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:
markmarv2004@yahoo.com

Sunday, December 30, 2012

MY OTHER LIFE


    Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul...    Joyce Carol Oates

 

Ever since I was able to read...


"Run, Spot,

Run, run, run.

Oh, oh, oh.

Funny, funny Spot"


...and was able to laugh at the drawings of that little black and white dog with the pink tongue and  floppy ears fleeing from a leaping frog, ever since I put those words together in my mind and was able to read a whole sentence and attach it to a reality that I experienced, reading has been the most consistent and enduring passion of my life. It has added an unfathomable dimension to what I have been able to experience on this planet, and at virtually no charge.


I've fought in wars and been both wounded and physically unscathed; I've spent time on Kon-tiki and in the spring with other Mountain Men raising hell at our yearly rendezvous; have travelled through the world by every conceivable conveyance and have blasted into outer space and voyaged into the depths of the sea; have had myriad companions--and lovers--and a multitude of children and relatives, have been married to women and men--old and young, of all races; have trained dogs and horses and circus animals,  have lived on farms and in cities, in slums, caves, and skyscrapers; have painted landscapes and portraits, conducted choruses and written symphonies and sung arias; have made earth-shattering scientific discoveries in the lab and observatory, done micro-surgery in a hospital, eaten and cooked gourmet meals in New York and Paris, climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro, sailed solo around the world, and lived in the past-present-future; have survived in the heat of the jungle and the cold of the Arctic, flown Spitfires, supersonic planes and spacecraft, driven racing cars and covered wagons, vanquished indians and Nazis and barbarians; I have spent time with ghosts and goblins, giants and trolls, as well as animals that knew how to talk and had feelings like mine; played and coached all sports at all levels, have pondered the mysteries of the universe, and considered the existence and the history of almost everything. I have vicariously experienced and deeply felt the full range of human emotions, whether admirable or despicable, and experienced all five senses as if there were real. I have been a hero, a villain, and a nobody--and all of this without leaving my chair.


What a gift I have been given! What pleasure I have had in bookstores and in libraries, cruising the stacks, searching microfilm and microfiche, and now on my computer searching the world's repositories for any and everything that can be captured digitally.


From those first simple moments with Dick, Jane, and Spot, reading has enriched my life beyond my wildest dreams.... and, as a virtually free supplement, also embellished my nights with some pretty wild dreams along the way.

 

 

 

 

NEW YEARS DAYAND MORNINGS

As the New Year dawns, I find guidance in Mary Oliver's poems about "mornings." I trust that you will also appreciate the wisdom contained in these three poems.
 This selection comes from The Writers' Almanac 12/30/2012. I include the program's prelude as well as the three poems.

Happy New Morning.


Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose body of work is largely filled with imagery of the natural world — cats, opossums crossing the street, sunflowers and black oaks in the sunshine. Her most recent collection is entitled A Thousand Mornings.
In one poem, "I Happen to Be Standing," Oliver describes herself as witnessing all these things as she stands by her door every morning, notebook and pen in hand. But, she tells NPR's Rachel Martin, she doesn't actually do that every morning. "Almost. I thought, gee, I do lie a little bit, and I should have said, 'which is the way I begin most mornings,' " she laughs.
Mornings with the notebook are part of a regular ritual for Oliver, though. "Most mornings I'm up to see the sun, and that rising of the light moves me very much, and I'm used to thinking and feeling in words, so it sort of just happens."
Those morning moments are a kind of prayer for Oliver. "I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful, and ... almost involuntary in my life," she says. "And when I talk about prayer, I mean really ... what Rumi says in that wonderful line, 'there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.' I'm not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth [psalm]."
Oliver says her work has become more spiritual over the years, growing from her love of the poets who came before her and the natural world — but she feels a great sorrow over humanity's lack of care for that world. "The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that most recently I walked in are not gone, but they're full of bicycle trails," she says.
Mary Oliver has won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Rachel Giese Brown
"And this is happening to the world," Oliver continues, "and I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?"
It can be a challenge, over years of writing about the natural world, to find new ways of describing what's out there — especially when so many other poets are writing about the same subject matter. But Oliver says she's up to the challenge. "To find a new word that is accurate and different, you have to be alert for it," she says. "But it's wonderful, it's fun."
"One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear," Oliver adds. "It mustn't be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now are, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn't necessary shouldn't be in a poem."

Poems from A Thousand Mornings

A THOUSAND MORNINGS
All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties, but only until night
meets and then is overwhelmed by
morning, the light deepening, the
wind easing and just waiting, as I
too wait (and when have I ever been
disappointed?) for redbird to sing.
THE FIRST TIME PERCY CAME BACK
The first time Percy came back
he was not sailing on a cloud.
He was loping along the sand as though
he had come a great way.
"Percy," I cried out, and reached to him—
those white curls—
but he was unreachable. As music
is present yet you can't touch it.
"Yes, it's all different," he said.
"You're going to be very surprised."
But I wasn't thinking of that. I only
wanted to hold him. "Listen," he said,
"I miss that too.
And now you'll be telling stories
of my coming back
and they won't be false, and they won't be true,
but they'll be real."
And then, as he used to, he said, "Let's go!"
And we walked down the beach together.
IN OUR WOODS,SOMETIMES A RARE MUSIC
Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning,
he's gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.
From A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver. Copyright 2012 by Mary Oliver. Excerpted with permission of Penguin Group.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

NEW ENGLAND SNOW AND THE NRA

They lie for the first time under the cold Christmas snow, while above them, in places of worship and around creches, other children are singing "...sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace."

...and in packed auditoriums the NRA agitates for armed guards in every school.

Friday, December 21, 2012

NEWTOWN ISN'T THE FINAL ANSWER--THERE'S HOPE



Whenever I get depressed about mankind, as I have been in this week since the Newtown killings, I run across an article like this one which turns my attitude around and gives me hope. In the dire surroundings of an urban landfill, beauty can be made to emerge. Hope can be created from garbage. Love it. Will try to do the same thing as I recall the events of last week.

**Story on 'Landfill Harmonic: An Orchestra Like No Other':
http://www.dailygood.org/view.php?qid=5313

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

TIME TO BE A GOOD SAMARITAN?


A great question: "What does it say about a culture when schedules take precedent over the life in front of your eyes, when the ticking of a clock discourages compassionate behavior?"

The following article engages this question and reminds me  that in my desire not to be disorganized or "waste time," I often over-schedule myself and focus too much on the self-centered and material goals of my life. Many of the goals are worth, even noble. However,  by over-focusing on these goals, I tend to miss opportunities to be compassionate, helpful, thoughtful, loving, kind, supportive, etc. I may reach my scheduled goals and miss the life that is happening all around me.

Here is an article by Professor Levine at the University of California, Fresno, that deals with this issue. Given the Holiday Season that is upon us,and how this Season affects me, I think the article raises some interesting points and merits attention.

**********************************

Time is money in the West. Workers are paid by the hour, lawyers charge by the minute, and advertising is sold by the second ($117,000 per second at this year’s Super Bowl). Think about this: The civilized mind has reduced time, the most obscure and amorphous of all intangibles, to the most objective of all quantities—money. With time and things on the same value scale, I can tell you how many of my working hours equal the price of the computer I am typing on.
Can I really? As a social scientist, I’ve spent much of the last 25 years studying the “personalities” of places. Much of this work has focused on the attitudes toward time held by those who inhabit those places. My colleagues and I have found vast cultural differences in definitions of what constitutes early and late, waiting and rushing, the past, the present, and the future.
Perhaps the biggest clash is between cultures that operate on clock time and those that work on event time. Under clock time, the hour on the timepiece governs the beginning and ending of activities. Lunch begins at 12 and ends at 1. Punctuality is the governing principle. When event time predominates, schedules are spontaneous. Events begin and end when, by mutual consensus, participants “feel” the time is right. Many countries exhort event time as a philosophy of life. In Mexico, for example, there is a popular adage, “Give time to time” (“Darle tiempo al tiempo”). In Liberia it is said, “Even the time takes its time.” In Trinidad it is something of a cultural bedrock that “any time is Trinidad time.”
Our own research has compared the pace of life in different cities. In an early study we conducted field experiments in the largest or other major city in each of 31 countries. One experiment, for example, timed the average walking speed of randomly selected pedestrians over a distance of 60 feet. Another experiment sampled speed in the workplace—specifically, how long it took postal clerks to fulfill a standard request for stamps. All measurements were taken during main business hours in main downtown areas under similar conditions. More recently, my colleague Stephen Reysen and I replicated these experiments in 24 cities across the United States.
We’ve found large differences in these studies. The fastest big cities in the international study, for example, tended to come from Western Europe and prosperous Asian countries, while those from traditional event-time countries (such as Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia) tended to be slowest. The differences were often substantial. For example, on the walking-speed measure we found that pedestrians in Rio de Janeiro walked only two-thirds as fast as did pedestrians in Zurich, Switzerland. (For further details, see, for example, Levine, A Geography of Time [Basic Books]). We’ve found these differences are to at least some degree predictable by demographic, economic, and environmental characteristics of the places, and, more importantly, they have consequences for the well-being of individuals and their communities.
The consequences are mixed. On the positive side, people in faster places tend to say they are happier with their lives. We believe this reflects the economic rewards that result from making every minute “productive”: Faster cities in our studies tended to have healthier economies, and we know from other studies that people who have difficulty meeting their minimal needs tend to be less happy. (A sidebar: Money does not, however, appear to affect happiness beyond poverty. There is little difference in happiness between moderately wealthy and very wealthy individuals.)
But a fast pace of life has its costs. In another series of experiments, conducted in many of the same cities, we compared the likelihood that a passerby would assist a stranger in need. In one experiment, for example, we observed the proportion of people who went out of their way to return an inadvertently dropped pen. In another, we observed the proportion who assisted a man with an injured leg trying to pick up a dropped magazine. Not surprisingly, there were strong differences between cities (see “The Kindness of Strangers”). Perhaps the most notable finding was a negative relationship between the pace of life and helping: People in faster places were less likely to take the time to assist a stranger in need.
The problem may not be speed per se so much as feeling rushed. In a now-classic experiment, John Darley and Daniel Batson gathered a group of Princeton University Seminary students for what they understood to be a study about religious education. The students were told they’d be giving a brief talk, either about the types of jobs seminary graduates are suited for or about the parable of the “good Samaritan.” They were then directed to walk to a recording studio across campus. Along the way, they passed a man slumped in a doorway who was coughing and groaning loudly. The students were divided into two groups. Half of them were told there was no need to rush in getting to the recording studio. Almost two-thirds of this group stopped to help the suffering man. The other half of the students were told they were late and needed to hurry to the studio. Among this group, only 10 percent helped. Ninety percent were apparently too busy to stop. “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way,” Darley and Batson recalled.
People may ignore strangers for a variety of reasons. They may be too busy to notice, or too busy to care. They may fear how the stranger will react. Or they might simply be uncaring jerks. To the stranger in need, however, reasons are beside the point. The only thing that matters is whether they get help.
When did it become acceptable in America to treat helping strangers as “wasted time”? Everyone in the world agrees—they should, anyway—that time is our most precious commodity. But peoples’ definitions of “wasted” are another great cultural divider. To a time-is-money clock-timer it refers to anything that distracts from the task at hand. To an event-timer, however, there is nothing more wasteful than carving one’s life into inflexible, inorganic units.
I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with an exchange student from Burkina Faso in Eastern Africa. I was complaining that I’d just wasted my morning yakking in a cafĂ© instead of doing my work. He looked confused. “How can you waste time? If you’re not doing one thing, you’re doing something else. Even if you’re just talking to a friend or sitting around, that’s what you’re doing.” He said he was taught that what’s wasteful—sinful, to some—is to not make sufficient time available for the people in your life.
What does it say about a culture when schedules take precedent over the life in front of your eyes, when the ticking of a clock discourages compassionate behavior? There are plenty of experts in the United States you can pay to help plan your days more efficiently. Here’s another suggestion. Try beginning your day with a question people often ask in Brunei: “What is not going to happen today?” While you’re at it, don’t forget to give time to time.
Reprinted with permission. Dr. Robert Levine is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of the award-winning book “A Geography of Time”, and “The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold[H1] ”.






 [H1]

Monday, November 12, 2012

PERSPECTIVE GAINED FROM MY WINDOW

Passage

In all the woods that day I was
the only living thing
fretful, exhausted, or unsure.
Giant fir and spruce and cedar trees
that had stood their ground
three hundred years
stretched in sunlight calmly
unimpressed by whatever
it was that held me
hunched and tense above the stream,
biting my nails, calculating all
my impossibilities.
Nor did the water pause
to reflect or enter into
my considerations.
It found its way
over and around a crowd
of rocks in easy flourishes,
in laughing evasions and
shifts in direction.
Nothing could slow it down for long.
It even made a little song
out of all the things
that got in its way,
a music against the hard edges
of whatever might interrupt its going.

"Passage" by John Brehm, from Help is on the Way. © The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

One of the unadvertised benefits of living in Colorado is the omnipresence of the grandeur of Nature, writ large and small. Each day as I look through my floor to ceiling windows, I see two images. The first is a view of Greater Denver, featuring Downtown Denver, complete with high-rise buildings, resting like a spired oasis surrounded by miles of adobe tinted suburban comfort.  I see the staggered outline of tall buildings, uneven in muted colors and height, some architecturally traditional, symmetrical, and rectangular, and others post-modern with slanted roofs and oddly spaced windows of varying sizes, textures and hues.

Downtown Denver is barely able to contain the frenetic activity of businesses, new and old, starting, established, successful, struggling. Its streets teem with office workers, shoppers, students, rich and poor, too many homeless people as well as McMansion and luxury apartment dwellers, young and old, concert patrons along with the "rad"nightclubbers who define "concert" very differently. Sitting safely here on the 11th floor of my building,  away from all that, I can remember former walks through downtown,  taking in the smells of ethnic foods in preparation, automobile exhaust, whiffs of passing perfumes, a cautionary hint of coming snow, a snuffed out match or a trail of Marlboro light, the acidic scent  of wet leaves on asphalt gutters sopping up a variety of urban detritus. Life is being lived in its many dimensions in Denver's downtown.

Looking away from the urban center at Greater Denver, and closer to my building, I mostly see the tops of trees, now stripped clean by recent winds, occasional splotches of evergreens, a few oaks retaining their  bronze and rusty colors, a still golden birch or two, and the red brick walls of a nearby apartment complex. Lights are coming on in some of their windows, and I can see, almost smell and feel,  evidence of post school and end-of-workday activity, the blue flicker of TVs, and I can imagine a thousand dinners being assembled for grateful eaters, solos as well as family.  Some are munchers, others are pickers, some are grateful and others are numb and distracted from food and companionship by their fixation on tiny screens and repetitive electronic beeps. Life is being lived here too.

Sweeping across my view, from lower right to upper mid-left, is Colorado Boulevard, designed and built wide enough, it is said, that a wagon pulled by a twelve horse team could make a 180 degree turn at full speed. The six or eight lanes are packed at days end, so I what I see is a moving block of white lights approaching me and a wide column of red brake lights receding into the distance. Their progress is regulated and spaced by red and green "stop" lights, following their own patterns, seemingly indifferent to the traffic itself--the whole scene appearing much like a moving  tennis bracelet studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Life is here too.

Way off to the left, to the West, I can see a semi-circular arc of bright, greenish-white lights illuminating SportsAuthority Field at Mile High, the home of our  Manning-blessed Broncos. A little farther South, but still west,  are the equally intense lights of Bandimere Speedway, home of serious competitive drag racing as well as go-kart events for the smaller set. Between my apartment and this view are the hoary halls of Denver University, home of the first Presidental debate, a campus identifiable from my lofty perch by two church-like steeples, one of which is clad with gold and lighted at night. DU is a prominent nationally known, private university, famous for its ranked  lacrosse and hockey teams. Locally DU is known for its concert and lecture series, for injecting real intellectuality into the community, and for the wealthy kids who attend its classes and spend their parents' money in local establishments and on the ski slopes.


In this first image of Denver--- Greater Denver and its surroundings--- the overriding themes and driving energy seem to be modernity, money, competition, excitement, anxiety, motion, achievement, updated cowboy 'west,'  avarice, "feel good spirituality," striving, mobility--all part of the admixture that contains its share of people living on the edge, drunks and thieves, sick and well, comfortable and dispossessed, secure and hurtin', Hispanics and pretend cowboys, wearers of suits and wearers of jeans.

The second images is dominated by my western vista where the foothills of the Rockies emerge like a wall from the flatness of the high plains, and behind them, rising even higher, I can see the snowcapped peaks of the Front Range of the Rockies themselves contrasted against the Colorado blue sky.

Similar to my experiences in Denver Center, I have also ventured into those mountains and have brought back indelible and lasting impressions: of total silence, of cycles of change, death and renewal; of the hardness and permanence of the rocks that make up the mountains themselves but which are also subject to the effects--over time--of the erosive forces of wind and water and freezing; the scent of evergreen pitch, the feel of pine bark under foot, a breeze smelling of snow (last year's as well as this year's); thoughts of what I project must be the lonely existence of Colorado's single wolverine living by himself with no hope of companionship or of infusing his DNA into a future generation; and that reminds me of  the large and small animals and birds and fish who continue to make their home here, year 'round, as they have for eons, without my knowledge and with no help from me or any other human being.

Neither of my two images of Denver--Greater Denvers or The Front Range appears to be  "...impressed by whatever/ it was that held me/ hunched and tense above the stream, /biting my nails, calculating all/  my impossibilities." The world's life flows on endlessly around me, kaleidoscopic in its variety, vigorous in its determination to survive, endure, and prosper, in disregarding me and my ragged nails, my pathetic little worries and concerns, my angst, stubbornly "...indifferent to entering in to my considerations."







Thursday, November 8, 2012

HEART MURMURS AND A DOG'S LIFE


In the Moment

Some days the pond
wears a glaze of yellow pollen.

Some days it is clean-swept.
The trout leap up, feasting on insects.

A modest size, it sits
like a soup tureen in a surround of white

pine where Rosie, 14 lbs., some sort
of rescued terrier, part bat

(the ears), part anteater (the nose),
shyly paddles in the shallows

for salamanders, frogs
and little painted turtles. She logged

ten years down south in a kennel, secured
in a crate at night. Her heart murmur

will carry her off, no one can say when.
Meanwhile she is rapt in

the moment, our hearts leap up observing.
Dogs live in the moment, pursuing

that brilliant dragonfly called pleasure.
Only we, sunstruck in this azure

day, must drag along the backpacks
of our past, must peer into the bottom muck

of what's to come, scanning the plot
for words that say another year, or not.
"In the Moment" by Maxine Kumin

* * * *

While I have virtually no desire to be a dog now  or in my afterlife, I do confess that I am envious of the ability of Kumin's dog to "live in the moment." She said the dog's "...heart murmur will carry her off, no one can say when. Meanwhile she is rapt in the moment, our hearts leap up observing."

Long ago, when I was approaching driving age, during a routine physical exam that would permit me to participate in high school athletics, the genial old family doc, spent an unusual amount of time with his stethoscope listening to my chest in something more than his usual cursory manner. Years later, when I was about thirty and seeing a more "modern" internist for quite another issue, the doc once again spent what seemed an inordinate amount of time poised over my chest, listening intently, eyes half closed and focused on some distant shore.

"Have you always had this heart murmur?" he queried in a deliberately understated way. "What's a heart murmur?" I blurted, and somehow remembered the moment when the family doc had listened too long to my heart years before. The internist's explanation, I fear, fell on unhearing ears because I was struck deaf and dumb by a fear so profound that I was rendered immobile. I had been struck dumb by the recognition that I was mortal after all.

I have always been a person who automatically catastrophized almost anything having to do with my health. I blame this unfortunate affliction on the example set by my mother who yearly won first place honors for her ability to turn a bubble of stomach gas into the early symptoms of stage four colon cancer. Perhaps my generation's preoccupation with polio during the pre-Salk era also bent me in the direction of being much too aware of my body and its various little pains, irregularities, temperature changes, and appetites.

The point is that I envy that dog who actually knows nothing of  its heart murmur and lives life without a care or "personal" need  beyond his daily ration of Purina, some fresh water from time to time,  cower in fear of thunder and strangers, engage in giddy runs in the park with a ball or frisbee, swoon with lots of fondling, and collapse into a soft place to catch some Z's without interruption. 

In my case, I have lived  more than half my life with an ongoing and acute awareness of my chest and gut and sensitivity to what's going on inside there, scanning regularly for warning pains, pressures, etc. I've never been able to "pursue that brilliant dragonfly called pleasure" without the attendant concern, not really 'worry,'  about how I am as a physical organism.

There's a lesson to be learned here about living in the moment , I suppose, but perhaps I'm now  too old--and full of too many new real and imagined afflictions of one sort or another--to chase that dragonfly of pleasure anew, at least in the same way. I know it's increasingly hard to allow myself to attempt such a chase when I am weighed down so much by the "backpack"of my past and my concerns about what's in the "bottom muck".

Maybe I need to exchange my perpetual thinking and pondering for injections of positive, uplifting emotion-- perhaps I need to read more poetry for the pure non-physical joy of it, listen to melodious and romantic opera that gives me chills, and linger with more sensitivity over the magnificent sunsets arranged for me by the gods who live just out of sight over the snow frosted peaks of the Front Range of the Rockies.

Friday, July 20, 2012

FIRST COLUMBINE,THEN AFGHANISTAN-NOW AURORA

President Obama spoke eloquently today in Florida about last night's senseless and tragic shooting here in my hometown of Denver.  Aurora is not far away. From my balcony I can see the silhouette of buildings in Aurora, I have driven past the theater (then, it was just another multiplex theater) on a number of occasions; now the Town Center of Aurora will never be just "another" part of Denver's urban sprawl any more than Columbine will ever be just "another" school.

Obama had this to say to each of us as we reflect on this tragedy and think about the meaning of our own lives:

"What matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it's not the trivial things, which so often consume us in our daily lives. Ultimately it's how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another." 


The President--the man, the father, the husband, the human being--hit the nail on the head.  He's right, and indisputably so.

At the same time, I confess that I have more than a little interest in (and confusion about) why we Americans rise up in outrage, when yappy news coverage blankets all media with the sensational and instant reporting of the deaths of 12 or so people, the serious wounding of maybe 40 more who were watching a violent, pop culture, midnight movie event at a local theater--and then, at the same time,  we (and the media) are able to sit back pretty calmly with our lattes as we read about the deaths in Afghanistan of over 2000 men and women (also human beings, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, but de-humanized in the media as "troops") who have been killed fighting for a less than obvious or noble cause--but who have nonetheless performed their dangerous duties (no soda and popcorn involved) admirably on behalf of all of us Americans. There is a cognitive dissonance, I think, in our (my) reaction.

Today I am outraged. I find it very hard to "love one another" when that "other" hates my guts and wants to kill me, or rob me, or lie to me, or cheat me, or treat me like ignorant trash. Today I am going to have to work very hard to love my fellow humans.

Actually, I find the admonition to "love one another" very difficult every day of the year, not just on this "day after Aurora." But as the Romans observed,  each day begins anew with a sunrise, an aurora. Maybe this Aurora can become a new beginning or dawn for me as well, and motivate me to become a better lover of my fellow man even while I struggle to forgive those who are intent on ending life or increasing suffering.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

NEBRASKA: KOOSER CHALLENGES MY DRIVING HABITS

So This is Nebraska

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

"So This Is Nebraska" by Ted Kooser, from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
* * * * * * * * *

I have driven through Nebraska several times, mostly on the way to somewhere else. For this reason, I have not looked as carefully as I might have at what the State had to offer.  Kooser made me see what I had missed seeing before in Nebraska--as I travelled there--but always going "through."

I wander how much of my life has been spent that way,  just "driving through,"  so to speak, on my way to somewhere else, a "somewhere else" defined by my parents, my ego, my family, my colleagues and friends, my society, my employer, my religion, my political party, my avarice, my need for control, for power-money-prestige, the temptations to have or be "more," my need to feel secure in a world that I see (often in desperation) as unchanging, immutable, and subject to my 'wise' manipulations (or magical thinking).

The other morning when I heard Garrison Keillor read Kooser's poem on  The Writers Almanac (sent to my Email daily by PBS), I was brought up short--not so much by pondering what I had missed in my various trips through Nebraska as by what I had missed in my life while so busily, and often blindly,  speeding "somewhere else," often at breakneck speed. This, in turn, caused me to reflect on and suffer for the folks I may have hurt along the way, intentionally as well as by neglect. And my ponderings then led me to wonder--tinged with momentary regret--about how much richer my life might have been had I lived it with the poet's sensitivity to what was happening beside the road--off in the fields--in the barns and homes and stores that I passed while speeding off to destinations that I deemed to be so important at the time.

I guess I am compelled to rethink both the experience of the routes I've taken as well as the value of the destinations I targeted. It may not be too late to make course changes.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

PALE BLUE DOT: CARL SAGAN

I love this view of the earth and, therefore, of myself from millions of miles away.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Lm6pEhykhs 

About the time I get upset because the power goes out in my apartment building, and the elevators and my computer cease to function, I need to think of this pale blue dot.

Any time I hear people railing about Obamacare or Justice Roberts or Romney's Mormonism, I should try to think about this pale blue dot.

When I join with my fellows in mourning the loss of their homes and valued possessions in our forest fire--"things" they value and rescue from the flames and take to a new home, there to fall victim to the ravages of time and disinterest, I need to think of this pale blue dot.

What is important?  What makes a difference? Republicans, Democrats, health care, the color of bridesmaid dresses, Syria v. Turkey, pollution clouds hanging over China, glamping with Bieber, a new model Android, the death of an old tortoise, the calories in my evening ice cream, a new App, detritus from Japan's tsunami washing up on Oregon's coasts, Miley Cyrus and her dog Ziggy, the oil change my car needs? Think of the pale blue dot, Mark.

Perspective--I find that I need to spend more time considering my life in the context of the pale blue dot and its history, and savoring my place here and the miniscule duration of my allotted time.

Oops--must go: the microwave timer just buzzed-- my leftovers are ready.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

PEOPLE WHO LIVE BY THE SEA: NOW I LIVE BY THE MOUNTAINS

People Who Live

People who live by the sea
understand eternity.
They copy the curves of the waves,
their hearts beat with the tides,
& the saltiness of their blood
corresponds with the sea.

They know that the house of flesh
is only a sandcastle
built on the shore,
that skin breaks
under the waves
like sand under the soles
of the first walker on the beach
when the tide recedes.

Each of us walks there once,
watching the bubbles
rise up through the sand
like ascending souls,
tracing the line of the foam,
drawing our index fingers
along the horizon
pointing home.

"People Who Live" by Erica Jong, from Becoming Light. © Harper Perennial, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I love this poem by Erica Jong. I confess to an off-on relation with her because she was a early and fairly strident feminist who often made me angry and uncomfortable mostly because I was not ready for the rhetoric, maybe because of the guilt she made me feel--perhaps this was her self-appointed role!  Whatever! Enough said about that because this poem is impressive.

The sentiments and ideas really touched me in lots of ways.  I lived many years at or near the Connecticut shoreline. And, yes, the sea did help me better understand the concept of eternity. Every time I was on the beach or in a boat, my mind expanded to contemplative thoughts--ponderings--about what all the earth's seas must contain: living things like whales and krill and manta rays and dolphins and tuna and starfish; the inanimate contents like newly formed structures where tectonic plates meet and clash and slide over or under each other; fortunes in precious metals and gems that have been formed miles below the bottom of the sea and erupted out; or sunken U-boats and galleons, the bones of millions of sailors and swimmers and suicide and murder victims, the currents of fresh water mixing with the brine.  What stories the sea would tell, if it could, of what was hidden there, dissolved there, floating there.  I would love to ask it where its water came from originally and why it maintains its salinity, its buoyancy, its clarity, its softness when poked with my finger and its rock hardness when I misjudge the entry angle of my  "showing-off-jack-knife-dive" and hit the surface  flat.

Exposing "sore-wisdom," Jong teaches that I will learn that the "house of flesh is only a sandcastle." What a wonderful image.  And it complements the knowledge I gained from Professor Renton  who teaches my video geology class ("The Nature of the Earth: An Introduction to Geology" available from The Great Courses). The mountains I see out my windows are, of course, subject to the same wasting forces as the sand castle, except that the process is infinitely slower--bringing to mind at least another hint about the nature of eternity--a concept that takes on meaning for me when I consider the 14,000 ft. peaks I can see out my window and know that over endless time, natural processes (frost, thaw, wind, rain, snow, heat. plant roots, etc.) will eventually flatten them out and eventually wash their rock, now fragments of sand, into the sea.  And my own "house of flesh." Well if rock turns to sand and mountains are flattened, then...Eternity begins.

The processes of creation and destruction on the shore are generally more observable than here in the hard rock mountains because the changes are comparatively rapid. But in both cases, mountains and shoreline, the primary agents of change are the same--water as liquid and solid, temperature, wind, vegetation, aging or the passage of time. All of which  calls to mind the people I know best, including myself, in whose bodies and lives and relationships, (as well as biological processes), change is constant as well--some of which is observable, some less so; some slow, some rapid, some creating and sustaining, some destroying.

Finally, the recognition that we only "walk t/here once" has come to me with blunt force only in my later years.  I heard and understood this truth as a young man when it really had little existential meaning for me; but now, as I look in the mirror or see old photographs, it does; and I wonder if it is too late, if I have traveled  too far down the beach, to make constructive use of my a-ha moment. Those who love me say it's not too late, and they urge me on.

In any case, I marvel at the tenacity and fragility and mutability of all the seen and unseen forces that have made--and continues to make me...Me, and you...You.

PS:  Just read the final column written by Marina Keegan,  a '12 graduate of Yale, and published by the Yale Daily News just after she was killed in an automobile wreck. Here's the except I read. And I feel shamed to have felt that "it might be too late for me..."

"What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it's too late to do anything is comical. It's hilarious. We're graduating college. We're so young. We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have."[my emphasis]

I confess that it's hard for me at 75 to keep and nourish my "sense of possibility."  However, I do stand corrected by this wise young woman, and will try again.

Monday, May 28, 2012

MEMORIAL DAY: DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI

Memorial Day is always a sad weekend for me, especially so since I moved to Colorado--away from my Connecticut family--in 1997.  For more than 30 years, Memorial Day weekends were a time for family gatherings, usually at Sachems Head, Guilford, Connecticut,  at my wife's family's homestead on Long Island Sound. What a beautiful, idyllic site--the wide expanse of the Sound dotted with sailboats, whitecaps, gulls diving and shrieking, the smell of clams roasting on the beach mixing with the salty aroma of hot dogs and hamburgers smoking on the charcoal grill. My wife's extended  family attended in droves, so so this was a time to laugh, tell tall tales, show off new babies and spouses and "dates,"  and do lots of catching up on general family happenings.

Presiding over the event were two formidable women, sisters, Millie and Winnie,  nee Gustafson (full blooded Swedes),  who had married Harrison Stevens and Carleton Winslow, consummate New Englanders and first cousins. These women, like their mother Ida Carleson Gustafson (a former premier "presider" at these events with her husband Art), were born with "food prep for mass gatherings" as part of their DNA. They and their female children (same DNA) covered the tables with endless supplies of deviled eggs, fruit salads, potato salads, cold cuts, sliced onions, olives, mustards and mayonnaise, catsup and chili sauce, pickles, relishes, grilled burgers and dogs with all the fixin's, pies and cakes and cookies, iced tea, soda, beer and as much bourbon and scotch as the occasion demanded.

There were Frisbees to be spun, rocks to be thrown at imaginary targets on nearby tree trunks  or hurled with shoulder-dislocating strength to see who could hit the water just off the distant beach, occasional footballs and baseballs to be tossed around, and a homespun, competitive family contest that involved  a racket-hit tennis ball soaring skyward, almost out of sight, and then its return to earth in the spotty fickle breezes testing even the most keen-eyed "catcher" below--especially toward dusk when tennis balls were easily confused with darting bats.  These were emotionally warm and memorable halcyon days indeed.

So now, living in Colorado, away from all that family, on Memorial Days I feel mostly empty and alone, a little sad as I reminisce about those "good old days." I try to put them in their place among other memorabilia on my mental shelves. As balm, I slip easily back to a trip that I took on my fiftieth birthday with my brother in law, Tom, who was turning forty the same week. I had been reading a lot of history about World War I, so I planned a European trip for us to view some battlefields of the Great War (an oxymoron if I ever heard one).

From Paris we drove East to Verdun, stopping at military cemeteries along the way. We saw the final resting places of hundreds of young men, most of whom were less than twenty when their lives were cut off, boys who were adolescents really, the age of the students I taught in prep schools. The kids in these graves (because we were touring the Western Front) came mostly from America, England and her colonies, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy. We saw only a minute part of evidence (what could be found at least)  of the carnage that produced the detritus of war.

The total figures for war deaths in that conflict are staggering, mind-boggling.

To wit:

"The 'Great War', which began on 28 July 1914 with Austria-Hungary's declaration of war with Serbia, and which ended with the German armistice of 11 November 1918, produced a vast number of casualties and deaths - and similarly vast numbers of missing soldiers.

The precise numbers remain shrouded in the passing of time compounded by the incompleteness of available records.  In the heat of action accurate records were not always kept, and where they were, these were not uncommonly lost in subsequent actions, such were the conditions of trench warfare.
Thus the figures reproduced below cannot be regarded as definitive but are a fair reflection of the scale of losses country by country.

Note too that these statistics reflect military casualties only; no reliable figures are available for civilian casualties throughout the world.  Attributing civilian casualties to the effects of war is a subjective process at best; the scale of the First World War certainly resulted in an absence of even the most approximate figures for affected nations.
Caveats aside - on to the figures:

Country Dead Wounded Missing Total
Africa 10,000 - - 10,000
Australia 58,150 152,170 - 210,320
Austria-Hungary 922,000 3,600,000 855,283 5,377,283
Belgium 44,000 450,000 - 494,000
Britain 658,700 2,032,150 359,150 3,050,000
Bulgaria 87,500 152,390 27,029 266,919
Canada 56,500 149,700 - 206,200
Caribbean 1,000 3,000 - 4,000
France 1,359,000 4,200,000 361,650 5,920,650
Germany 1,600,000 4,065,000 103,000 5,768,000
Greece 5,000 21,000 1,000 27,000
India 43,200 65,175 5,875 114,250
Italy 689,000 959,100 - 1,424,660
Japan 300 907 3 1,210
Montenegro 3,000 10,000 7,000 20,000
New Zealand 16,130 40,750 - 56,880
Portugal 7,222 13,751 12,318 33,291
Romania 335,706 120,000 80,000 535,706
Russia 1,700,000 5,000,000 - 6,700,000
Serbia 45,000 133,148 152,958 331,106
South Africa 7,000 12,000 - 19,000
Turkey 250,000 400,000 - 650,000
USA 58,480 189,955 14,290
262,72"

Tom and I finally staggered into Verdun and took the measure of what had transpired there. It was even more grotesque than I remembered, more horrifying than the accounts in my history books:

"Verdun resulted in 698,000 battlefield deaths (362,000 French and 336,000 German combatants), an average of 70,000 deaths for each of the ten months of the battle.[5] It was the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the First World War and the history of warfare."

Returning West along the trench lines from Verdun to the English Channel, Tom and I stopped to view the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, the resting place of more than 10,000 Canadian boys and men who were killed in three days fighting over a relatively miniscule parcel of barely-elevated land. Their deaths had been preceded months before by the demise of several hundred thousand French and British boys and men. None of these people would ever whistle a tune, or see their homes again. We were on sacred ground, once killing fields.

When we began our European adventure, Tom and I were both feeling a little glum and depressed about our birthdays which were blatant indicators of our advancing ages, our "over-the-hill-ness" as it were. We were feeling on the edge of being put out to pasture. After the trip, and having confronted the brute reality of the millions of deaths--and in only one war-- deaths of men and boys much younger than ourselves, we both were humbled and eternally grateful that we were still alive, that we had been given the years that we had already lived (old farts though we might be becoming), and that we still had futures to contemplate and savor. So many of those graves contained the remains of kids who did not even make it to legal voting age. I can't exchange joy of any sort about being alive for the deep sorrow I feel for those countless kids whose memory is marked only by white or gray gravestones.

So, I'm not surprised that now, in 2012,  pathos and sadness return to me; and  involuntarily my thoughts expand to include visions of other times and places, of the countless millions of men and women all over the world whose lives were cut short by other wars, and the attendant disasters they brought on; men and women who will never again able to read a book, or taste sweet milk or smell a broiling  steak, bite into a crisp apple, or to go on a picnic with their families;  and who will never have a chance to feel the ocean breezes, or see the yachts with their colorful spinnakers billowing, as they surge downwind toward finish line, hoping to hear only the report of the race committee's innocuous cannon signifying the end of the first competition of the season.

Friday, April 27, 2012

TRYING TO GET GROUNDED STARBUCKS STYLE

Most mornings, at about 6:45 am,  I drive to our local Starbucks where I meet Darwin and Sharon, senior retirees, for coffee (me) and, for them,  a shared cup of coffee with pastries or cookies or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches brought from home.  Mondays we are joined by Skid, a somewhat younger retired machinist, Vietnam Vet, and motorcycle enthusiast who is usually reading the Denver Post and sipping his coffee when we arrive. And, also on Mondays, Liz, my dearest buddy, also joins us on her way back from my place to Highlands Ranch where she lives and is scheduled  to attend an exercise class at 8:30.   No matter how large or small the group, we always sit at the same table and arrange ourselves around it in the same order.  Darwin, Sharon and I have begun our weekdays in this manner since the early 2000's, while Skid and Liz are more recent additions.

Over the years we have seen a fair number of Starbucks' barristas come and go, and some even go and then come back. We know most of them by name and keep loose track of their lives in "outside"world. We are also aware of changes in their marital and dating status, health and family issues, apparel and ornamentation preferences, hair styles, and in some cases, their college courses and other jobs.

Around us, in the store itself, we've witnessed continuous flux in store arrangement and decor, including numerous sales promotions laid out as free samples on the counter, or displayed in vividly colored print on free-standing banners (that always stand in the way of my trip to the condiments bar or bathroom), or affixed as decals to the front windows and the door, hand-lettered and illustrated in colored chalk on backboards on the wall behind the cash register,  and/or worn in various ways and places in, on, and by the baristas.

By osmosis we know the baristas' morning cleaning and polishing routines which they carry out with a regularity and vigor once typical of crews on  British ships of the line during the Napoleonic wars. Overseeing all this activity is an earnest, thirty something, manager named Yaisha (Yea-sha) who has held that position for more than seven years--quite an unusual tenure for Starbucks' store management personnel I am told. She is efficient, organized, and greets all customers with smiling, loud, friendly, enthusiasm, calling most by name and already reaching for a cup to fill their order before they place it.

My drink of choice is Pike Place Roast which is Starbucks' current signature daily coffee (not to be confused with Pike Place Special Reserve or Pike Place Blend. This coffee blend is named, of course, for the street in Seattle where the original establishment was located at number 1912). I usually have a Grande (mid-size) cup to which I add a packet of Splenda, several shakes of cinnamon, some chocolate powder, and a half-splash each of  1/2 and 1/2 and whole milk (a nod in the direction of calorie reduction.).  The ritual of combining these ingredients enables me to feel that I have had a meaningful role in the preparation of my pre-breakfast.

Excluding the aforementioned dramatis personae, the most  exciting part of my morning Starbuck's experience is the opportunity to observe the variety of other characters who came through the door for their morning hit of caffeine and/or injection of carbs from the pastry case which is, unfortunately,  located tantalizingly near where I order, where I pay my bill, and the table where we all sit.

As I observe the scene around me in true pedantic/academic fashion,  I find that I automatically put my fellow customers into categories. Given the early-ish hour, I figure that the regular characters who share my Starbucks' mornings must be compelled or forced to be there at that hour (weekdays 6:45-7:45 am) because they are required to be at a job of some sort  or at an appointment by 8:00 or 8:30. Or, if not, as regular patrons, they join my congregation because they are simply governed by their own daily habits, and so they show up automatically, almost without thinking,  do what they always do, and eat and drink whatever their habits have accustomed them to as they begin their day.

My first category is the "have to be at a job" group, and that contains several subsets.  The first comprises the blue collar workers, mostly men, and store clerks (men and women in bright green or blue aprons) who work at the local supermarket or health food store and who have to be at their stations early in order to get ready for eager customers. Generally, these store clerks are dressed in jeans or khakis, sneakers, and polo shirts emblazoned with store logos. They do not stay long and talk but, preoccupied with schemes of inventory arrangement and the drudgeries  of shelf-filling, move quickly though the line, stop for  cream, sugar and spices, take a quick glance at the newspaper's sports section, and are out the door in short order.

A second subset of the "have to be at work" blue collar group is made up almost exclusively of men, typically wearing dark blue, buff,  or dark green pants with matching shirts (also decorated with a company logs). These are mostly the hourly laborers: roofers, tree-trimmers, auto mechanics, DOT employees, carpenters, plumbers, and the like. As these men slouch past my table, their passage leaves a trailing scent of cigarette smoke, engine exhaust, and a combined mixture of oil and gasoline. These men typically arrive in pairs. The first is generally older and in charge, and is followed more or less respectfully by a younger man. The first is the crew chief, identified as such by the large ring of keys attached to his belt alongside his cell phone. He often pays for both breakfasts. They sit at a table where their conversations are brief, one-sided, and sprinkled with mild obscenities and bursts of laughter indicating a shared off-color comment or observation. It is always interesting for me to try to figure out if they are genuinely comrades and buddies, or whether there is more than a little sycophancy at play.

Also included in the "have to be at work"category are several men and women who teach in the public schools. Yes, there are still tardy bells! Given my history, I've made friends with most of them over the years. It is interesting to see how their attitude and gait improve and quicken as Fridays approach, while at the same time their eyes become increasingly more vacant and glazed. Fridays are usually the only day they order their coffee with a couple of extra shots of espresso) except during the weeks of standardized testing.

A fourth "have to be at work group" can be easily identified because they are the only people who are "dressed for success"--suits or sports coats with ties, polished shoes, and for the women, high heels, coiffed hair, and business garb--including skirts of various lengths, from calf-length to almost obscene, and tops with varying degrees of cleavage exposed  (the Golden proportion seems to be: the shorter the skirt, the more cleavage is in sight, and the higher are the heels  Typically the slightly damp hair usually smells at least of shampoo and hairspray, and then there's the body lotion, all of which surround the ladies with sweet smelling clouds of fragrance. These very serious people typically stand in line paying very serious serious attention to texting and reading important messages on their iPhones. Some are plugged into the Internet or phones with ear buds and so are oblivious to everything in their environment. A few stare around anxiously as if they are expecting a immanent and urgent call from Obama or Bernanke,  or sell "alarms" from the NYSE or  "duck and cover" warnings from NORAD,  and so they tend to avoid all eye contact while 'willing' a message to come their way.  It is typically one of these folks who  interrupts our morning socialization by talking loudly on his/her phone while walking around and gesturing emphatically to punctuate their "urgent" conversation with whatever deity is about to pull the lever that will "end the world" or "crash the market." I often wonder what these people do in their lives that requires such urgent and intense conversations at 6:50am.

Also included in this group are a few working moms who stop in for a jolt of energy-giving caffeine on their way to deposit their child at day care before going to the office. These moms are easy to identify, of course, by the toddler perched on their hip or their older one racing around shrieking with delight while playing with  the contents of the displays' shelves. Some are more "modern" moms who allow their older kids to dress themselves, and it's always amusing to check out the clothing of child who has convinced her mom to let her (usually a girl) be a "big girl" and dress herself. The outfits run the  gamut of originality and are often excruciatingly funny. But you can see that the kid really did try hard. While most of these moms themselves are generally well-dressed for work, they always appear to be fatigued, to be worrying about being late for something, to have expressions of generalized anxiety, to sport dark circles under their eyes, and often have wisps of askew hair or a smear of breakfast oatmeal on their blazer's lapel. I empathize with this group of morning patrons who get my full support, endorsement, and sympathy

A final subset of patrons on its way to some destination comprises an polymorphous variety of  middle school and high school students. Most easily identified are those who attend the local upscale prep school. They are recognizable by their preppy dress, winter skiing tans,  aloof attitude, and blatant display of "style." Virtually all look as if they have just stepped out of different issues of the same teen fashion magazine. Somewhat later arrive others kids who go to public schools and even later,  those who attend  Denver Academy, a special kind of independent school that teaches students with ADD and various other learning and social differences. Many of these kids look as if they have just slid out of bed and are astonished to realize that there are other people inhabiting their world. Their attire includes top hats, tie-dyed shirts, deck shoes or Dr, Martens or UGGs or Crocs, some with no socks, and/or the girls are wearing clothes that are much too tight or revealing for decent sitting or bending over in a classroom setting. This is a group, regardless of age, that orders double and triple espresso shots, or that chooses one of those calorie-laden, whipped cream topped caramel lattes that will provide more than enough of a sugar rush to exponentially enhance their ADD symptoms during first period and then cause them to crash and burn in second period.

My second major category comprises those who have already been somewhere and are stopping by Starbucks as a reward for their self-discipline and vigorous early morning exertions after exercise. or as an alternative to the loneliness of staying at home, or as a place where they can be distracted while they read or work. The most notable of this group are dressed in sneakers, shorts and T-shirts, or sweat shirts and sweat pants, many adorned with faded college logos or brightly colored professional team names and symbols. Some wear headbands, many have their sunglasses pushed up onto their heads, Iphones or Ipads are a typical accessory, and they are accompanied through the store by a combination damp-clothes-hamper-gym-scent.  Several members of this category are marathon class dog walkers, bike riders,  hikers, or runners. They are all earnest and most don't appear to be enjoying themselves. Accessories (bikes and dogs) have to be left outside and it is fun for me to look through the front window at the exhausted canines still poised  rigidly at attention watching the door and waiting for their masters or mistresses to return for another multi-K jaunt.

As all of this is going on, the remaining scattering of miscellaneous people sit perched around the edges of the room. They are men and women, both old and young, sitting at tables or in easy chairs, equipped with their laptop computers, backpacks or carry cases,  steaming coffee, and occasional books, journals, stacks of papers or note cards, often wearing earphones, fingering a pastry or bagel from Einsteins next door, and looking totally absorbed in whatever project they are currently focused on in their computer or, recently, their iPad or Kindle. Alongside them, on most days, sit elderly folks, usually women,  reading paperbacks or doing crossword puzzles in their folded daily paper, or simply staring into space. Less often, at nearby tables will I see two or three patrons seriously explicating the meaning of a verse of scripture or religious treatise. I've also witnessed a teacher and student doing a tutorial in Spanish, Russian, or math, an eager mom doing homework with or for little Johnnie, or a handful of women having a brief meeting about a joint church project, club activity (e.g., scrapbookers or quilters), an impending family function or crisis, or local  political campaign or church project with which they're involved. I have also seen couples breaking up, and couples getting together-- for both licit and illicit purposes.

Now as I sit in the quiet of my own study at home reflecting on this--pondering on it--writing this essay,  I am acutely aware that each morning Starbucks serves up a lot more to me than Arabian or Egyptian coffee; indeed, each day, for little charge, Starbucks also fans out for me a veritable smorgasbord of humanity that titillates me with samples of lives touched by pain and struggle, love and despair, as well as an endless variety of examples of work and play, of dreams made and some already shattered, of pulsing energy and bone-weary exhaustion, of cynicism and naivete, conformity and independence, of accomplishment and failure, of anger and forgiveness, of numbed resignation right alongside bubbling optimism-- in short, for a $2.00 Grande admission fee, I am provided  an opportunity to assess my own place in the world, perhaps think about my value to it and what I could change in myself to make it all better; to compare my lot to that of others, to see me reflected in their eyes and to take stock of what they may be seeing when they see me--and to ground myself (as it were) solidly by accepting my own pluses and minuses as one miniscule part of the ongoing, never ending, and always fascinating flow of human life.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

THE HARD POSSIBILITY OF STOPPAGE: FOOLED ME!

Read this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, and then let's talk

Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and
Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the
Next Days and Weeks

Mary Oliver

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,
not the inside of stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I'm fooled-
I'm wading along
in the sunlight-
and I'm sure I can see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead-
I can see the light spilling
like a shower of meteors
into next week's trees,
and I plan to be there soon-
and, so far, I am
just that lucky,
my legs splashing
over the edge of darkness,
my heart on fire.
I don't know where
such certainty comes from-
the brave flesh
or the theater of the mind-
but if I had to guess
I would say that only
what the soul is supposed to be
could send us forth
with such cheer
as even the leaf must wear
as it unfurls
its fragrant body, and shines
against the hard possibility of stoppage-
which, day after day,
before such brisk, corpuscular belief,
shudders, and gives way.

from What Do We Know, Volume V, Number 3, Summer 2001
Perseus Books Group
Copyright 2001 by Mary Oliver.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission
* * * * * * * *

Through most of my life, for whatever reasons, I have been regularly reminded of my own mortality, spent a lot of time in my head worrying about dying.

Occasionally I have obsessed about it. Those who know me well will tell you that I am a victim of both catastrophic thinking and  incipient hypochondria.  Any bump is, by definition, cancer or something else incurable. Skin rash equals melanoma, automatically. A headache is reflexively a brain tumor, incurable of course.

 I can remember spending several weeks in bed as a boy with an undiagnosed disease that the family doctor (PCP) thought initially might be polio, the scourge of the 40's. Somehow, as a young boy,  I never thought I would "get" polio or, if I did, that I would die from it,  at least immediately. Turns out I was right;  I had an indeterminate virus of some sort and recovered without incident. Ducked that bullet. But worried all the time I was getting well.

Over the years I had many other health scares, this time real, the initial and most serious involving unnatural noises picked up by my doc's stethoscope, sounds being made by my blood as it passed through my heart's damaged aortic valve. This discovery worried me plenty, but not enough for me to change some damaging eating, drinking, and life-style habits. And, it was not serious enough for surgical intervention at that time. But it was always in the back of my mind to dig out and ruminate about at odd moments.

Several years later in 1971, I was in a serious (should have been fatal) automobile accident; the whole front end of my vehicle was totally ripped away by a speeding Mercedes and deposited many hundreds of feet down the road; there was no dash or steering wheel or windshield left in front of me. Somehow I walked away with a slightly stiff neck and nothing else--except a moderately strong and lasting case of survivors' guilt. To reference Mary Oliver,  My "leaf" was still blissfully unfurled.

During all this time, from my Twenties  through into my Sixties, I knew intellectually that death was posited as the inevitable end of life for all living creatures, me included.  I had read novels and poems and the Bible, attended operas and plays, visited the bereaved in funeral homes, so I knew about death and mortality in my head just like I know that there is gravity or that the world is round.  But this was not the same as me feeling it or acknowledging it viscerally, in the gut of my self-understanding.

In those earlier years, it was almost impossible for me to conceive of me not being in this world, enjoying it or, in reverse, of the world not having me around to enjoy in return. I knew abstractly that someday I would cease to be, but I never allowed myself to dwell concretely on that reality, to feel the vacancy created by my absence, to fantasize about my visual lights going out for the last time never to go on again, to speculate on what it would be like to consciously draw what I knew to be a last breath or think a last thought knowing it was the last, or relish a memory that I knew to be the last time ever that I would have that pleasure. But change happened over time and outside of my awareness.

Now at 75, I look in the mirror and see wrinkles where there was once smooth skin, I see brown spots where there were once "cute" freckles, white hair has replaced the red, I feel flaccidity where there was once  rigidity and muscularity, accustom myself to shortness of breath and weakness of limbs and sore joints; and now having  had three cancer diagnoses, operations and treatments, and having had that faulty heart valve replaced by one from a pig that was sacrificed so that I could live, I find that thinking about my own death is no longer foreign and abstract.  I can much too easily imagine the last light of day, the final thought,  the dimenuendo of a fading, final memory, the Coda without a Da Capo, flesh returning to dust and being transported molecularly through all the remaining life in our cosmos. I really am getting old--surprise! So,  that which was only conceivable in a distant future is a reality of "now." I am sort of in shock, amazed, and often scared of the unknown.

I guess that pondering Oliver's thoughts on the  "Hard Possibility of Stoppage" is not inherently productive until you reach a "certain age," and then this musing does create, at least in me, a freshly honed mental acuity that allows me to see my life and the lives of those around me with sharpened, focused clarity and a somewhat more balanced perspective about what does and doesn't make a difference--as viewed from the Coda, a/k/a Oliver's Stoppage Time.