alone.  They did not second guess with renovations or re-development - no "Kansas City 2.0".

On our last day we were having breakfast at our hotel across from the stadium.  As happens in the Mid-West, we started up a conversation with the next table, a couple from Tuscaloosa.  Turns out the couple were there for the afternoon game even though the man said neither he nor his wife followed the Royals in particular or baseball in general.  His wife left the restaurant, but he stayed and told us she was being honored in a ceremony before the game for her work in the community of Tuscaloosa.

That City  had a deadly tornado the year before.  Deadly.  An 80 mile path and a width of a mile and 1/2, destroying the City and in the area encompassing surrounding towns, in four days, over 300 people died.  The tornadoes did not ask for any financial statements of its recipients, but cut through the area structures like it was tearing through the federal income tax tables;  from "0" worth to infinity.  The destruction involved mansions and it involved shacks... and his wife was the city planner who had to help put the City back together again.

He told us she had been working 11 months without a day off and her work was gradually getting harder.  Finding financing for the high end property was difficult but doable, for the marginal properties it was something else.  He knew she liked to sew, and in the past would get together with other ladies that sewed... and talked about, well, sewing I guess.  So six months ago, he started building a concrete block building the size of a small garage next to his house.  Last month, she finally took a day off and he hung a sign above the door that said, "Sewing Shop" and she got to enjoying herself.

Nice Couple.

If you're expecting me to connect the 118 stitches on a baseball and the sewing shop and come up with something of significance, you're wrong.  I'll leave that to the smart people.

But we can all think about it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memoriam

This is the day, Memorial Day, to remember our war dead.  For me that means a small group of people I served with in 1969-70 in Vietnam, but for you it may be another war in a different decade.  My friends are frozen in time and place and the last part of their lives involved things like elephant grass, wait-a-minute vines, thump guns, LZs (landing zones), trip flares, puff the magic dragon, "don't mean nothing", and Victor Charlie - but their lives mean much more than that.

It is said as a cliche that our lives are like stones that are dropped in water and create a ripple that travels far beyond the original perimeters.  But cliches become cliches because they are grounded in truth.  We all exist and react to life in the moment, but our lives as a whole are permanently planted and nourished in time.

Several people have contacted me about their family members after my posts about "Treasure," "More Treasure," "Rest in Peace Doc", and "The Hurt Locker Hurts,"  I am grateful and feel privileged to connect with their memories.  The fallen have left their measure in many lives long after they are gone.


When I was riding my bike this morning on a green way path between two neighborhood developments, I was surrounded by tall trees that will bear witness throughout the day of people strolling, running, or like me, biking and enjoying the Memorial Day Holiday. Those gone before their time will never be able to experience those simple pleasures, or experience their first house payment, be filled with pride as their young child sprints to the school bus on the first day, embrace someone they love, receive the gift of an answered prayer, feel the joy of having a grandchild sit in their lap and give them a hug,  know the curiosity and exhilaration of travel, and the thousand little things that life supplies.  They will never feel the effects of Post-Combat Traumatic Stress Disorder because they never survived the combat.

For those I knew on the list, most very well, some very little, their lives ended in their twenties.  You may have loved ones from a different time and a different war, but we are all connected, all of us, in our thoughts and prayers for them.  They are in a better place now.

They mattered when they were alive.

They matter now.

My Friends:

William James Olson, age 21, Chicago, panel 10w-line 35
David Winder (Doc), age 21, Pennsylvania, panel 10w-line37
Wilmer Matson, age 20, Nebraska, panel 13w -line131
Rhea Kidd (Billy the Kid), age 26, Kentucky, panel 10w-line34
Van T Wray, age 21, North Carolina, panel 10w-line36
Arthur Munson, age 20, Colorado, panel 10w-line35
Albert Flores Tristan, age 21, Texas, panel 9w-line125
Richard Humphrey, age 20, Maryland, panel10w-line33
Curtis Ringhofer, age 25, Minnesota, panel 10w-line36
Raymond Souza, age 20, California, panel 10w-line 37

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Way

 I just returned from a week at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in the Northern mountains of New Mexico.  The Monastery can be found at the end of a 13 mile dirt road in the middle of a national park  in the Chama Canyon area - the home of painter Georgia O'Keefe.  The area is a place of interest.

I visited 9 years ago and promised myself I would return every few years, but as we mark time, time marks us as well.  As you enter the dirt road toward the Monastery,  you are presented with a lot of western high desert.  Look forward and you see color striated pinnacles that mimic the hoodoos of Zion National Park, drive through another turn of the road and there are folding hills, dot spotted with pinion pines that mother the unsteady sagebrush against the constant push of the wind.  Take another moment to look up and you will see the resolute cliffs composed of red rocks as if transported from Sedona:  the continuing play between the sun and clouds offer a visual scene of gratification - God's creation as a motion picture.  Negotiate one more turn and you expect to find Gary Cooper riding a Palomino with six gun drawn looking for cattle rustlers, but what you will find instead are 23 Monks, dressed in black robes, praying and chanting to God.

These men have turned away from the world's conversations to dedicate their existence in total praise of God.  Their days comprise living under the Rules of St. Benedict, public prayers of office that have periods ranging from 15 minutes to one hour, starting at 4am and ending at 7:30pm that involve chanting (150 Psalms a week); daily Mass; manual labor, individual prayer,  and 3 meals.  The Monks are self- sustaining and self-supporting :  they receive no money from the Catholic church and would have to close down if the money ran out.  They take a vow of silence, trying to make it "as common as talking is in the secular world."    They make and sell craft items at stores in Chama and Santa Fe, provide room and board for guests like myself at $60.00 per night including meals (enough for 20 guests), accept donations, and brew beer (Monks' Ale:  made with care and prayer) which  I'm told is very good.. What can I say.  Life's a conundrum.

The Monastery was started by three Monks from New York in 1964.  The Monks now range in age from 20 to 90 years old and come from many countries.  Their mission is to pray for the world and give praise to God through the chanting of the Psalms - period.  My understanding is that they do not leave the Monastery to evangelize, but do so by creating "...a sanctuary where both Monks and retreatants, Christians, believers in other faiths and those with no religious beliefs at all may experience something of that peace which the world cannot give..."  They do. If I was asked to describe them in one word I couldn't - it would take two:  happy and content.
                                                                    (my room)

Usually my mind resembles the "scan" button on the car radio.  Constant unrelated thoughts pinging against each other much like a cue ball in a game of pool between two teenagers after imbibing in umpteen energy drinks, that's me.  So you imagine I'm not the best candidate for contemplative prayer, but the Benedictines don't go college on you.  It's very basic and  I only had to be in the church for one minute of chanting and praying on the first day  to realize the specialness and good of it.

The first time I was there I was curious and just wanted to dope it all out, participate, then leave, but like anything else, with practice, God let's us see lower layers of ourselves.  Through Him we realize there's more to us than we thought and more of Him in us than we thought.  I've been back in North Carolina two days and find myself missing aspects of my visit already.  They should have no worries though,  there will be no "Brother Grumpy" in the future;  I'm not cut out for that life   ( "What,  fish stew again!  We had it last week!") and guess most are not either.  But I take comfort in the fact that there are people in a wilderness worshiping God without interruption for a world they will never experience.

One word about the "silence" that seems to grab everyone's 'attention.  There are places where you can converse with one of the Brothers if you have questions, it's no big deal.  They will also readily break their vow if you  need an answer on something important - they also took a vow of love that supersedes the silence.  There are no creature comforts:  no TV, electricity, internet,  or cell phone reception.  All good.  I had a 5 hours layover in DFW Airport on the way back and assiduously stayed away from the hanging TVs in the terminals, I did not want to "catch up" and now that I'm home, sorry I have.

One more thing.  I was there with a Methodist Minister and Presbyterian Minister  last week.  For a good part of the stay I was the only Catholic there.  In a common area, Brother Andre asked me where I lived and I told him Raleigh, NC.  He pointed out that two groups come every year from Duke Chapel and the Divinity School and mentioned their largest group was coming in April,  a Southern Baptist divinity college in Waco.  Point being, you don't have to be Catholic.  Martin Luther is probably on his way there right now.
                                                               (Common Room)

"Be Still and Know that I am God"      Psalm 46.

                                                              (Monk working)
Check it out:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Purpose Driven Life

                                                                     (courtesy - Google Images)

As I wrote in a previous post, my son Adam is in the US Coast Guard and is stationed at  Point Allerton, a small boat station in Hull, Massachusetts just south of Boston.  It is a noted Coast Guard Station because it is the oldest and it is the oldest because it was the first - founded by an extraordinary man named Joshua James - the father of the US Coast Guard.

He established himself as a "Lifesaving Station Keeper", at age 62:   a given age, when time adjusted to the 19th century, would be well past retirement today.  He formed a crew of 7 and then set about saving over 1,000 people in sea rescues: no one had done that before.   The historical record on him is sketchy and I relied on internet sources and can only hope they are accurate, but there is enough about him from multiple sources to ascertain certain basic facts about his life:

     -He lived from 1826 to 1902, 75 years.  He was born in Hull, Massachusetts, 9th of 12 children.
     -He was a Lutheran who, like his father, read the Bible every day and was a Sunday school teacher.
     -He participated in his first sea rescue at age 15 and became an accomplished sailor in the waters  around  Hull and the islands of Boston.
     -He entered the maritime shipping business and became successful through gumption and frugality.
     - He once owned 25 schooners and  contracted with the City of Boston to provide most of the  cobblestones for its downtown streets.
     He gave each of his sons a schooner when they turned 25 and also had them participate in rescues.
     -He was humble.  On his application for the Hull station, he merely wrote, "fisherman" next to his name.
     -He died at 75 years, after completing a life boat drill.
     -He died poor. A collection had to be made for his family.

As an aside, I have mixed feelings about those cobblestones.  Like many older cities, Boston maintained those type of streets well into the 1950s.  On our infrequent family jaunts into Boston when I was under 10, I remember negotiating the cobblestone crosswalks with difficulty.  The stones provided a certain rough consistency for transport, but not comfort.  These were not the smooth pavers on display at Home Depot, but thousands of buried stones angled and rounded in the expanse between buildings,  each stone with its own unique rounding.  Back then, the thoughts of a small boy did not carry any concern for adult women in high heels trying to maintain a dignified gait through those same crosswalks, but I wince when I think of it now.

                                          ( courtesy google images-Beacon Hill, Boston)

I'm not much on facial analysis, but when I look at his picture, I see resolution.  He looks focused in the picture, full of determination.  I think trying to explain the concept of "downtime" to him would be a long conversation.  I'll bet he could stare down a block of New Hampshire granite.  Some people are like that.

But why would a successful businessman stop what he was doing and endeavor on a new path for little or no recompense?

The answer is said to be a family tragedy that occurred when he was 11 years old.  His mother and young sister were returning from Boston on a schooner and a sudden squall hit while they were approaching the Hull Cut, 1/2 mile from safe harbor. The boat went down and them with it and the internet sources indicate he witnessed the event.

Or was it ego?  Did he just want to go nine rounds against mother nature without meeting the canvas?

This is just speculation,  but my observation is that ego centered actions are short-lived and Joshua James was not a road flare, but a long burning candle. The rescue numbers bear that out.  I'm sure some rescues were easy,  like a nautical beer run over a light chop, but most, by definition, were not. Ships falter in bad weather.  An example is the Hurricane of 1888.  He and his crew put oars down  during the storm to rescue an imperiled crew.   They rowed for almost an hour, then hit rocks, turned around, rowed back, got another lifeboat, rowed back out, saved four out of seven sailors, then rowed back to safety - against the worst sea the hurricane could present.  In 36 hours, they rescued 29 people off 6 wrecks...without sleep.

We may not know his motivations, but we know his actions and those actions open up his window and when we look in,  again, I don't think we see ego but something else.  When catastrophe happens in our lives it affects us, it molds us.  He could take his tragic events of his mother's death and fold his emotions into themselves; turn inward; call it "God's will" and get on with his business. Or take those events to a certain purpose.  Perhaps James found that in life, the answer to his petitions in prayer were not the petitions themselves, but the answer was God.   Perhaps by trying unselfishly to alleviate the burdens of others that life sometimes provides, he and his crew turned their own lives into a prayer - a form of worship.

I believe when we end this life we start another with God.  Perhaps to get there some will take a non-stop flight,  others will connect with varying layover times, but we'll get there.  Or perhaps our means of transport will be in another form....a crew of 7, Joshua James at the tiller.  You never know.

July 30th every year is designated "Joshua James Day" with members of the Point Allerton Station presenting the colors at his grave on a hill overlooking the harbor; that night 1,000 flares necklace the bay in celebration and memoria.   His legacy labors in obscurity - I grew up in the area and never heard of him so I hope this posting helps.  Our son Adam is last on the right in the ceremony below.


             One thousand candles...One thousand lives.