Inquiring Minds Want To Know

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

You will recall that in the wake of the unexpected results of the referendum calling for the immediate exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union there were numerous accounts of massive google searches in the UK the day AFTER the referendum.  The most commonly asked questions included, “What is the EU?” and “What countries are in the EU?”

Thus the efficacy of the democratic process was assured once again, but the story did propel me toward an investigation of the questions we, as informed Americans, ask the all-knowing googleverse.

It will come as no surprise that Pokemon, Prince, the IPhone7, Melania Trump, and Simone Biles were widely searched.  The entire “Is it healthy…” domain once again emerges as a constant theme in our national search history.  Some make eminently good sense; “Is it healthy to be a Vegan?”  Sure.  Reasonable question.  On the other hand, “Is it healthy to eat your boogers?” seems a question best left unexamined as is, “Why does my arm shake when I eat dirt”.  Some questions are more poignant than others.  “Are there people who never find love?”; some are oddly provocative, “What would happen if I hired two private investigators to follow each other?”

A state-by-state survey of questions asked raises some disturbing issues with regard to the demographic diversity of the United States.  Some states ask certain questions more frequently than others; for example, Georgians ask the question, “Why do my nipples hurt” more than any other state while insecure Floridians ask, “Why does everyone hate Florida?”  Some questions appear widely and one would think appropriately, such as, “When is Ramadan?” West Virginians, however, may have missed a clue in asking, “When is Cinco de Mayo?”

In terms of frequency with which questions were asked last year, drought damaged Californians had every right to ask, “Was 2016 the worst year ever?”.  At another level, it makes sense that Oklahomans wondered about Kevin Durant’s decision to pay for the Oakland Warriors.

I don’t quite know what to do with the split between North and South Dakotans.  Learning of his death, South Dakota wanted information on Elie Wiesel; North Dakotans either wanted more information about or showtimes of “Dirty Grandpa”.

Connecticut wanted more insight into the Comey letter whereas Delaware craved the details of the “Brangelina” divorce.  West Virginia responded to the death of Muhammad Ali with interest in his life and legacy; Tennessee wondered if Mr. T had actually died. (I’m pleased to report that Mr. T is alive, well, and ready to pity as many fools as come his way).  Michigan, home to Hockeytown USA, googled extensively about hockey hero Gordie Howe while Missouri, the “Show Me” state, wanted evidence that McDonald’s actually did intend to serve breakfast all day.

As to why North Dakotans ask the question, “When is the NFL draft?” more frequently than any other state while South Dakotans ask,”Why is my poop green”  remains a mystery.

I’ll google it and let you know what I find out.


Flying Monkeys

Flying Monkeys

In the midst of writing an article about witches in film, momentarily sidetracked by memories of the goon squad sent out by the Wicked Witch of the West, I set out to find an image to assure myself that they were as disturbing as I had remembered them to be.

They were and are.  Let’s remember that by the time the monkeys arrive, Oz is saturated with color; slippers are sparkling, Glenda is numinous, but the blinking monkeys  are trapped in vile carpeting, matted greyish blue quasi-fur.  Yes, they wear hats, but that doesn’t make things better.  At all.  I found that they present the same frozen grimace in every shot; they can fly, swarm, and bark in laughter, but their eyes are dead and their features immobile.  All of which would be more than enough to find them off-putting, and then we recall that small actors, largely uncredited actors, are stuck inside that greasy fur, suspended over the Technicolor landscape by wires, and almost certainly not writing home about the part they played in this American film masterwork.

Disturbing then.  Disturbing now.

Disturbing also the information that came unbidden as I searched for “flying monkeys”.  It turns out that the term “flying monkeys” has been appropriated as an economical way of describing those who act as minions of true narcissists, the idea being that apologists, enablers,those who work to smooth things out, allow the narcissist to persist in abusive behavior.  The number of websites dedicated to the protection of victims caught in abusive traps by narcissists and their enabling minions indicates the existence of a problem I had only vaguely understood.

Let me backup a bit.  I’ve met my share of bullies and know a number of people whose lives have been affected, in some cases violently affected, by individuals who acted in their own self-interest without regard for others, common decency, or the rule of law.  In every instance, I saw well-meaning, compassionate, intelligent people attempt to mediate between the bully and the victim, and the outcome was always the same.

Bullies win.  Every time.  As long as the response to bullying is anywhere on the normal spectrum of human reaction, bullies win because they don’t play by any rules.

Narcissists are not simply self-centered or self-absorbed; We’re all self-centered and self-absorbed to some degree; even Gandhi and the Dalai Lama had to work to escape the self.  Most of us at times hold exaggerated appreciation of our own abilities and our own capacities, and most of behave in our own self-interest for some (ok, most) of the time.  But .. .we can summon empathy for others, feel some regret for behaviors that have been harmful, occasionally see ourselves as we are.  We may fall into selfish behavior, but we don’t feel great about that behavior when our selfishness is noticed, and although our attitudes may not always be altruistic and charitable, we exhibit a range of responses to the world and our experiences; we aren’t stuck in one persistent and malevolent self-aggrandizing mode of being over considerable periods of time.

Truly malevolent narcissists belong to a special cadre of personality disordered, mentally ill people whose qualities include profoundly exaggerated grandiosity, a grotesque sense of entitlement, and consistent exploitation of others to assure their personal gains.  The emotional tapestry of the narcissistic disordered person pulses with feelings of envy and aggression; this person is often fearlessly exhibitionistic, consistently anticipates betrayal, metes out punishment for perceived disloyalty or lack of approval.  Words such as dominating, vindictive, contemptuous describe the true narcissist, and relationships with this type of disordered person are characterized by  manipulation and exploitation.

One school of psychology focuses on “The dark triad”, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, the three overlapping traits that describe what can be called the malevolent personality.  Leaving conceptual descriptors aside, and bidding a fond farewell to diagnostic markers, the most pertinent reality about malevolent personalities is that they are among us.  I’ve heard fictional Jay Gatsby described as a narcissist, and Charles Foster Kane, but despite the all-absorbing and needy ego of characters such as these, despite their grandiosity, they don’t behave sociopathologically; they don’t set out to destroy people they believe to have been critical of them or less than loyal.  This is where the earlier reference to bullying comes into play. Bullies want what they want, they enforce an outcome that suits them, and they don’t mind the distress and pain they inflict; they feel entitled to  control and disable a lesser person.

I can’t guess at the number of domestic abusers who are narcissistic, but abuse arrives as vindictive and personal violence; no matter whether it is physical, psychological, verbal, financial, or sexual- it’s personal.  That is the bald fact of abuse.  Narcissist abuse is ugly, often publicly ugly, and yet it goes unchecked.  Narcissists invite those in a relationship  to play a game they cannot win because the narcissist makes the rules, and the rules only apply to others.

Negotiating with bullies means bullies always win.

I started with flying monkeys and need to tie their behavior to the dismaying reality that narcissists find the people they need to excuse and protect their behavior. While the witch stays out of the line of fire, her minions carry out her evil plans.  The difference out here, away from Oz, is that these flying monkeys often have no idea that they are being used.  They may feel needed, or endorsed, or emotionally blackmailed so that they apologize for the narcissist, inadvertently spy or carry gossip.  The narcissist is expert at playing the victim, turning the tables so that his or her target is blamed for the bad behavior the narcissist is forced to display.  When a direct attack might be dangerous or impolitic, the narcissist selects people who have reason or the inclination to attack and send them out to lead the charge.  It isn’t hard to know who gets a charge out of gossiping, who is inclined toward resentment, who has grudges or prejudices; they are the obvious foot soldiers.  Equally vulnerable are people who wholeheartedly believe in the inherent goodness of mankind.

“There are two sides to every story”, “She didn’t really mean what she said”, “You have to understand where he comes from,” “Everyone snaps a little now and then”, “Don’t you think he brought that on himself?”.  One of the many shocking aspects of the recent documentary and filmed series on the trial of O.J. Simpson was that his friends and acquaintances knew that he had brutalized Nicole Brown Simpson over the course of several years, but discounted the possibility that Simpson could have killed the mother of his children.  Until the end, they apologized for O.J. and discounted the accounts of his rage and jealousy.

There may be two sides to every story, but we will never get to hear Nicole’s.  Apparently he really did mean what he said when he threatened to kill her.  Many, many people came from the tough background that O.J. escaped.  Snapping now and then does not include double homicide.  I’m not inclined to agree that Nicole or the collaterally dispatched Ron Goldman brought murder on themselves.

In the end, however, children are always the most vulnerable to narcissistic manipulation.

Even well modulated parents will occasionally slip, presenting themselves to their children as the better parent.  “I know Mom doesn’t let you stay up to watch Saturday Night Live, but I don’t think that’s such a big deal.”  Not good.  Not helpful.  Ordinarily that sort of self-aggrandizing ploy ends up with a conversation between parents, who as partners, are determined to respect and support each other.

I don’t know if my wife’s father was a narcissist.  I have reason to think he was somewhere on the spectrum of narcissistic behavior as he compelled his children to testify against their mother in court when he sought a less costly divorce settlement.  It’s one thing to throw a partner under a bus, quite another to ask her children to do the throwing.

It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist’s Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent’s unconditional love.

The blogsite, The Narcissist’s Child, encourages children of narcissistic parents to tell their story and find support in the company of others who understand the legacy of growing up with a narcissistic parent.  It was on that site, in the entry “Flying Monkeys in your life”, that I found devastating accounts of how the narcissist’s minions operate.

As has been the case in almost all that I write, this piece came to me without my intending to look at the subject at all.  A semi-whimsical search for an image carried me far from whimsy to something like comprehension of events in my own life that have long seemed inexplocable.










Vulgarians At The Gates

Vulgarians At The Gates

I’m a modern man, quasi-modern anyway, and yet, despite having read widely and having watched any number of foul-mouthed stand-up comedians and virtually everything Quentin Tarantino has written or directed, I am still a little bit shocked when I hear what was once called “blue” language or swearing – obscenities, anatomically graphic descriptions of perfectly normal bodily functions, and blasphemy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily critical of that kind of language; in many cases, it hardly registers (another issue for another day), and when used judiciously (another issue) often very effective.  What interests me is not that you swear or Tarantino’s characters swear, or any public figure swears, or even my own kids swear, but that I still feel embarrassed when I use these sorts of words outside of very close friendships.  If I’ve whacked myself with a hammer, a common outcome of my efforts at home improvement, I try to say “Shazbat!!” or “Blast!”, or, most laughably, “Son of a Sea Cook”, fail most of the time, but regret that failure almost as much as I regret whacking myself with a hammer.  It’s almost impossible to quote contemporary speech without encountering  a slew of words once considered offensive, so I find myself dancing around the danger zones, hoping the person with whom I’m speaking will get the gist of the reference without my having to dive into the deep end of the pool.  Those “So and So’s”!

I wasn’t raised with missionaries; I’m not sure where these taboos were hatched. I do remember the concern my mother and grandmother had about my use of what they called vulgarisms.  They didn’t swear (my mother used “Ships!”when aggrieved), and I didn’t swear much, certainly not in front of them, but I did use terms commonly tossed around at school and in most settings other than my grandmother’s house.  I’m not sure when I became aware of the dissonance between the language “out there”, language my grandmother would have called vulgar and proper English usage, but correction came early and often.

Vulgar.  It’s not a word with much currency these days; we’ve sailed into a nether world of routine vulgarity, pretty much found in ordinary speech, G rated movies, and mainstream television.  I’m not talking about those words that are consigned to cable television, words which bring the R rating.  I’m talking about words and phrases which in my youth were never used in polite company such as “damn”, “hell”, “crap”, “bastard”, “sucks”, “piss”, “pissed off”, “bitch”, “balls”, “effing”, “fricking”, “dick”, “whore”. I’ve used them all, probably in a single sentence, and yet, I find myself blushing as I put these words in print.

Exasperated?  Fed up?  Ok, then you might say something like “Darn!”  “Shoot!”, “Fiddlesticks!”, “Shucks!”  Even then, on thin ice.  As I look back (as it were), I’m amused at the number of words we found to describe the human posterior, all of which would then have been considered vulgar – behind, rear, rear end, tail, bottom, can, fanny, butt, buttocks, caboose, buns, heinie (probably from hindquarter?), backside, derriere, rump, seat, haunches, keister, patootie.  People made jokes about donkeys knowing that the word ass could refer to the mammal, but I recall being heartily amused when someone in 5th grade called me a “half-ass”; the image was just too absurd.

This was an era in which families corrected children who said can instead of may, as in, “Can I have a glass of lemonade? ” an error of such obvious injury that it was immediately followed by parental instruction, “May I have a glass of lemonade?”

“Hey,” one might have said, “You know what I mean.”

At which point, the same parents would respond, “Hay is for horses”, almost certainly ensuring that further efforts at communication were useless.

This was an era in which children informed their parents that they had to do Number One or Number Two and so were led to the potty.  Yikes!

My life changed forever when my parents pulled me from the comfy public school in my home town to send me to the fancy private boarding school (in my home town), a shift that I believe was the result of my having become too vulgar for their taste.  Not only had I learned to spit, and I mean spit really well, but I had become quite comfortable using the word, Ain’t.  I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s hindquarters.

Elvis Presley was an inescapable force of nature in my formative years, and his locutions struck me as pretty cool, cool also being a word my parents could not abide.  “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”  Double negatives aside, ain’t never and ain’t no tugged at my folks’ sense of propriety, and, looking back at it, probably put a dent in the image that they had of themselves as highly educated, culturally sophisticated, and thoroughly refined.  Vulgar, as I see it now, was a class thing.  Ain’t no doubt.

It worked, of course.  I stopped saying Ain’t.  I did, however, begin to hear the kind of schoolboy humor that warped my understanding of the relationship between men and women and taught me a vocabulary that would have made my grandmother turn purple.  When I think of what passed for humor in the darkened dormitory (no doors, beds separated by curtains), I wonder how any of us managed to negotiate the world with any semblance of grace.

Without dropping into yet another paen to the legendary heroes of my youth, let me simply say that I took great pleasure in listening to baseball games broadcast after the lights were killed in the dormitory.  Headphones would have been a fantastic, futuristic invention , so I had to pull my radio under my blankets and lie, sweating, with my ear to the speaker.  The voice I heard was that of Red Barber, “The Ol’ Redhead”, raised in Mississippi, possibly the most conscientiously neutral and deliberate of broadcasters, who, in a sweetly thick southern drawl, expressed strong feelings with exclamations such as “Oh, Doctor, that ball is gone!”.  When a team was doing well, he would say, “They’re tearing up the pea patch!”

Whats the point of introducing Red Barber?  Years later, I hear Barber explain that he never swore because he was concerned that in a moment of passion, he might let loose with an obscenity.  As a teacher, I understood completely.  Did I slip?  Probably, but I can’t remember a truly egregious gaffe, in part because I take words seriously and spent a fair amount of time correcting the can and may, his and their, and not simply correcting but responding unhappily to sucks and pissed.

I don’t think of myself as a fossil or dinosaur, but when it comes to contemporary usage, I’m positively Paleozoic.  So, let the vulgarities fly; fiddlesticks, I say, Oh, Doctor, what the heck, not a blessed thing I can do about it.



Going To The Dogs

Going To The Dogs

Jinx, our eldest dog, is at my elbow, panting as she has for several months.  She’s fourteen and her breathing is labored.  She has trouble now getting up the few steps into the house and sleeps soundly in the morning as the younger dogs bound into the day.  She has the run of the house, gets extra meals, and is generally cherished round the clock.  She may fool us all and live for years, or, as we fear, may not respond as we try to rouse her one morning.

The next generations of dogs, son, Satch, daughter Rogue, and grandson, Banner, all border collies, seem in no hurry to change the routines established over time.  They are happy to romp on their own, but when Jinx is in the mix, they still line-up by age, responding to the games Jinx initiates.  Jinx may be a matriarch in decline, but she remains playful and eager to herd us, nudging us when we slow to a walk.  Satch, a blue merle with the face of a panda, is generally sedentary and always hungry.  He is transformed when Jinx begins to bounce in place, nipping at her tail, frequently trotting away in triumph with a spume of white fur at the corner of his mouth.  Rogue, fox faced and busy, accomplishes two tasks at once, joining the pack’s pursuit of Jinx while carrying a frisbee, should an empty moment present itself.  Banner, gawky adolescent, misses cues, invades personal canine space, bounds away barking, distracted by a goose flying overhead.

I met my wife and her dog simultaneously; she met my son at the same time.  We knew from the start that our life together would include kids and dogs.  Fortunately, her dog, a large Shepard mix with exceedingly discriminating taste in humans, came to love us, and we loved him with the giddy love that dog-deprived dog lovers feel when they meet a perfect dog.  I held that dog in my arms as he died, and told my wife it would take some time before I could love a dog so completely again.  The heart wants what the heart wants, however, and soon she came home with a rescue that needed to be loved and cared for.

I contributed my own questionable judgment when visiting friends with German Shepherd puppies bred from a line of schutzhund champions.  One of the pups followed me, falling asleep on my feet as we talked about the litter.  I was sunk, and, having misplaced confidence in my ability to read German, thought a schutzhund, meant “obedience dog”,  exactly right for my wife’s work with therapy dogs and with dog obedience; it turns out that a schutzhund is actually a canine rocket, the sort of dog used by police canine units or in the military.  Our rocket turned out to be a sweetheart with floppy bat ears.  We named him Fledermaus, Maus for short, and loved him too.

Our first true therapy dog , later our first agility dog, a tri-colored Australian Shepherd, came to us from a breeder in Wisconsin, an adventure in cross country conversation that involved papers faxxed back and forth so that when the puppy arrived, my wife named him Fax.  He was irresistibly affectionate, and I joined our children in slipping him treats, probably undoing all the training my wife had begun.  He achieved some local fame when, sensing the opportunities available at a reception for a visiting poet, was discovered on a table top, his muzzle a tell-tale lemon bar yellow.  He was soon joined by Blitz, a speedy border collie we thought a prospective agility champion.  Instead, gentle Blitz turned out to be a champion therapy dog; the picture of him extended to his full length on a hospital bed, nuzzling a child fighting cancer, is still prominently placed on the clinic’s wall.

About twenty years into our marriage, about the time we went from two dogs to three, about the time that I came to expect that every article of clothing I owned would be caked with dog fur, about the time that our youngest dog ate the laundry room wall, I wondered if we had lost some balance in our life as a family.

At that time, it happened that I had an obligation away from home, so packed and headed for the airport, being sure to scruffle all three beasts before leaving the house.  As I waited to check in for my flight, I noticed a passenger travelling with a wire-haired terrier and had to walk over to see if the owner would mind a short visit with her dog.  Walking through the streets of an unfamiliar city, I again found myself approaching every dog that crossed my path.  Before two days away from home had passed, I realized that just as I loved my wife, loved my children, I loved having dogs within easy reach, essentially at that point, the more, the merrier.

So, now we live with four, which is great, but a Facebook friend has been posting pictures of her Australian Shepherd puppy, and it has been years since we had an Australian Shepherd, and they are fluffy with a tiny bobbed tail that vibrates with joy when greeting its owners, and not all that large, and easy to train, and ….



Getting My Irish Up

Getting My Irish Up

Faith and begorra, it’s almost Saint Patrick’s Day, once again time for the Arangos to become O’Rangos in a tribute to all things Celtic.

We won’t be alone, of course; St. Patrick’s Day Parades are scheduled in Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Baltimore, Atlanta, Norfolk, Denver, Holyoke, New Orleans, Savannah, Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Diego, Cleveland, Butte, Saint Paul, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and probably another hundred communities.

Buffalo has two parades. The shortest parade (98 feet) will be held in Hot Spring, Arkansas, where the famous Springs are dyed green.  Unless the new administration breaks the established tradition, the north White House fountain will be dyed green.  Chicago dyes a river green, Seattle dyes the parade route green, and the town of Rolla, Missouri paints the entire center of the city green.

All of this hoopla celebrates venerated Patrick (Patricus, Padraig), patron Saint of Ireland, routinely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland from Britain and with banishing Ireland’s snakes, although it’s pretty clear there weren’t any snakes to banish.

Let that go.  It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, during which time the faithful ostensibly practice penance and self-denial.

Except on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Free pass.  Green beer.  Let the good times roll … then back to sackcloth and ashes.

I don’t mean to disparage any saint; they didn’t get to be saints without having been martyred and often in a particularly disagreeable way.  Saint Patrick, for instance … ah …. hold on …. I’m thumbing through my various guides to the saints, biographies known in the saintly trade as hagiographies, and … um …. Saint Patrick died at Saul, apparently not martyred, laid down, didn’t get up, thought it was indigestion.

Now, to be fair, he took his lumps early and often, having been captured, enslaved, and sold into bondage as a young man, and he did bring Christianity to Ireland against some very long odds.  Credit where credit is due.

It just occurs to me that there are some other saints, whose day might be celebrated with something like equal enthusiasm, given the ways in which they were dispatched.  I should begin by assuring the gentle reader that every day is some saint’s day; many have had to double up.  No problem there.  Let’s just take a look at three who could use a little recognition in light of the ways they were martyred.

January 21  – Saint Agnes Day.

Horrible story.

At about twelve or thirteen, Christian Agnes was courted by patrician Romans who thought she was hot stuff.  Determined to remain pure and unsullied in her devotion to her faith, Agnes spurned some influential Roman aristos who complained to the local Prefect (magistrate) who, for her slighting of the guys, condemned her to be driven naked to a brothel where she was to be to ravaged.

Accounts vary, but one suggests that as she was about to be deflowered, her body became covered with thick fur, dissuading her tormentors from getting  physical.  Unable or unwilling to bend her to their will, infuriated, the slighted men of Rome attempted to burn her at the stake, but, you know how when you have people over and the coals just won’t catch and everybody’s waiting?  The fire went out, whereupon they took the simple expedient of stabbing her in the throat.  Saint Agnes is the patron saint of virgins.

March 7 – Saint Perpetua Day

Another Horrible Story.

The account of Saint Perpetua’s martyrdom is one of the oldest on record, ostensibly the diary of a young mother imprisoned in Carthage in the 3rd Century.  Refusing to abandon her faith, Perpetua and her baby were joined in prison by Felicity, a pregnant girl who also refused to give up her Christian faith.  Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women, so the jailer had to wait until Felicity had given birth to take Perpetua and Felicity to the gladiatorial arena where they were scourged (whipped until flesh fell from their bodies) then tossed in front of wild beasts.  Here’s where Saints Perpetua and Felicity deserve particular recognition.  The men executed in that arena faced bears, leopards, lions; Perpetua and Felicity were eaten by a rabid cow.  Seriously, a cow!  Saint Perpetua is the patron saint of widows and mothers of deceased sons; Saint Felicity is the patron saint of expectant mothers.

August 10 – Saint Lawrence Day

Who is the patron saint of cooks?  That would be Saint Lawrence, Lorenzo of Rome, who as librarian and archivist was believed by the Emperor Valerian to know where all the treasure of the early Church had been hidden.  Compelled to bring the Church’s treasures to the emperor, Lawrence arrived at the court with diseased, orphaned, and crippled Christians, declaring them to be the Church’s treasures.  Apparently Valerian had no sense of humor.  He ordered his minions to slowly roast Lawrence on a grill until he revealed the true location of the goods.  He is said to have responded to this torture by tossing off this line before he was completely toasted, “Turn me over.  I’m done on this side”.

While many saints have been recognized in paintings, sculptures, and music, the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is one of the few to influence a major work of architecture.  The extremely pious Philip II of Spain built San Lorenzo Escorial, a monastery, palace, college, and library in the shape of a grill.  August.  Grilling season?  Anyone?

There are many other worthy nominees such as Saint Hippolytus, torn apart by horses (patron saint of horses.  August 13), Saint Agatha, breasts cut off (patron saint of breast cancer patients.  February 5), and Saint Bartholomew, skinned alive (patron saint of tanners and plasterers.  September 11).

One of the most remarkable saints, Hildegarde of Bingen is celebrated on September 17.  She was a polymath, a writer, composer, natural scientist, and mystic.  She even created her own language, Lingua Ignota.  Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians.  Saint Cecilia’s Day is celebrated on November 22, marked by George Frideric Handel with the Ode to Saint Cecilia’s Day and by Benjamin Britten, who was born on Saint Cecilia’s Day, with the Hymn to Saint Cecilia based on a poem by W.H. Auden.

One of the most indelible of all Shakespeare’s speeches in that given by Henry V on the morning of October 25, Saint Crispin’s Day,  as his troops prepared to undertake the Battle of Agincourt:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Sailisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


Come on.  That has to be worth a parade or two!  I’ll be suiting up on October 25th.  Anyone who wants to join my band of brothers, we’ll assemble at dawn on the plaza in Ashland, Oregon.  Be there or count your manhoods cheap.






Bracketology, Mel Kiper, the Combine, and Franchise Tag

Bracketology, Mel Kiper, the Combine, and Franchise Tag

OK, I know sports broadcasting is challenging, that there are inevitably some dry spells.  It can’t be Super Bowl Sunday every day of the year,  race horses have their own schedules, and hockey can’t start until the ice is down, but … while the networks scramble to fill empty hours for weeks before the Super Bowl, for the entire week of the MLB All Star game, before the World Cup heats up, between majors in golf, after Wimbledon and before the US Open, I get it…sure, bring on celebrity badminton, gladiators, bowling, netball, whatever.

But, here we are in the last weeks of the regular collegiate basketball season, a great rivalry is catching fire as the Spurs threaten the dominance of the Warriors in the West and the Celtics and the Wizards are closing on Cavs in the East (yes, I said the Wizards), Connor McDavid is the greatest show on ice, Spring Training is underway, and, by the way, UConn’s Women’s basketball team has won 107 consecutive games … and once again I am held hostage by Mel Kiper, ESPN’s draft analyst, the NFL draft guru, who has never attended an NFL combine, Mel Kiper, whose face/head/hair defy description, Kiper, who makes ESPN’s John Clayton seem animated, Kiper whose only function, as far as I can tell, is to guess at the order in which players eligible to be drafted will be selected between April 27th and April 29th.  A month from now.

But Kiper is not alone.  Sports journalists have flocked to Indianapolis to watch athletes run, jump, lift, and throw.  In a not-entirely-stunning turn of events, the most highly touted athlete before the Scouting Combine has turned out to be the most impressive athlete at the combine.  Myles Garrett, defensive end recently a student at Texas A&M, six feet and five inches of leaping fury, presenting a forty inch vertical jump, an eleven foot STANDING broad jump, 270 pounds of raw power will, Kiper intones, be the first pick of the hapless Cleveland Browns.  Look, I’m happy to know that Garrett is impressive, and I’m sorry  the only good news for Cleveland Browns fans is that they get the first pick in the draft, but enough already.  When the NFL season actually begins, they will still be the Cleveland Browns, Garrett or no Garrett.  These are the Cleveland Browns who traded FOR Brock Osweiler (with a 16 million dollar guaranteed salary) in order to trade Osweiler to … somebody.  Recently signed receiver Kenny Britt puts the Brown’s quarterback situation this way, “Whoever is here is going to be here.”  Exactly, say goodnight, Mel Kiper, and let’s move on.

With the combine ending, sports chatter immediately shifted to the not-very-arcane pseudo-science, “bracketology”, an incessant accompaniment to every broadcast up to “Selection Sunday” when the teams participating in March Madness are revealed.  I’m as goofy about the NCAA basketball championship as the rest of the not-really-betting-but-I owe-Dave-five bucks-for-the-office-pool millions of late season college basketball fans, almost none of whom stayed up late enough to see Gonzaga, Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA stand out as legit final four prospects.  There are some interesting decisions that will be unveiled on Selection Sunday, decisions about venue and seeding, odd judgments that last year put Buffalo and Villanova in the South regional, Yale and Duke in the West, USC and Wyoming in the East, and Gonzaga and Fresno State in the Midwest.  Those are not the judgments I’ve been listening to for the last week.  Joe Lunardi, bracketologist extraordinaire, does do some interesting guesswork about seeding, but, for the most part, he and his ilk endlessly gum about the last four teams in and the last four teams out, a conversation that continues unabated through the conference championships, where anything can and occasionally does happen.

Just when I think the focus can once again turn to actual sporting contests, NFL Free Agency arrives, teams set aside an unsigned but truly valuable player with a franchise tag, and the chin-wagging begins in earnest.  Rookies don’t land at NFL training camps until the end of July.  July!  It’s the middle of March, and we’re not talking about Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics, we’re not planning the ritual dismemberment of Gary Bettman, the worst commissioner in professional sports again defending ice hockey in Arizona, we’re not watching HBO’s documentary on UConn’s women’s basketball dynasty.

OK, I admit I will watch the first round of the NFL draft, and I will tune in on Selection Sunday to see who is playing where in the NCAA basketball championship, and I will listen to  Trey Wingo as Free Agency kicks in, but grudgingly, because I have to, don’t I?

Then, when the talking heads (see Kiper picture above) are done, I’ll watch the Mariners play the Brewers in a Spring Training game that doesn’t count, spend three hours watching batters knock the dirt off their cleats, catchers peg the ball down to third after a strikeout, coaches hop out of the way of a screaming foul ball down the first base line, ball boys toss a ball to a kid in the front row, fans eating hot dogs.

Sounds good.  No, sounds great, and I won’t need “dogologists” to analyze the probablility of mustard squirting or “fanologists” convincing me that kids get a huge kick going home with a baseball.





Missed Opportunities

Missed Opportunities

Missed opportunities.  Hmmmm.  Where to begin?

I could walk to the shrine of Our Lady of Disappointment wherein the catalog of life-changing flub ups reside or skip to the Pillar of Indecision, finding there lashed the tens of thousands of chances missed.  Poor judgment, impulsive reaction, clumsy hesitation, fearful posturing – the faces of mangled opportunity are many and varied.

Some opportunities once missed are lost forever. Harsh words can’t be unsaid, can’t be unheard.  Betrayed trust leaves a permanent stain. Forgiveness withheld, apology withheld, amends withheld, love withheld – these have an expiration date.

Some missed opportunities are the roads not taken, the careers not chosen, the lives not led.  It was Archimedes who plonked down in a bathtub and noticed that his body displaced a quantity of water equal to the mass of his mass.  Apparently there were witnesses present at the event able to report that the dripping philosopher cried, “Eureka!” as he stumbled, naked, into posterity.  Choices we make displace other opportunities; having joined the circus, we don’t go to medical school.  In Economics, the phenomenon is termed “Opportunity Cost”, the cost of taking one action to the exclusion of another.  If, for example, I choose to watch a re-broadcast of the episode in which Mr. Ed, the talking horse, feels unloved and decides to become the first horse in space (“The Horsetronaut” first broadcast in October of 1961), I lose the opportunity in that half-hour to write deathless prose that might have inspired mankind and prevented world famine.

That may be an exaggeration, but you see my point.

The cost of missed opportunity need not be attached to mutually exclusive choices.  It is in this realm, that of opportunities not YET taken, that possibility flourishes.  I guess I’m thinking of sloshing some of that displaced bath water back into the tub.  Those neglected gifts, the aptitudes we have postponed developing, the interests we let lie fallow -they may have wilted a bit and need some tending, but doors we may have walked stiffly past might still be opened. Doors we have bolted in our personal relationships shut us in as much as they shut others out; how can we estimate the cost of apologies not offered or not accepted, thanks not given or not accepted?

There’s nothing original in observing that we may feel the deepest regret in the loss of a future that will not happen; shattered futures hang heavily upon us.  In some instances, however, we have opportunities to mend the future to some extent.  When in Casablanca Ilsa Lund walks into Rick’s cafe (“Everybody comes to Rick’s”), they have a chance to face the future they have lost.  Rick and Ilsa will move on to lives other than those they had imagined, but they are reconciled and healed.  They will always have Paris, and that is not merely good enough; it is simply good.

Since I’ve wallowed in cinematic schmaltz for a moment, I might as well trot out the next goopy reference.  The lesson taught in The Dead Poet’s Society was that we must seize the day, Carpe Diem, but the alternate truth is that days unseized go on and on in the course of a lifetime.  Let’s put Archimedes back in the tub and consider seizing the next day or the one that follows, “Postero Die”, looking back at opportunities not yet taken but still available.

In this relative universe, it’s never too late to be on time.



Sad but not unexpected news came in the mail today.  I was informed that there are no plans to present this year’s Reveille, my college’s yearbook, first published in 1855 and published every year since then.  Apparently, a printed record of one’s collegiate life is no longer needed or wanted.  My college is not alone; A few years ago, I tried to buy a yearbook for my son and daughter when they graduated from their alma maters, but none were published then either.

I will miss yearbooks; they have presented a sort of emotional and anthropological snapshot of particular sorts of institutions at particular points in history. Photos capture the prevailing fashions and attitudes, artless comments throughout the book reveal the language and cultural influences which prevailed among students about to enter the work world in that era. I own something like fifty yearbooks from schools and colleges I happened not to have attended.  Some have peripheral historical significance, such as the Princeton yearbook published in the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson graduated, but any whiff of significance is purely accidental.  I found that Princeton yearbook in a barn in Maine next to a set of instructional manuals on the operation of the McCormick Deering Grain Binder.  I passed on the manual, but paid top dollar (OK, actually three dollars) for the yearbook.

I started collecting yearbooks as a sophomore in high school.  For reasons that shall remain undisclosed, it often happened that I was held captive did detention in fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in my school’s library, an undistinguished library in most areas, but one that had amassed a significant collection of school and college yearbooks.  It never occurred to me to wonder why the Rollins College Tomokan, the Union College Garnet, or Babson College’s Babsonian came to rest in the bowels of a small school’s library, but rest there they did until my enforced solitude in the building’s basement compelled me to find some kind, any kind,  of diversion.  Later, in my college years, I again used what might have been time better spent in pursuit of study in my major field (which was not yearbooks) rather than combing through my college’s annuals and others that happened to wash up in the college’s archives.

I would go on to become a college counselor for much of my career, endlessly fascinated by the stories college students had to tell about themselves.  I’d like to think that I had some intuitive impulse to prepare for a vocation, but the truth is that for me there is a world of conjecture in any yearbook. The National Lampoon High School Yearbook remains a triumph of invention because, like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, it understood the complexities of adolescent idiocy, not merely the self-important posturing and posing, but the unguarded yearning as well.  The 1958 Tomokan was equally transparent, presenting the sisters of various sororities in charming vignettes, fraternity boys with similar affection, jamming the non-affiliated on a few pages of tiny photographs.  I’ve done my homework since seeing that Tomokan, finding in the 1951 Tomokan the senior portrait of Fred McFeely Rogers of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Mr. Rogers to the rest of us, the man who spoke at exactly 124 words per minute, the rate at which children best process language, who maintained his  weight at 143 pounds for most of his life because it takes 1 letter to say I, four to say love, and three to say you, the same Mr. Rogers, who transferred to Rollins in Florida from Dartmouth in New Hampshire, from what was then an all-male Ivy League winter playground to a small co-ed college in Florida best known for water skiing.

It’s often a lovely day in that neighborhood.

That’s what I mean.  There are stories within stories, and every yearbook sets the backdrop against which young people began the process of becoming themselves, or losing themselves, or hiding themselves. My  Princeton yearbook, the 1917 Bric-A-Brac, would have appeared just as the United States entered World War I.  Much is made of the annual musical comedy written and performed by students in the Triangle Club, and particular attention is drawn to the plot and lyrics written by Fitzgerald. “…both were out of the ordinary and well above the usual Triangle Club standard.”  From all accounts, Fitzgerald pretty much ignored the petty demands of schoolwork in order to write the show, flunked out of Princeton, and found himself in the army as the nation entered the war.

The 1917 edition of Pot Pourri, the annual published by Phillips Academy Andover, chronicled the disruption of school activities as members of the junior and senior classes trained for military service. Athletics were suspended as the boys marched with precision in order to prepare for trench warfare.  My copy of the 1940 edition of The Dial, yearbook of the Hill School, celebrates the career of young men about to leave the fun and frolic of school days for the hardship and danger of war.  My father-in-law’s photo in that yearbook presents the high school senior’s version of the wry smile I first saw when meeting him for the first time. Within the next three years, he would be flying in a B-24 over the oil fields of Romania, completing mission after mission until his plane was shot down.  He was held in a prisoner-of-war camp, escaping only to learn that his parents had been told he was missing and presumed dead.

I have college yearbooks from the post-war era, years in which G.I.s put away silver stars and purple hearts, changed from uniforms of the day to chinos, returned to the classrooms and the fraternities with the sound of war still in their ears.  Their portraits are more serious, more composed, and their ambitions more grounded.  Many lived in married housing; their children saw them graduate.

My own yearbooks document the cataclysmic upheaval of the 1960’s.  In the first half of the decade, there are few changes from the books published in the 1950’s.  Big events included football games, dances, Proms, fraternity and sorority rushes, hilarious fund-raisers in which men dressed as women, kissing booths, pie eating contests. Things started to change, very slowly;  in November of 1963, JFK was assassinated, and Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. led a March on Poverty, delivering  the “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, calling for an end to racism.  But my freshman year in college, 1964-1965, was the first in which first year students (frosh) did not have to wear the class “beanie” and survive the ritual dismemberment known as freshman-sophomore cane rush.  By the end of that year, a chapter of Students for A Democratic Society had been formed, protesting the annual “War Ball”, a dance hosted by the college’s students enrolled in the ROTC program.  The Free Speech Movement had already begun at Berkeley, and by the time I graduated, college campuses had become hotbeds of political activism, many going on strike in May of 1970, after Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State University.

The 1965 yearbook resembled the last forty yearbooks in substance and design.  Within two years, the yearbook had become a “yearbox”, a collection of highly stylized photographs which could be combined in any order.  And now, yearbooks have become, as they always intended to be, things of the past, too posed and too static in a digital age.  Even video yearbooks have begun to disappear as an ordinary phone can hold thousands of memories to be posted and re-posted at will.

I am of an age.  Each of us is.  But we follow those who have gone on before us.  I’ve spent a lifetime looking back at the histories of people I’ve never known.  I’ve made up stories about all of them, followed their imagined lives, mourned with them, celebrated with them.  Time wasted?  Perhaps  In a sense I’ve been able to live several lives, none of them with much impact, but with the conviction that no matter how fashion and language change, the path remains remarkably the same.




How I Love To Conversate

How I Love To Conversate

I find that chatting with people who live in the Rogue Valley or who have stopped by for a visit is by far best part of the volunteer work that I do; chatting comes easily as the shop benefiting Southern Oregon Hospice is splendid, the cause it serves is noble, and the likelihood of finding remarkable bargains almost guaranteed.  As a confirmed thrift shopper myself, I am delighted to ring up a half-price sale of a set of vintage golf clubs or a designer gown, to congratulate the buyer and to admire the purchase.  We are not what we buy, but there are affinities that emerge with the choices we make. I like hearing the stories people have to tell, and I find that asking a question or two seems to give folks permission to talk about where they have been and what they have found along the way.

I had expected that I’d meet a fair number of visitors in town for a short stay, catching performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I do, of course, so I ask about the plays they’ve seen, about their travels, about the routines they have established over years of bringing family and friends to the Festival.  I meet a number of people who have retired to Ashland, Medford, Talent, Phoenix, people starting a new chapter of their lives.  I ask about the homes they have left, about jobs they once held, about family here and family left behind.  I ask about the homes they have known and the home they are making.  Our shop receives donations of well-kept furniture, china, linen, silverware, glassware, gadgets for the kitchen, serving dishes – all the items necessary to stocking a new house or apartment, inexpensively priced and virtually new.  Folks new to the region find us, discover treasures, and return as they settle in and figure out exactly what needs to be added in order to make the new place a home.

Some customers stop in every week, admiring new displays, checking in.  They linger, listening to the music we play, considering clothes on the rack, taking them to the dressing rooms, setting some aside and putting some away.  I ask about trips they have taken, trips they have planned, about visits from their children, about appointments with doctors.  The songs I play remind them of times past, of people they once cared for.  Stories begun the week before return with greater detail and with added twists and turns.

I’ve learned three true things about conversation.  Almost everyone likes to be asked about themselves, people need enough space to let a real answer emerge, and the real answer is honored by asking the next authentic question.

Think about the questions you wish someone would ask you.  What parts of your story would you like to share?  How could someone give you permission to tell that story?

The questions I ask are obvious:  Where did you grow up?  What was that like?  Have you been back?  What has changed?  Do you have brothers?  Sisters?  Are you in touch with them?  How did you come to live where you have?  What were you looking for?   What do you do to treat yourself when you need a treat?  What do you like best about where you live? About the work you do/did?  Do you like to read?  What movies have you loved?

Don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not running an Inquisition from behind the counter; I don’t handcuff them to the register until they cough up a response.  I express an interest in having a conversation and enjoy those that do develop, but I don’t push or prod. It happens that I have a daughter with an uncommon gift for asking thoughtful questions.  I’ve learned a lot from her, especially in understanding that a really good question often has no easy answer; it may take fumbling to a first response, stopping to consider what I’ve said, reconsidering what I’ve said, clarifying what I’ve said, moving more boldly into the wider range of responses, and finally landing on something like a measured response to what might have seemed a simple question.

That process takes some time, and I have to trust that the person who raised the question actually wants my most complete answer.  If I were asked to name my favorite book, for example, I’d probably blurt out something like King Ottokar’s Sceptre (the 8th adventure in the chronicles of Tintin, Belgian boy-detective) almost immediately regret having exposed myself as an arrested juvenile, flop around a bit, recall that I was so absorbed in the novel that I ran a fever while reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but have read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine at least seven times, enjoying the book more with each reading, but then,  I read Heidi Julavits’ Uses of Enchantment in one shot, couldn’t put it down, yet, reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian may have been the most emotionally draining reading experience in a long line of emotionally draining reading experiences.  I read Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey every year and quote from it at the drop of a hat.  Does that count?

So, I guess, Love Medicine.

No, maybe Hamlet

And, really, who wants to wait around while I work all of that out?  The best news is that it doesn’t matter.  If I trust the person asking the question, I have the opportunity to think seriously about how I feed my mind and imagination, and it is the person asking the question who has given me that gift.  I’ll share what I can along the way, and that clumsy process can bring along something like a conversation if I allow room for another question or a comment and if I trust that I’m speaking with someone who actually wants to know what I think.

In the end it comes down to this – I ask questions because I do want to know what goes on in minds other than my own; I want to know what the human experience is for humans other than myself.  In asking, I’m hoping the person buying the ceramic parrot will trust me enough to believe that I want to know where she intends to put the four-foot tall bird.  Who knows where a conversation about that decision might end up?

Wait, maybe Carry on Jeeves?









Unclear on the Concept

Unclear on the Concept

I’m not always sure memory is my friend.

More often than I’d like to admit, a memory sponge lets loose and things I had hoped never to think of again come seeping across my forebrain (not an actual organ) slapping me with long-buried anxiety and shame forcefully enough that I am virtually living the grotesque moment yet again.   In almost every instance, these dreg-fests remind me of miscalculations, awkward misunderstandings, cues missed, localized idiocy.

I would like to assume that opportunities for misunderstanding abound and that any of us can, at any moment, lack a clear idea of what is being said to us, asked of us, in store for us, likely to affect us.  I’m not talking rocket science here; I don’t expect to understand anything about the Hohmann transfer orbit, for example.  No, I’m suggesting that very simple initiatives can be confounding, if we are unclear on the concept.

What kid has not put up a sign, grabbed a few cans of lemonade from the freezer, found a crayon, and set up a roadside stand pitching cold drinks to passing neighbors?  It seemed like a great idea to me, although I faced several impediments unique to my situation.  I had neither lemons not lemonade and had no neighbors or neighborhood. On the other hand, I had a skill I hoped would stop traffic.

I pitched my sign on the side of the highway near a gravel turn-out.

Dissections 50 Cents

This where the lack of clarity on the concept came in.

I’d better start by assuring readers that I loved animals, would never knowingly harm an animal, did not set fires, did not hear voices that were only inside my head, had actual friends that were not provided by a taxidermist.  I was a normal child in most aspects, a little dreamy maybe, gullible, easy to tease, but not unkind, certainly not cruel.

But, unlike the rest of my seventh grade classmates, I was fascinated with physiological systems and was very good at dissection.  Our set of encyclopedias had beautifully detailed overlays, colorful diagrams that revealed the organs and skeleton of fish and mammals.  I’d pored over those for years, so when the biology teacher dragged out the specimens soaked in formaldehyde, I could not wait to see if how real fish and frogs were put together.

It turns out that they are beautifully designed, miraculously designed.  Ordinarily distracted and obtuse during instruction, I listened carefully as the teacher explained the procedure, hoping to avoid the sorts of mistakes seventh graders had been known to make.  My penmanship was dreadful, but I had developed a steady hand while assembling model cars and in wiring the Progressive Radio Edu-Kit.  I worked carefully and slowly on the frog I had been given, making sure that every incision was clean and precise, staying after class to make sure that every organ and system had been properly identified.

My diagram was beautiful.

I saved it and the next two, and, although the specimens did dry out and did shrink a bit, when covered with plastic wrap, they looked very scientific.  I assumed anyone with a scientific turn of mind would celebrate my achievement and probably want to buy one of the three signed diagrams I had ready for sale.  I may have been wrong.

I did set up my dissection stand and stood watching traffic go by for a considerable period of time before a car stopped, and a woman with two children pulled over.  I can only guess at what she thought she was about to buy out of the kindness of her heart.  She stopped short when she was close enough to read the sign advertising my craftsmanship, threw her hands out flat as of to protect her children from a collision, turned and walked away.

In that moment I understood that my understanding of the human condition was incomplete.  I was mortified, embarrassed by my own idiocy, and filled with remorse that frogs once alive had become my shabby specimens.  I got through the rest of the year in Biology, but whatever impulse I had once felt toward further work in the sciences had been removed entirely.

In the course of a bumpy lifetime I have made more consequential misjudgments, certainly injured more people, and probably damaged the universe more profoundly, but I recognize in this stunning folly just how disconnected my sensibilities were from those of humans properly considered “normal”.  The only dissection I allowed myself from that time on was the bloodless dissection of sentences.  I still marvel at the intricacy with which life begins and is maintained, but there’s no need for me to take it apart.

I pull over when I see a lemonade stand, a brownie or cupcake stand.  I’ll buy whatever they’re selling, maybe a few extra, hand them more than I owe and tell them to keep the change.  Their product may not always be entirely edible, but at least they are clear on the concept.