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:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Father's Day Retrospective

My daughters know how I love roses, so on Saturday last, the delivery person showed up with a long gray box from Pro Flowers (my favorite purveyor of plants and flowers) filled with 24 roses of strikingly different colors.  It took Liz and me quite a while to prepare them properly for the vase. Stems were unusually tough and stubborn to cut through and were, atypically, covered with various sizes and shapes of thorns. We removed some "guard" petals as per instruction, cut the the bottom of each stem diagonally with a knife (not scissors), put flower food and water in the two vases left over from previous occasions, and arranged the little beauties in two splendid bouquets. The only missing ingredients were my daughters' smiling faces, their contagious laughter. and, alas,  the smell or scent of roses which commercial plant breeders have long since eliminated from the flowers' DNA in favor of brighter colors and extended shelf life.

[As I write this blog, I look from my apartment window into a strip mall across Colorado Boulevard where there is now located a sign with a green cross indicating the presence of a "Farmacy" selling a wide variety of marijuana buds ostensibly to be used for medicinal purposes. The ads for  establishments like these literally fill a third of the local alternative news magazine, Westword. Until I read these ads, I had no idea that so much time and energy was being devoted to the breeding and cultivation of different strains of medicinal Cannabis Sativa (nee pot, Hemp, blow,ganga, Puff etc.).

Interestingly, the names given to the various strains of Cannabis across the way are as exotic as those bestowed on roses, to wit: White Widow, Purple Haze, Blueberry Bud, Bubble Berry, Blue Dream, Perma Frost, Sublime, etc.  Compare these with the more "dignified" sobriquets of roses, to wit: Gentle Giant, Touch of Class, Glowing Peace, Dream Come True, Black Magic, Fragrant Cloud, and Pink Promise. Hmm! Which is which? I know the difference, of course: medicinal pot has not (yet) had the scent or smell bred out of its DNA.]

Why bother with all this? Well, it began with my comment and internal lament about roses which have had their scent bred out in favor of other virtues.  My thought then moved quickly to pot, er medicinal cannabis, which shares, it seems, an avid interest of people all over the world (not the same ones, God forbid) devoted to breeding new strains with various attributes, scents, colors, etc.

Which led me back to my incredible progeny (who sent me Fathers Day roses), real hybrids as it turns out, whom I helped breed more than forty years ago and have helped nurture ever since. Fortunately, over time, the scent of their loving nature is undiminished. They are not only beautiful to look at, but they replicate brilliantly, and have proven sturdy enough to handle the most severe of New England's storms, personal and climatic, and are still so ineffably stunning in every respect that they are prize-winners wherever they go...and, in an imitation of the "buds across the street," they have also given me "mellows" and "highs" beyond compare. So this is why I choose to combine, each year, Thanksgiving with Fathers Day, for I am truly grateful for my exquisite hybrid F2's.

It's the Summer Solstice, a great time to thank the Universe once more for our good fortune at just being alive and able to savor this incredibly beautiful earth day by day, season by season, specie by specie, individual by individual, and to receive the love of our children.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sentimental Journey V: A Dream About What it all Means.

Just as I was about to embark on my recent trip, I dreamed a dream which was so vivid and different that I must report it here. Unlike many of my dreams, this one involved the revelation of several ideas rather than the narrative of a series of unrelated events or descriptions of people and places. The ideas occurred in a systematic form while I was a participant in a small group of faculty in a familiar private school library setting.

Earlier in the dream, small groups of faculty were sitting on the carpeted floor among the low slung stacks in a school library.  The conversations were informal, casual, friendly and probed into heavy topics other than education, topics such as religion.  For some reason, I had to leave my group, in fact the whole meeting, and was absent for a while. Later I returned, but was made to sign in in a book open by the entrance. I did so, but felt it was unnecessary since I had been there earlier.  I recall that I was wearing a beautiful new, intensely red shirt which I was proud of.

I returned to my discussion group, sat down on the floor with the rest of the participants, and was suddenly aware that I was very clear, for the first time in my life, about what the meaning and purpose of life was and what roles religions played in every one's existence.

My "revelation" began with the Ten Commandments which I realized should not be taken as a list of absolute rules, given by God to Moses and the Jews, but rather should be viewed and used more as a list of important guides to people about how to live their lives. Problems arose in religions when the "guides" were elevated into commandments, or laws, and then extrapolated from, first by the rabbinic schools and more recently by all sorts of preachers and prophets. I saw that treating the  "suggestions" or "guides" as some sort divinely inspired list  for human behavior became a problem for human-kind when obeying and disobeying the rules suddenly made obeyers and disobeyers into saints or sinners. Furthermore, since it was impossible for the list of Ten to cover all conceivable situations,  many hours were spent by learned holy men extrapolating principles from every "commandment" to cover every imaginable situation (e.g., don't work on Sunday unless....).

I saw that the Jews had skewed the intent of the original "guidelines" by making them into laws. They were not alone in doing this, however. Look at what contemporary denominations and sects have legislated based on the original "Ten." In my dream, I saw that the original intention of the guides had been mostly replaced by volumes of derivative legislation honestly intended to clarify the original intent of the Ten Guides. Instead a whole new and detailed and exacting legal system was formed.

The role of the person, Jesus, in all of this was to be a corrective to the burdensome weight of legalism which had stifled human action, enterprise, and indeed life itself. In the dream, I saw that his role was to live his life in such a way as to be a living illustration of what living a good and correct life might look like.  The good life, as lived and talked about by Jesus, had little to do with adherence to a set of rule-- even though following rules is relatively easy, ethically speaking.  Little reflection and thought are required: just find the rule covering the particular  situation and act accordingly.

I saw in the dream that Jesus and his life and his words were to be taken as the best available example of how we should live our lives,  of what's important for us to do and think about. Since Jesus was to be seen as a corrector of human error,  he would not be viewed as divine or as a relative (Son) of God who was here to be killed  to "pay" for our sins, and then to rise from being dead to give us a  reason or incentive  (a reward or goal for life) to be good (because we followed the rules).

Put simply, Jesus lived the life outlined by the Ten Commandments and, along the way, explained to those who followed him what those commandments really meant in terms of daily living. He was a clarifier not a rule-maker. In the end Jesus was killed by his peers because he "walked the walk" that he preached, and that kind of person tends to make the people who surround him/her angry and jealous. People cannot stand it when someone does what they're supposed to do--and can't or won't--and does it as a matter of course. Jesus by his goodness became an easy target for those who were unwilling or unable to live the kind of life presupposed and articulated so simply by the "Ten."

I saw that since the commandments were simply principles of good or smart or peaceful living, they weren't an iron clad set of legal proscriptions. For example, "Don't Kill"--hey, we don't have the right to take life because we didn't create it. To put a person to death for killing another person is a double crime and stupid on the face of it as well. Taking life is not our prerogative any more than creating it is.

Stealing also fouls up society and makes people angry at one another. Wanting what your neighbor has gets you in trouble if you let it become a guiding principal in your life. You honor your father and mother minimally by listening to what they have learned from their experience in the world. In addition, you honor them because it was their union (whatever the circumstance) that created the miracle of your life.  You love/respect/honor  God or some Higher Power (whatever you choose to call it) because you know that you didn't create the universe and  you aren't the most important item in the universe or it's central focus. In addition, you acknowledge that there is  "mystery" surrounding and permeating all human knowledge and certainty (death of a child, for example).

Loving another person's spouse will inevitably cause troubles for you, and then for both of them. Common sense, right? Love your neighbor even more than yourself. While demanding and difficult, this is a great point-of-view from which to frame one's actions in the world.  Think how much suffering would have been avoided if we had let this be our baseline for behavior and thought in ages past.

My conclusion in the dream, and it was clear as day, was that Jesus was a walking example of the fact that the principles of the Ten Commandments could be lived out in daily life. No more, no less.

Meaning of life, or not?Whatever it was,  it was sure clear to me and even makes good sense in retrospect. Another item to ponder seriously as my journey continues to unfold.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gimme a Fox and Eggs, Tattoo Removal, and a Little Privacy Please.

I confess to having an irritation with the intrusion of electronics, especially of TV,  into my life when it's  not by my choice. Since I am a modern guy,  I will focus particularly on HDTV, the newest and best of our video options so far.

Just so you understand my position in all of this, I do love owning a wide screen, High Definition TV. Sports contests, football, baseball and basketball games, even golf matches never came into my home with more color or clarity, more intimate presence.  Not only can I see the action on the field, links, or stadium--players, refs, and fans--but HD lets me check out cheerleaders and fans in the stands across the way. I'll admit that on occasion the clarity is almost embarrassing as the camera zooms in on short-skirted beauties standing and cheering on a colleague's shoulders; on athletes who find it necessary to rearrange their private parts or hawk up  "lungers" in full view of the camera;  and on fans whose personal grooming, demeanor,  or choice of clothing may leave something to be desired. However,  I will gladly accept these "side effects" of HDTV viewing just to be at a contest, to have a great seat  in my chair in my room--with a rest room close by, temperature and climate controlled, crowd limited to my choice of guests, and abundant food and drink available mere steps away.

So why am I ranting about HDTV? My irritation stems from regularly finding myself in a position where I am forced to listen to, and watch, another person's choice of programming, and this appears to be more and more prevalent and nationwide.  Here are a couple of notable examples, but certainly not an exhaustive list.

During our "Sentimental Journey" (see previous blogs) several weeks ago, I was overcome with the omnipresence of flat screen, HDTV's, blaring someone else's choice of programs in settings where I was forced to watch and listen.  The most flagrant offense occurred in an Applebee's somewhere in the middle of the country. We were tired after a long day's driving and sightseeing,  and simply wanted a calm environment in which to have a meal which was at least predictably average/inoffensive. We were ushered into a room which had a horseshoe bar as its main feature. Once seated, I looked for the source(s) of the noise which flooded the room. Check it out: there were no less than 6 large HDTV's going full bore as they loudly displayed six different sports contests. So, you ask, how was the meal? What meal? What food? Our senses of taste and smell were literally overwhelmed by our senses of sight and sound. I guess there was too much going on to be able to focus our attention on gustatory processing, so the meal, while eaten, was virtually unnoticed and mostly unappreciated.

Another example. Yesterday, I went to a medical clinic to have a simple blood test to see whether the Coumadin was working well, or too well. (Incidentally, taking this medicine makes me existentially uneasy because I used to sell lots of it as Warfarin, a very effective rat poison, in my Agway feed and grain store.) There was no one in the waiting room of the clinic except a receptionist behind a partially closed, cloudy glass, privacy window.  At the far end of the room, high on a shelf, perched an older TV, turned on, volume up, featuring what I took to be a cooking show with lots of inappropriate laughter by the cooks at their own "insider" humor. I had brought a book to read and saw immediately that it was going to be impossible given the ambient noise. I asked the receptionist if she was watching the show (how could she through the opaque glass?) and she said "no." I asked if she had a remote to turn the TV off, and again she answered in the negative. I inquired whether it would be OK for me to turn the set down or off, and she said "Sure" and instructed me about which button to push (high above my head). Of course, the buttons were black and so was the TV case, so I had to  do a little braille action until I found the correct one. The blaring sound died and my relief was instantaneous. As luck would have it, of course, I got one page into the book when the technician arrived early to guide me back into the exam room for my test.

A final example of intrusive HDTV that plagued us repeatedly on our trip occurred in the so-called breakfast room now featured by motels where "free" continental breakfasts were laid on by allegedly grateful hoteliers. I won't comment at this time on the quality of the food offered for us to break our fast. However, the new item showcased in virtually all our motels was a gleaming  HDTV turned on in the breakfast rooms, and tuned into--you got it--to Fox Network. In contrast to the Coumadin lab, these breakfast rooms were packed with every sort and condition of humanity, all hell bent on getting their money's worth of "free" food to offset the exorbitant price of a night's use of a relatively small room and bath. It was depressing to see how many of the "guests" were absolutely glued, riveted to the TV, soaking up the "Truth" purveyed by the highly paid Reynards and Vixens who were waxing eloquent about matters of state etc. My irritation came less from the Right Wing commentary than from not being able to escape the visual and auditory bombardments from programming which someone else arbitrarily chose to share with me; all I wanted was some coffee and a hard boiled egg. Instead I was subjected to blathering of Gretchen Carlson, et. al.

If you think I'm exaggerating, as you go through your day keep an eye out for the ubiquitous HDTV, strategically placed almost anywhere you have to sit for a time--and have little or no choice about it--such as: auto repair waiting room, ER waiting area, doctors' and dentists' offices (In a dermatology office last week, I had to watch a full 15 minute commercial touting the various treatments available for those with skins blemished by sun, age, tattoos, etc.), retail stores, coffee shops, beauty salons, the gym, and on and on.

My personal solution to electronic intrusion may come to this:  take off my glasses and take out my hearing aids.  Somehow that doesn't feel right. I'm not causing the problem! In any case, I'll choose to do my HDTV watching at home, thank you very much, with guests of my choice, and look at programs which suit us all, at a volume which we can enjoy, not merely tolerate. "Goodnight David... goodnight Chet!"

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mercedes to Pontiac GTO to Buick Roadmaster Wagon to Ford Pinto

In days of yore, as we say, when my mother used to take me to our family doctor for my annual checkup, I knew--was totally confident--that  my body was smooth running, faultless, with all measured values well within the excellent to superior range. I was a physical Mercedes capable of feats of both speed and endurance as well as a built-in "quality" which meant that I could go many months between visits to the medical "garage" and my physician mechanic. In short, I took my design and assembly (not so much the sleek exterior lines, I admit) for granted, as I looked forward to longevity of at least 900,000-1,000,000 days before serious work needed to be done on the motor or transmission or drive chain. Perhaps it would go forever.

Then, sometime in my late twenties, I unwittingly traded the Mercedes for a '65 Pontiac GTO , with a 369 engine generating 360 HP at a screaming  5400 rpm,  (three two barrel carbs, Hurst shifter, zero to sixty in a breathtaking 5.8 seconds). I polished the exterior of this beauty, but took less good care of what it consumed and the TLC I gave it as we spent hours together navigating curving and bumpy  roads at high speeds.  Inevitably, there would be consequences. On an annual visit to my family mechanic/doctor, now called an "internist," I went through my usual mental exercise of "defying or "daring" him to find a problem. I loved to hear the results of various tests read to me and learn that all values were still in the excellent to superior range. Imagine my surprise, even shock and dismay,  to hear that my sharp-eared internist had heard a funny noise in my valve area; he said it was a flaw, probably there from the date of manufacture; no problem really.  Hmmm. Easy for him to say! But for me, DISASTER. I had a flaw, and it wasn't in some peripheral component, but in the center of the power plant. How to proceed?

I became a little more careful about what I fed the vehicle and how I drove it over treacherous, curvy and bumpy roads, but by no means conservative in my approach, even after the warning pings and clanks became more and more apparent. Many of the latter I wrote off as the vehicle getting older, the natural results of metal stress and fatigue, rust, the build-up of various deposits on cylinder walls and spark plug and timing gaps. The yearly visits to the garage now produced more and more in the way of test results which indicated, "average," "way too high," "needs immediate attention," and what kinds of gas and oil are you using anyway? (At that point I was making almost exclusive use of specialty 90 octane fuels from Scotland and Kentucky).

During my last years in New England, the temptations of the GTO's speed and handling proved too dangerous so, as a professional and respected educator, I traded quite consciously for a staid, safe, comfortable, utilitarian Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon complete with faux wood side panels, heated leather seats, and average gas consumption around 10 mpg. That luxurious vehicle took me cross country from New England to Colorado and Kentucky a number of times, and soon the odometer racked up over 125,000 miles. This time when I went to the family mechanic/doctor (now called a PCP), I heard nothing about test results in the excellent to superior range. Every remark was either guarded or qualified. Longer times were spent with the stethoscope's chest piece moving in vague patterns around my torso while my PCP avoided my questioning eyes as he stared into space.  More tests were ordered and scored against norms.  Clearly the years had not been all that good to the "King of the Road-"masters. So, a major ground-up overhaul and rebuild was rather forcefully suggested. It took the mechanics about 8 hours to perform the job, and took the vehicle almost two weeks more to be ready for any sort of outing

When the fumes from the paint shop finally wore off, I realized that I had unintentionally traded my Roadmaster for an old model of the infamous Ford Pinto, you know, the one with the design flaw in the gas tank which, when the car was rear-ended, would burst into flame.  Not only that, but I learned that the car had nothing but irritating surprises for the owner-driver--malfunctioning switches which changed lights from "on" to "off" or even "dim,"  an electrical system that would short-out without warning, fluid leaks, funny noises, a refusal to run on certain fuels, inappropriate backfiring,  and an increasingly uncomfortable ride. Parts were replaced, additives of all sorts (liquid and solid) were pored and poked into the engine, and various assemblies were repetitively retooled. Everything helped a little, but the sleek lines and power of the Mercedes, the excitement of the GTO, and the impeccable reputation of the Buick have gone forever, except in memory.

The net result of all of this experience with the Mercedes, GTO's,  Roadmasters, and my current Pinto is this: a realization that no matter how well a vehicle is designed, maintained, and driven, or how badly it is abused over the years, 250,000 miles is still 250, 000 miles and, no matter how I cut it, the Pinto is still a Pinto.

And I am also reminded that one of these days, it will be the First of November in '55 for my vehicle--see below...

The Deacon’s Masterpiece
or, the Wonderful "One-hoss Shay":
A Logical Story

    by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it — ah, but stay,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits, —
Have you ever heard of that, I say?
Seventeen hundred and fifty-five.
Georgius Secundus was then alive, —
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock’s army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on the terrible Earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.
Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot, —
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace, — lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will, —
Above or below, or within or without, —
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
A chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.
But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
With an “I dew vum,” or an “I tell yeou”)
He would build one shay to beat the taown
’N’ the keounty ’n’ all the kentry raoun’;
It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown:
“Fur,” said the Deacon, “’tis mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
’N’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain,
    Is only jest
T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.”
So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke, —
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees,
The panels of white-wood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;
The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,” —
Last of its timber, — they couldn’t sell ’em,
Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he “put her through.”
“There!” said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”
Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren — where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!
EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; — it came and found
The Deacon’s masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten; —
“Hahnsum kerridge” they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came; —
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arrive,
And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.
Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundreth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. — You’re welcome. — No extra charge.)
FIRST OF NOVEMBER, — the Earthquake-day, —
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be, — for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thills,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whipple-tree neither less nor more,
And the back crossbar as strong as the fore,
And spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!
First of November, ’Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
“Huddup!” said the parson. — Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday’s text, —
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the — Moses — was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet’n’-house on the hill.
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill, —
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet’n-house clock, —
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, —
All at once, and nothing first, —
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.