A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sentimental Journey: Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Days are always "downers" for me.  I can't help but see cemeteries filled with line on line of white crosses and stars of David, in America, Europe, and Asia.  This is the primary reason, of course, that my spirits are always down this day. I remember the millions of men, boys, young men and women, and civilians who have died in wars in which America participated, wars which most of those who fought (along with civilian bystanders) had little to do with starting. Some people were forced into the ranks; however, many of the participants fought because they believed in one cause or another.

In the beginning,  there were the Natives to America who saw their homeland being unjustly seized by unwanted white invaders; then there were  the white men securing the New World from Continental invasion and attacks by the native inhabitants. Shortly, there was the higher moral cause of wresting the Independence of the colonies from Great Britain. Then there was the Mid 19th century sectional war between States of the Union and States of the newly formed Confederacy, a particularly bloody war fought between American relatives and neighbors, between former citizens of the same country, a conflict fought for myriad reasons including abstract concepts of political power, governance, human and political rights, slavery, varied ways of life, money, land, sectional jealousy, and on and on.

Later there were the wars with Mexico and Spain for territorial aggrandizement and expansion (perhaps for ego satisfaction, chest thumping, and pure greed as well), two world wars, one promoted as a war to end all wars, and the next as a war against totalitarian tyranny. This last War also had intense ethical underpinnings when it was discovered that untold millions of Jews and other "undesirables" had simply been exterminated by the Nazis in Germany.

In both Germany and Japan we made war against civilians as well as military personnel, with the Allies firebombing great cities and leaving them in piles of rubble.  The conclusive act of this war was the deliberate devastation of every living and standing thing in two Japanese cities with immediate fatalities in the hundreds of thousands and many thousands more casualties occurring as the results of radiation burns and poisoning began to surface.

More recently, our wars, by comparison, have killed fewer Americans (Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and on and on), but have inflicted numerous injuries and death on military personnel as well as on civilian populations which happened to be in the way of bullets, explosives, and napalm. This is only a rough outline of America's war history and doesn't even begin to consider or total up the other deaths in the world, mostly unnecessary, which have been caused by the inhumanity, selfishness, greed, revenge-seeking, and power mongering tendencies of individuals, tribes, cults, religions, and nations.

Yes, Memorial Day, on the face of it is a "bummer" for me. I do remember with thanks the courage of millions of men and women who have fought and died over the years so that the rest of us can live relatively peaceful and comparatively comfortable (if not fulsome) lives. Their sacrifice was great, and I'd like to believe that we are living in such a way that we honor their ultimate gift to us. I mostly try, but think I regularly fall short.

Nothing I can think of can make this weekend in any way uplifting for me.  My memories of seeing the white crosses and Stars of David in the cemeteries at Arlington, Gettysburg, Vimy Ridge, Omaha Beach, Fort Knox and Fort Riley diminish and then totally disable and eviscerate my enthusiasm for celebration on this holiday in May.
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At the most personal and individual family level, Memorial Day is a day when I relive memories of family gatherings on Long Island Sound, the raucous gaiety engendered by beer and booze and good fellowship, the wise cracks and wisdom passed from elders to their progeny, the brats and dogs and macaroni salad, thin overcooked burgers, and succulent clams (swimming in butter) after being roasted on a cedar shingle fire nestled in the beach rocks; and there was the laughter and bragging and respect that gave me a feeling of comfort because I knew that I was accepted and loved--at least for the duration of the picnic. Today I also set aside time to remember those who are no longer among us who made those gatherings so special for me, for us all.

And I remember those in my Kentucky family, Jojnsons and Stones,  who gave so much to insure that I would eventually amount to something and make meaningful contributions to the lives of others, and do my little bit to create a world in which avarice and selfishness and lying were not the hallmarks of existence. I've tried, God knows, and am comfortable passing my unfinished tasks on to those I've raised to do them better than I have. Why? Because with William Faulkner, I finally believe "...that man will not merely endure. He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  I'd love to be around to see if this is true! If it is, I'll celebrate Memorial Day with great enthusiasm.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Two poems, Bikes, Fishing, and Meaning

These two poems touched me deeply, so I thought I would share them with you.  Each morning I listen on the Internet to Garrison Keillor's five minute program on NPR entitled "Writer's Almanac." Here is the address of the web site:  http://americanpublicmedia.publicradio.org/programs/index.shtml#TheWritersAlmanac

I have subscribed to the Almanac for many month now. Listening to Garrison's gentle voice is a relaxed and humane way to get centered before I begin my day. Poetry also helps remind me that I am not the center of the universe, but only a small component of a gigantic galaxy; that I am at once both special and unique, yet common and a fellow traveler with countless billions who populate the planet, past, present and future.

I love to hear Keillor read poetry because his diction helps me derive additional meaning from the sounds and rhythm of the words.  As a bonus, I also learn a great deal of history and biography as he highlights the lives of people, some famous and some not, born on the date I am listening and he also calls attention to special historical events which he feels are worth mentioning.

I have found it useful to read these poems aloud, either to myself or to a friend, once I have heard Keillor's interpretation.  It's amazing how much extra meaning can be gleaned from massaging poetry this way.

Hope you enjoy these poems, and don't forget to sign up for your subscription to Writer's Almanac.

Not Forgotten

I learned to ride
the two wheel bicycle
with my father.
He oiled the chain
clothes-pinned playing cards
to the spokes, put on the basket
to carry my lunch.
By his side, I learned balance
and took on speed
centered behind the wide
handlebars, my hands
on the white grips
my feet pedaling.
One moment he was
holding me up
and the next moment
although I didn't know it
he had let go.
When I wobbled, suddenly
afraid, he yelled keep going—
keep going!
Beneath the trees in the driveway
the distance increasing between us
I eventually rode until he was out of sight.
I counted on him.

That he could hold me was a given
that he could release me was a gift.
"Not Forgotten" by Sheila Packa, from Cloud Birds. © Wildwood River Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The release was for me an invitation to be free, to travel the neighborhood, and later in my car, the country. On my bike, I was in charge of me and not controlled by another person--parent, teacher, minister, or even friend. The feeling of being in charge my own life, if even for a brief time, was among the most exhilarating sensations I have ever felt. And, on my bike, pedals flying,  two pistols safely in holsters, I could ride my faithful steed after Indians or bandits just like the heroes I had just watched at the double-header at the Bard theater that was just down the "gully, through the sagebrush, and up the draw" from home.

The River

The way we fished for bullheads
was simple: hook, line, bobber,
cane pole and worm.

The murky, brown water of Root River
is where they hid
and waited our return.

The bobber was red & white.
At the first bite it danced then ran,
before going under—and I knew

that if it stayed under the fish
was on. Hooking them (they almost
always swallowed the bait)

was one thing, getting the hook
out without getting hooked oneself
on their lateral and frontal barbs

was quite another. That was
the solitary fishing
that few enjoyed as much as me.

I didn't understand then what
I needed in equal parts was
excitement, activity and adventure—

and more important than any
of these, solitude, in which my
being could be nourished

in silence. That silence
in which the imagination,
unbidden, comes to life.

Fishing alone brought
all of this together,
because it included living

beings, the mystery of life
from another realm that I could
pursue with my body my

imagination and my mind,
marveling at what I found,
not knowing what any of it could mean

or did mean, or would mean,
as I slowly moved
through the opening days of my life.
"The River" by David Kherdian, from Nearer the Heart. © Taderon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now

I, too, fished for bullheads in Harrod's Creek outside of Louisville, in Kentucky Lake, and finally in the Mecca of catfish fishing, the pond behind Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, KY.  There, using vanilla-scented dough balls or worms, we fished for catfish, watching our corks or red and white bobbers for signs of piscean interest by catfish which had been raised on  distillers grains discarded from the bourbon-making operation on the hill above the pond.  Fishing there in the shadow of 800,000 barrels of aging Bourbon stored in the Heaven Hill warehouses up the hill was my first taste of heaven (so to speak) and, as the poet says, fishing "included living/ beings, the mystery of life/ from another realm that I could/pursue with my body my/ imagination and my mind/ marveling at what I found/ not knowing what any of it could mean/or did mean, or would mean/ as I slowly moved/ through the opening days of my life." My mind, as you know, still marvels...
But of this I am certain  in my own search for  "meaning."  There is little in this world to surpass or equal  the solitude and freedom offered by lazy summer days spent fishing unless it is the reward of tasting  fried grain-fed catfish and sips of heavenly Heaven Hill seated with a dear friend next to a smoking, black cast iron fry pan redolent with the scents of hot lard, onions and crispy, cornmeal-dredged catfish fillets. That lends us an unearned glimpse or foretaste of heaven, I suspect.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sentimental Journey continued #3: Fat City

OK, I'll admit I am not slim and don't have a carefully sculpted, chiseled six-pack body. To the contrary, I've been "sturdily built" ever since I graduated from college and spent that summer with my friend Larry McGehee cruising around the Old South drumming up admissions recruits for our college (and spending our daily food allowance testing and savoring every conceivable permutation of Southern fried cooking [read that Crisco or bacon fat] ).

By the time my post graduation summer travels were over, I was tipping the scales at just under 200 lbs. Hmmm. This was interesting,  given the fact that during my Freshman year, my mother was so alarmed by my dainty weight of 145 lbs., that she threatened to "pull me out of Transy" and bring me home where she could feed me right. That was a joke, of course, because she rarely cooked anything at all, never mind fattening foods. Since then, I have ranged between 200 and 250 (once) and now, after several illnesses, cutting out added sodium and bourbon, and adopting a stringent approach to eating healthy, I hover around the 215 mark--still more than I "should" weigh (according to my string-thin internist), but not near my maximum poundage either.

So why tell you all of this? Well, on our just completed three week trip East and South, Liz and I spotted an unusually large number of people--men, women, and children--who were living proof of our medical system's concern that morbid obesity is a major health problem and is virtually an epidemic in America today.We were shocked-surprised-overcome,  not only by the gargantuan size of people of all ages and both sexes, but by their sheer numbers as a percentage of all the people we saw.

A vignette. One morning after spending the night in a motel next door to a Shoney's, we ventured inside to sample their renown  breakfast buffet. We were seated in a booth which afforded me a 180 degree view of the length of the buffet table. To my left were steaming stainless pans brimming over with bacon strips, link sausage, and sausage patties, and something yellow that I took to be scrambled eggs--in two versions, one plain and one larded (pardon the expression) with sausage bits.  There was the usual deep pan of grits and another piled high with biscuits next to which was a deep urn of gelatinous white gravy filled with gray chunks of sausage intended to smother the biscuits. Of course, I must mention the nearby pan of bubbling, sweet apple cubes hanging in their own greenish syrupy sauce.

Looking down the buffet to my right, I saw whole pieces of French toast and, new to my experience, 1x4 inch bite size strips cut from  French toast and already seasoned with cinnamon and sugar and ready to be wolfed down. In addition,  also to my surprise, were several pans filled with fried chicken conveniently placed next to pans of waffles, pats of butter,  and little pitchers of syrup. Close by was a shallow pan filled with creamed chipped beef and, next to it, toast, ready to be made into a hearty cholesterol laden "S-O-S.  The bar also included a pot of skimmed-over oatmeal and, at the far end of the buffet, some mixed "fresh fruit (mostly out-of-season melon pieces)," juice,  racks of little  individual plastic containers of butter and various jellies, and the mandatory thermoses (thermi?) of coffee accompanied by paper packs of sweetener, and little cartons of half and half swimming in a bowl of melting ice.

(I had hoped to find my old breakfast favorite which I used to eat at the University Club in New York to fortify myself before hitting the pavement to solicit funds for one of my various schools: the specialty of their house was creamed fried chicken livers on toast points. I guess the Shoney's chefs had not frequented the main dining room of the University Club at 54th and Fifth Avenue [or vice versa] so there were no livers in sight.)

My Shoney's booth was located so that my view of the patrons filling their plates was obstructed by the buffet table on the bottom and the steamed up glass sneeze guards on the top.  Thus, I could only see  people's torso from about thigh to shoulder.  Basically I witnessed one giant belly after another pass by as their owners piled more and more food on one or two plates as they labored along the line. Children of course, were more visible so I could see the pleasure writ large on their fat little faces as they moved past the feeding trough.  Folks apparently had little-to-no concept of "portion control."  In fact, most people, old and young,  tried to see how much they could load on their plates without spilling loose material over the sides or creating a colorful, but tasteless melange.

While the Shoney's experience provided me with prime examples of the "obesity crisis," the highlight of our gastronomic tour took place in the breakfast room of our motel a day or two later where we witnessed a gigantic woman, overflowing both her garments and her chair,  "early morning hair"scraggly and unkempt, bra straps showing,  eating a couple of waffles (almost every self-respecting breakfast room has a cleverly designed waffle iron or two) on which she had liberally spread butter, then strawberry compote, and finally topped  with whipped cream spewed from an aerosol can that she had brought from home for just such an occasion. [I won't dignify this description by commenting on the size of her upper arm or the way its loose hanging pouches of fat swayed as she sprayed the whipped cream on her creation.]

The whole experience of seeing so many obese people was transformative for me. Back in Denver, I have already had two appointments with a new personal trainer, worked out on my apartment's three piece gym apparatus (Google for disagreement about the plural), and enjoyed a daily breakfast of coffee, granola, fresh fruit,  and yoghurt. Talk about motivated! I'm shooting now to be under 200 by my birthday in September. Your support and encouragement are very much welcome and appreciated.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sentimental Journey: Part Two, thanks to Don Hall

In The Light Within the Light (see Favorite Books--next page), Donald Hall , after moving back home to Eagle Pond in New Hampshire in the shadow of Mt. Kearsarge, is quoted as follows: "I've come to understand after being here for sometime that this place has become a centering place for me. The culture--or maybe the feelings I had toward the culture and the old people here when I was a boy--have created a platform for me from which to view the rest of the world. It is my vantage point." [p.9]

Damn! When I read this selection, I realized how much of my life has been spent searching for, and fighting against, my vantage point--mostly without knowing it. As I have reflected on this during my Sentimental Journey, it turns out that vantage points is a more apt description in my case.

My first vantage points were: Louisville, Brandenburg, and Lexington, all in Kentucky, that Dark and Bloody Ground where I was born, raised, and received my early intellectual, social, and religious education and conditioning. It was in Kentucky that I was indoctrinated (quite outside my awareness), with lots of the values and attitudes which have both enlightened and plagued me for the rest of my life.

I'll mention a few. First, there's racism, sexism, class-ism, (if there is such a thing), liberal evangelical Christian point of view, and a pervasive Sectional identity. I was a white, and  male, born a Protestant into all the privileges of the upper middle class in the border state South. My "growing-up" time, my initial mental and emotional maturing, were shaped by the end of the Great Depression, World War II, the Eisenhower Fifties, fears about Russia and the A-bomb, the Korean conflict, and low-level angst about the distant rumblings of conflict in Viet Nam as I went off to college.

At the time, of course,  I was oblivious to my "conditioning," to the way my very Self was being molded by forces out of my control and largely out of my conscious sight. I'm sure I was no different from my most of my peers who were raised with the same set of  values and attitudes. My closest friends, I know now, were more like me than different from me in virtually all respects. We did very little in the way of challenging each others' points of view, unless, of course, they pertained to which high school and college athletic teams (football and basketball only) were "best." What I believed, they believed, and vice versa. Our main concern, other than sports, was females--what made them different, how to get them to like us, what the stages of sex with them were (or would be) like (appropriately referred to in sports lingo as first base, second base, etc).

Referring back to Donald Hall's quote, I now see that my vantage point, my platform, in those days  was limited by innocence and by the powerful influences of the environment around me which I felt compelled to conform to without deviation or error. [After all I had been raised in the Calvinist tradition.] I knew with certainty that America was the finest country in the history of the world, that other countries would be better off if they were constitutional democracies, that we were militarily superior to all nations (despite a growing concern about Russia in this regard), that our economy could produce limitless amounts of goods and services to make our lives easier and richer, and that inventiveness was a mostly American trait. Wasn't it an American, Jonas Salk, after all who cured polio?

I also believed in my heart and mind that white, Southern Protestant males were better in every way than any female, any Yankee, or anyone  Black, Jewish, Catholic, poor, or the citizens of any non-English speaking nation with the possible exception of France which ,we were reminded, helped us win our freedom from England.

In Brandenburg, Ky., I established another point of view or platform from which to see the world. In the small Ohio River town of Brandenburg, in Otter Creek Park, was YMCA's Camp Piomingo which I attended in one role or another from the time I was nine until my Junior year in college. My experiences at Piomingo reinforced some of my values and ideas, but also furnished me with evidence, experiental evidence, that directly contradicted others. 

To be continued...