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:

Friday, April 27, 2012


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


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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


The good, the bad and the inconvenient

Gardening is often a measured cruelty:
what is to live and what is to be torn
up by its roots and flung on the compost
to rot and give its essence to new soil.

It is not only the weeds I seize.
go down the row of new spinach—
their little bright Vs crowding—
and snatch every other, flinging

their little bodies just as healthy,
just as sound as their neighbors
but judged, by me, superfluous.
We all commit crimes too small

for us to measure, the ant soldiers
we stomp, whose only aim was to
protect, to feed their vast family.
It is I who decide which beetles

are "good" and which are "bad"
as if each is not whole in its kind.
We eat to live and so do they,
the locusts, the grasshoppers,

the flea beetles and aphids and slugs.
By bad I mean inconvenient. Nothing
we do is simple, without consequence
and each act is shadowed with death.
"The good, the bad and the inconvenient" by Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I was taken aback when reading this poem because I have entertained many of the same ideas in the past; I figured that I was the only one who might have entertained such almost sentimental thoughts.   In the "old days," when my family was  involved in growing food from seeds, I used to agonize inwardly when I had to "thin" out a row of any vegetable seedlings.  I wondered about the implications for the plant of choosing which little seed's thrust toward life and reproduction I would terminate and which I would  allow to flourish.  I honestly felt badly every time I scraped a little green baby plant out of the soil to make room for its neighbors to thrive with more abundant space, soil, nourishment, and water.

In the same gardens, of course,  lived thousands of little insects and vermin  (pests) of various sorts because we didn't use chemical pesticides. Often the organic solutions we employed for pest "management" didn't work or were relatively ineffective, so the very existence of our vegetables was jeopardized by tiny creatures that were only seeking to sustain their own lives and then reproduce in kind. I regularly took their lives more mindlessly than I did the plants, wanting to thwart their destructive tendencies. Maybe I saw them somehow as "lesser" life forms as well as horticulturally undesirable. Through the course of the garden's annual life--its season from frost to frost--I was very aware of the curious life and death relationship and of my role in it.

In a sense, by planting a garden, we had, for what seemed good and noble reasons, altered the natural or normal relationship between flora and fauna. We had artificially added plants and vegetables to the food supply chain and, unwittingly, encouraged and supported an imbalance of supply and demand in the miniscule natural world of our little garden. From planting to thinning to fertilizing to harvesting, our human judgement and actions supplanted--and were inserted into--natural processes. In this microcosm, our human activity--even though it was comparatively benign and contained in scope--made an incredible life and death impact on the little world of our garden.

Thinking back on this agrarian enterprise causes me to be even more aware and horrified--yea depressed and angered as well-- by the often thoughtless impact of human activity on our earthly home. From my 11th floor apartment window, I can see acres of roof tops and miles of asbestos streets and highways, all built for our convenience and comfort, and with little thought to how we were changing where rain fell and water drained, where snow-melt flowed and stored, where leaves dropped and rotted to form new top soil, where the heat and cold stored by solid masses of roads and buildings changed the climates immediately around them, where root systems were covered, fauna habitats and chemical compositions of soil were destroyed or altered forever, and on and on. 

Just think about it. What I am seeing is just me and my limited view from one window here in South East Denver, a vista that encompasses an area perhaps as large as a square mile. Recalling  the impact that I had on my little garden (maybe 1/8th acre), I shudder when Google tells me that the land area of the earth is about 197 million square miles bigger than the square mile  I see, and that it is populated by over 7 billion people like me, acting as I have acted,  whose numbers are increasing by about 20 million a year; and I extrapolate from my limited garden experience to all this immensity and ponder what this most likely means for the planet...for my children and their children...for humankind...

we do is simple, without consequence
and each act is shadowed with death."