The First Two Hundred Are the Hardest

The First Two Hundred Are the Hardest

Needing discipline and a sense of purpose, I determined that I would write a thousand words a day in this eerily comfy phase of retirement.  The Cogitator was born of that resolution when the several thousands of words I had written and sent out to newspapers and magazines were returned to me with varying degrees of encouragement.  By encouragement I mean not told to cease and desist.


Here I am almost two years later having posted two hundred articles, all of which continue to amuse me, demonstrating a confirmed absence of critical discrimination.  In an attempt to acknowledge the sheer volume of inefficacious cogitation, and admitting that a little quality control might be a good thing, I present representative passages,  reasonably random, excerpted from the first four months.  All two hundred articles are listed by month below the list of recently published articles should you wish to see what happened next.

September 22, 2016 – Not Ready to Say Goodnight

… As a pup and as a young dog, Jinx was, well, needy.  She came by it honestly; her mother was a relentless love hound.  Whereas our lumpy blue merle simply lays his wide head on my knee and looks up imploringly, Jinx is a nudger.  She’ll butt my hand until I relent, no matter what I happen to be doing or carrying.

She does that a little less these days, though she does love to have her snout rubbed gently.

She sleeps hard.  At night she’s up on the bed, although she needs help in getting on board; it’s hard on her when she has to get down in the middle of the night and can’t pull herself back up.  During the day, she finds a patch of sun, often on the porch outside the den.  The door to the kitchen is around the corner, and the other dogs find their way there quickly when called.  Jinx doesn’t hear us, or she’s too deeply asleep.  She rouses when we step outside, yell around the corner, and clap loudly.

I’m happier when I can see Jinx.  On the few occasions when she has wandered off into the pasture or the orchard without the rest of the gang, I’ve had to go looking when the yelling and clapping has failed.  I don’t realize I’ve been holding my breath until I find her lying near the pear trees.

I’m not ready; it all comes down to that.  I still grieve the dogs we’ve lost, each one with a particular pain.  Some of them slowed, weakened, lingered, and gave out.  One died in my daughter’s arm; one died in mine.  Two died too soon.

I know that my thread is as likely to fray as Jinx’s, and we each have whatever days we have.  I find as many ways as I can to honor her each day and try to slow myself down as I rub the velvet fur above her eyebrows.  She closes her eyes and takes a long slow breath.  So do I. I say goodnight and stroke her head slowly as I leave her.

Please, not tonight.

September 23, 2016 – Pears

… The last of the really good pears dropped last night.

Over the last few weeks I have gone into the orchard early each morning with the dogs; the idea was that they could romp, fetch, and do canine stuff, while I gathered the morning’s shakedown.  My mistake was in thinking pears would be of little interest to large healthy border collies.  They have discovered , however, that these pears are more than satisfactory as a morning snack.

I’m a quick study; I worked out a set of distractions to keep them at bay while I scoop up the best, leaving the bruised ones on the ground for enterprising hounds.  I head out with my collecting bag in one hand and their favorite toy in the other.  The two youngest have lots of competitive energy and race away when I toss the thing as far as I can.  The oldest dog lumbers behind, unlikely to win the chase unless the two bouncier dog knock the thing sideways, into her paws.  Our most ambitious eater gives me a grudging step or two then turns to snuffling up the fattest pear under the tree.

I’ve been able to cram as many as twenty pears into the bag before all four dogs assemble back at the tree.  The greenest of the large pears will go in the fridge; I’ll split a few of the overly ripe ones with the eager quartet and take the rest to town where I’ll meet with a group of friends.  I can’t give away zucchini or squash, but the pears are welcomed.  One wag likes to say I’ve come pre-peared or re-peared; brevity may be the soul of wit, but even brevity doesn’t offer much comfort after a week or so of that.

Our pears are Williams pears, also known as Bartlett pears.  I won’t go into the details of the story by which Enoch Bartlett named the variety after himself, even though he had harvested pears brought from England, known there as Williams Good Christian pears. The description of the Williams pear on the USA Pears website will suffice in allowing the reader to recognize the variety in any display:

“The pear exhibits a pyriform “pear shape,” with a rounded bell on the bottom half of the fruit, and then a definite shoulder with a smaller neck or stem end.  Williams are aromatic pears, and have what many consider the definitive “pear flavor”.”

Well and good, but what cannot be completely described is the difference between the pears found on a shelf, or, to be completely frank, in a cardboard box, and the pears I swipe from the dogs in the morning.  OK, they aren’t as symmetrically perfect as the commercial versions, and they are often a bit scarred from falling on the packed mulch.  Some are smaller, and some are huge; most are yellow, but a few fall green.

I haven’t taken any from the fridge yet; we have had a steady supply of new pears throughout the week.  I have four yellow pears on the window sill.  Actually three, as I am eating one now in order to bring the experience more clearly to mind.  I start with the neck, near the stem, often the most crisp area of the pear.  The perfect pear delivers a crunch in the first bite, then increasing sweetness and juice as the consumer gets close to the core.  Whereas I am not fond of the skin of the Royal Riviera, I much prefer eating our pears by hand, rarely slicing the skin away.  There is no rough or particulate aspect to the skin; it fuses with the flesh without bringing attention to itself.

Today is the first day of autumn, and most of the Riviera and Anjou pears have been harvested in the commercial orchards that surround us; the Bosc are still on the trees for a few more days.  We know the harvest is near when large crates are stacked at the edge of the orchards and twelve-foot ladders lean against the trees.

On the other hand, once you have pulled yellow Williams from the tree, the world never looks quite the same.  That is certainly true for our youngest dog, also the tallest.  I found him on his hind legs, yanking a beauty from the tree all by himself.  His taste is excellent; I had been waiting a week for that pear to ripen.

October 9, 2016 – Boom

… I am one of the seventy-six million babies born in the United States between 1946 and 1964, a Baby Boomer, the generation once called the pig in the python, the bulge in the snake, not the first generation to be tagged as a generation, as the “Lost Generation” and the “Silent Generation” preceded us, but perhaps the first generation to be aware of ourselves as a generation.  It was relatively late in our generational journey that our parents’ generation, the “Greatest Generation” received their due, when Tom Brokaw wrote of them as the generation that fought, not for fame or recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.  I’m fairly certain that my parents did not consider themselves part of a great generation, the greatest generation.  From what I could gather, both the Depression and the war were hellish, and they did what they did because there were no alternatives to hanging on, making do, and living in a constant state of flux.  They shared the circumstances of their time, but in truth they were as poorly described by generational characteristics as were to be.

One Great Generation, one Lost, one Silent, and one … what?  A boom?  A bulge?

To be candid, we are also the “Me Generation”, privileged as other generations had not been, raised in post-war affluence with a sense of our generational superiority to the sleepy repressed stiffs littering the world and workplace, keenly aware of ourselves as the new generation.  Thus, the “generation gap” emerging at the end of the 1960’s as we believed ourselves the champions of social awareness and humanitarian progress battling the useless vestiges of antiquated, social conventions and convictions.

We watched Howdy Doody,  wore coonskin hats, listened to The Witch Doctor, watched The Mickey Mouse Club. bought hula hoops, watched Leave It To Beaver, ate sugary cereal, watched Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, ate TV dinners,, listened to Chubby Checker, watched The Flintstones, went to high school, waited to see if the Cuban Missile Crisis meant nuclear war, fooled around, watched American Bandstand, saw JFK die in Dallas, ate pop tarts, stole copies of Playboy, watched The Man From Uncle, listened to the Beatles, experimented with drugs, registered for the draft, marched and protested, watched Laugh-In, went to Canada, went to Viet Nam,   saw King and Kennedy die, went to Woodstock, saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, watched The Mod Squad, wore bell bottoms, listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, put flowers in our hair, listened to the Doors, became hippies or yuppies or Republicans or Democrats, got jobs, watched MASH, got married, had kids, got promoted, watched Charlie’s Angels, went to roller disco, lost jobs, watched Magnum P.I., got divorced,  watched the Cosby Show, got fat, lost hair, got old.

Looking back, we had a moment, somewhere between Watts and Detroit and Newark and Nixon’s resignation, when we might have made a difference.  For all of our pride in our highly evolved sensibilities and sensitivities, we became a lost generation ourselves,  a hedonistic, self-serving bulge, taking up space, distracted by pleasure.

We became the generation that did not recognize itself.  What happened, we wonder?  Weren’t we the generation that would change the world?

Look around.  I’m afraid we did.

We believed in progress, that every subsequent age would continue to flourish as ours had done, but we did not hold the opportunities given to us in trust for those who came next.  We liked the idea of an increasingly comfortable world so much that we wallowed in it without securing the future.  We knew the environment was fragile.  We knew natural resources were limited.  We knew that cities built in the desert would need water.  We knew garbage had to end up somewhere.  We knew people lived in poverty and violence.  We knew the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  We knew we were distracting ourselves with mindless pleasures.  We knew that schools had become warehouses.  We knew that children went to bed hungry.

We made a lot of noise in the 1960’s, but what remains?  John Steinbeck wrote of the dignity shown by hard-working people of good will; the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the silence of the Silent Generation with words that took us to the mountain.  Where is our voice now?  We once heard Dylan, but now, perhaps hear Stephen King spinning dark tales of fun house world and stalking killer clowns.

We are perched now on a thin branch at the top of a tall tree.  The eldest of us are now seniors, seventy years old, retired, hoping that in these “golden” days, seventy-five is the new fifty.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t, but life isn’t over yet for many of us.  Maybe there’s time enough to circle back and put a few things right, plant a few trees to provide shade for children we will never know.  We’re outnumbered now, finally; Millennial are the current bulge, and our python is looking flatter with every passing year.

I’d sure like to see us go out as the next generation that did what we could, even at the end, because it was the right thing to do.


September 29, 2016 – Blackberries – Caught in a Bad Romance

… Oregon summers are hot, so I wore shorts to a picnic last week, thinking nothing of the marred flesh I exposed.  My host pointed to a leg asking what I had done to myself, fearing, I think, that self-mutilation had accompanied me into retirement.  Not understanding his concern, I shrugged uncertainly.  He pointed and said, “Looks like you got trapped with a bobcat in a phone booth.”

Close enough.

Blackberry vines grow overnight, while we sleep, curling and coiling, shooting green runners from otherwise innocent trees and shrubs, pushing their way into spaces I had thought unassailable.  Left unwatched, they join other tendrils, forming walls of thorn.  I had thought the forest of thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty was simply fairy tale exaggeration; not so.  If Beauty (that can’t be her name, can it?) stretched out anywhere on this property, she would be thorned in by sunset.

Yeah.  It’s impressive.

Ah, but it’s also testimony to the fact that we DO raise a crop here on this farm.  Yep, I manage acres of blackberry incursion on a daily basis.  Not farm enough for you?  Listen, Cows are milked twice a day.  Twice a day?  Hah!  I’m out there hours at a time, cutting back pulsing waves of blackberry vines. Why don’t I just plant them where I want them, you ask.  They plant themselves, and their roots descend to the what the agronomists at Oregon State (Go, Beavers!) call the layer below the rigid lithosphere, a zone of asphalt-like consistency called the Asthenosphere.

Asphalt like, and they sink in their botanical fangs so deep that mortal efforts cannot uproot them.

But, and this is the essential point, the blackberries themselves are delicious, decidedly more delicious than berries ordinary folks find at even the most rigorously fresh of fresh fruit stands.  We don’t have them for long; when we water the cultivated bushes in a warm summer such as the last few, we can expect the first really tasty berries to emerge in the final weeks of July.  By the end of August, we’re making do with berries that are less full and less sweet.

August 7, 2016 – Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt, Colin Firth, and the Revival of British Literature

… Moving from cool, almost caddish disdain to absolute devotion, Firth’s Darcy reached the pinnacle of fan frenzy in episode IV, in a scene not in the novel.  Darcy has literally jumped into a lake on his estate in order to cool his turbulent emotions with regard to Elizabeth Bennet, climbing out of the water only to find Elizabeth walking the estate’s grounds and approaching the lake.  Darcy is shaken and embarrassed, in a state of undress, charmingly awkward.  Many viewers, however, were impressed with Firth’s manly form in what a survey of British critics called, “the most memorable moment in British television history.” I will venture to say that there was considerably more buzz about “the shirt” than about Austen’s use of irony in Pride and Prejudice.

The final episode of the BBC series claimed 40% of the viewing public, and the first run of the double-video set sold out within the first two hours of its release.  The shirt was later placed on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. as part of an exhibition entitled, “Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity”.

I’m going to go out on a limb here; I credit Colin Firth with reanimating interest in Pride and Prejudice, the Austen novels, and English literature as a whole.

Too much?  I think not.

September 24, 2016 – Can’t Every Day be Halloween?

… Just because I have an inflatable vampire stored in the garage, just because the vampire is an Inflatable Tigger with fangs and a cape, just because it’s awesome, no need to drag it out this year.  We’re well off the beaten path; anyone who shows up in a mask on Halloween will end up doing ten-to-life in Folsom.  Passing cars can’t even see the house, much less the inflated Tiger.

Yeah.  So.  Tigger in a box.  Just sitting there, month after month.

It’s not just that he’s Tigger; he’s got a goofy not-very-menacing grin and a roguishly insouciant tousled cape.  And fangs. He’s inflated, but not heavy, so he wobbles in the best of circumstances and tips sideways when the wind blows, which actually makes him slightly disturbing, as he appears to be skulking, as much as anything large black and orange can skulk.

My wife is a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, to borrow a phrase from Salinger, possessing the quality I both admire and see as a necessary corrective to my own decidedly non-level decision-making.  She’s not wrong, (my daughter reminds me that’s not the same as saying she’s right) in thinking a tiger on the porch is unseemly in this country setting.  She’s also a breathtakingly compassionate girl, recognizing that I don’t handle the empty nest all that well around holidays, pretty much closing her eyes and ignoring the bobbing inflatable unless it bobs into her path, at which point she swats it aside without rancor.

Compromise is good, and I’m able to contain myself until the middle of October; that’s thoroughly reasonable.  On October 15, however, sunrise will reveal a tiger, once bitten, holding down the porch until all contending spirits have been laid to rest.


August 2019 Sangfroid, Schadenfreude, and Double Entendre

… As a reader of mannered British mysteries, many of which involve bright young men just down from Oxford, most of whom could not dress themselves without the assistant of a valet, I encountered a phrase that seemed to indicate an unwillingness to engage, or an inability to enter into a fray, or something.  Inexplicable but happily, the phrase turned up in a novel by Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling.

“With the alarm hors de combat, I turned my attention to the thick oak door, an hors of a different color.”

So, terrible pun aside, hors de combat is not simply broken or unavailable, but “out of the fight” with a suggestion that there is no question of cowardice or unwillingness on the part of the non-combatant. Unfortunately it also brings to mind – “Do you like Kipling?”  “I don’t know.  I’ve never Kippled.”

July 2, 2016 – Zen and the Art of Shaving

As a lad, I was taken with Burma Shave’s  tortured rhymes placed on billboards across the nation.  Actually, the doggerel verses were placed on small boards separated by some distance, so that the auto approaching them read the first line, then the second, then the third, and had to wait a bit for the fourth.

Shaving brushes

You’ll soon see ’em

On the shelf

In some Museum

Had to admire the wit and waggery, so used Burma Shave until I became environmentally awake, then scraped away with whatever soapy substance I could find at the local pharmacy…

I stumbled across the line of shaving creams produced by Taylor of Old Bond Street.  Jeremiah Taylor founded the company in 1854, during the reign of Queen Victoria, determined to reflect British understated style and  elegance. I took the plunge, ordering the Eton College Collection Gentleman’s Shaving Cream Bowl, first produced when Taylor of Bond Street became the official barber of Eton College.  The description of the substance was simply irresistible.

“A beautiful masculine fragrance with dominant citrus lemon notes combined with fruity citrus notes of orange and mandarin. All this is blended with gentle floral notes that rest on a base of warm patchouli. Contains Lemon oil and Patchouli oil.”

All true and the smoothest shave I had ever experienced, but was I satisfied?  No, not by a whisker!  A shaving cream this delicious demanded a far better brush than the hand-me-down I had found at the bottom of a bureau drawer.  Over the years, I found I preferred the Infinity Silvertex Shaving Brush by Kent.  Badgers breathe more easily as this is a synthetic bristle brush, which dries more handsomely than the badger brush, but I have learned that every face and every shaver is different.

Brush in place, Eton College cream almost done, I took a leap of faith and tried the rest of the Taylor line.  Again, each cream has a personality and each sends the shaver into the day with a different sort of embrace.  Eton College Cream is the heart of my shaving routine; I order it as the first in my rotation of three, substituting a few other favorites in turn.

July 23, 2016 – I’m In Here Somewhere … I think

… The who in question is the person lying awake, quaking in the hour of the wolf, remembering the shock that arrived when first gazing up at the stars, lazily mind-swimming in the view until, uninvited, the thought nudges the rim of consciousness –

These stars aren’t actually where I see them but off somewhere else, dancing in some other formation that someone else will see after I’m long gone.  This big picture makes my brain hurt. These stars will outlive me, but someday they’ll burn out and fizzle like fireworks in a fish pond.

Or something roughly like that.  And that set of brutal truths then bumps up against whatever psyche melting speculation has most recently playing at the Hometown Cinema 12, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Abre los Ojos, any of the films or shows that seem to suggest that all we know exists only in our individual brain pan, and the entire structure of all that is (or isn’t) may be a subjective fiction.  I don’t know why the thought that I am dreaming myself, that my life is a lucid/fog-bound dream should be more terrifying than realizing that Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons, or that the polar cap is now covered with tiki bars.

Well, it may pack a punch because it throws this whole “self” thing into question, shutting down just about the only set of certainties we thought we could count on.  How do we make our way through the day if we are uncertain that the day actually exists?

Let’s just put that inconvenient doubt aside for a bit because we still have to contend with how, and again, I’m less concerned with the how of Jupiter’s birth and more concerned with the how of sentience. How does it happen that we are aware of our own subjective experience?  I’m not asking why us (me) or why does sentience operate as part of our human experience; I’m asking how the complex electrochemical neurological spasms and spurts have anything to do with mentation.  I’m ok with all the mapping and prodding (talk about probes!) brain research has done in the last twenty years, the genetic signals and the trace minerals, but we’re still left not knowing what a thought is, where it originates, or why we know it as our own.  We can track down the flawed systems of sensation, processing, and expression when they break (phantom limbs, etc), but, like life itself, mentation is currently only indirectly observable.  Flashes of light and color indicate brain activity, pathways glow, lobes glow, proteins glow, but we can’t identify the how of any specific thought.

So, why?  Why has the universe bumping along on whatever spiral it has ahead included awareness of self?   Problem solving makes sense.  Kinesthetic awareness makes sense.  goose-flesh and body hair make sense.  Not sure what evolutionary advantage resides in intimations of mortality or (perhaps) intimations of reality.  It’s pretty clear that a bunch of life forms can learn to distinguish between the left turn and food and the right turn and a blast from the experimenter’s taser.  At that level, probably not even mentation.  I’m pretty sure planeria don ‘t think, even though they can be conditioned.  Biologists call their behavior “directional bias”, and I’m likely to keep that tag at the ready whenever my choices about anything are questioned.  Why do I prefer Michigan football to Alabama football?  Directional bias.

I’m perfectly comfortable lounging in the hypothetical, but real thinkers want more rigorous standards, so I’ll ask the question:  If the only purpose of sentience is primal (You exist as a person separate from all other life forms.  Tigers are a life force that would eat you as an appetizer.  Good idea to avoid tigers.), I can’t imagine (mentation  201) why we would spend the amount of time that we do in  our heads, as it were.  To take the issue one step farther, what’s the point of brain activity that often provokes those locked in self-awareness to do everything in their power to shut down the transmitter?  Drink, drug, exercise, gamble, shop until somehow the noise inside the head quiets; otherwise unchained humans experience incessant thought about self as being trapped in a kind of cacophonous pinball machine.

How did I get from the trip to Jupiter to unrelenting brain static?  I guess I wondered why a trip of more than 500 million miles is an easier trip than an idle visit to a fairly obvious human question.  Who, How, Why am I?

I’m inclined to exercise my directional bias toward mystery.  It may turn out that it is better not to know how we know, you know?

July 26, 2017 – Icharo

… I explained to my son that Ichiro was out of position, that he’d have no chance for balls hit just beyond the infield and would have a tough time trying to get off a satisfactory throw to any base but second.  As I spoke,  the leadoff batter for the Angels cracked a line drive over second base.  Ichiro somehow got to the ball on the first hop and rifled a throw to first in time to nail the runner.  I had seen Roberto Clemente’s arm on television, but I had never seen a throw such as that in person.  A frozen rope.

A few words about Ichiro as a hitter.  Everything about his stance and batting ritual is distinctive.  Most fans are aware of his stretching and squatting before he steps into the box; he takes sweeping practice swings as he steps in and then out of the batter’s box.  As he assumes his stance in the box, he twirls the bat in a giant arc, stopping the bat at the top of its second circle, tugging at his sleeve as his bat is effectively pointing at the pitcher. … And yet, what sets Ichiro apart in my mind is the ethos with which he approaches the game.  It’s hard to remember just how spectacular Ichiro was in that first season; 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, batting average of .350, Gold Glove, and the best arm in the game.  He was given the number 51 by the Mariners, and on learning that the number had belonged to Randy Johnson, a player Ichiro respected greatly, the rookie wrote a note to Johnson promising not to “bring shame” to the uniform.  Ichiro’s fielding was so effective that his corner of Safeco Field was called “Area 51”.  No shame in that.

Before facing the Red Sox’ s Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro famously announced, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul.  I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.”  I think I knew he was an uncommon ballplayer when he refused to give the press the name of his pet dog, explaining that he didn’t have the dog’s permission to make the name public.


Just A Mild Case Of Gephyrophobia

Just A Mild Case Of Gephyrophobia

I had the dream again last night.

I’m in a car, a convertible, driving at high speed.  Where I am or where I am going is not important.  What is important is that I hit a ramp and start to climb.  I’m on bridge over water.  The pitch of this bridge is unspeakably steep.  It seems I am climbing straight up to a point at which the bridge disappears.  I will sail out and out and down.

I always wake at that point, gasping and choking.  Sailing from the end of the bridge is terrifying, but so too is the compulsion to yank the car to the left or right, bust through the puny guard rails, and send myself into the void before I reach the horizon.

I’m not fond of this dream, but it’s one from which I can awaken.  The actual driving over a bridge is a waking nightmare for me.  I do it, when I can find no other way to negotiate a trip, but the various stages of panic make the ordeal disquieting.  In the early stages I can see the sweep, the arc, of the bridge, and if I forget to look down, I can see the river or train tracks or highway below.  The setting is relatively unimportant, although bridges over wide spans of water tend to rise more precipitously and stretch for a longer distance than the relatively compact highway overpass.  I have to pull my vision back to the middle of the bridge.  As I gain height, I concentrate in seeing only a thin strip of roadway in front of me.  If I’m in the outside lane, I feel an obligation to slew into and over the guard rail; if I’m in the inner lane, there’s something seductive about the stream of oncoming traffic.

It never occurs to me to swerve into the oncoming lane in any other circumstance; I’m perfectly content to keep to my own space.  Perhaps other gephyrophobes have better language to describe what I experience as claustrophobia at high speed; it’s as if I am smothered by fear and can only break away by breaking away.  Sounds bad, you say, and I agree, but then traffic comes to a halt, and I am trapped mid-bridge, now compelled to look about me to assess the relative impact of my fall, stuck with thousands of pounds of automobiles on cantilevered concrete intended to bear the weight of far fewer standing cars.

“What?  Are you afraid of being blown off the bridge by a gust of wind?”  Yes.  “Are you afraid the bridge might collapse?” Duh. Of course I’m afraid of both those situations.  Who wouldn’t be?  Ask any number of intrepid bridge drivers, “How would you feel if this bridge collapsed?”  I doubt that many shrug and say, “Hey, it happens.”

Gephhyrophobia is described is an anxiety disorder, which is like saying that cannibalism is an eating disorder.  Anxiety is a cold chill down the spine; panic is all the air sucked out of the universe.  It’s not just bridges, although bridges always bring panic; I can feel the same powerful waves of fear on a boat in the middle of an expanse of water or looking out of the window in a tall building.  Doesn’t have to be that tall, actually.

What seems clear is that I am the living embodiment of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s oft repeated axiom, “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” which may or not be true for those facing real and immediate danger but is absolutely true for me in the midst of situations that are not threatening for most people.  I am overwhelmed with the fear that fear will prompt me to do the unthinkable, veer off the bridge, step off the building, jump into the ocean.

I don’t want to do any of these things; I don’t think about them until I am on a bridge, or near a window on the 50th floor, or looking at the horizon on a boat.  I absolutely understand a phobic response to sharp knives; I’m not afraid that I’ll stab myself, but I would get it if someone described their panic as they thought of doing just that.

Let’s get off the ledge for a minute and take a look at this fear of fear.  In my case, watching a movie in which a driver races across a long bridge is enough to make me swallow hard.  I’m ok, unless the director leaves the car and driver at the top of a swaying bridge, plugging in long shots from the bridge to water far, far below.  I’m suggestible and easily emotionally manipulated, but the bridge thing is more intense than the trapped in a submarine or diving airplane sequence, either of which should be about as nasty as conditions could be.

Suggestibility is another way of saying that I become fearful in the absence of an appropriately fearful stimulus; I’m afraid before I have reason to be afraid.  I’m suggesting a larger societal implication here, but the point to be made in advance of wider hypothesis is that my fear is not mitigated by reason or comforted by experience; I can’t be reassured out of panic.

To finish up with the bridge as metaphor, a nation may not be able to escape from undue anxiety until our feet are on the ground; there’s not much to talk about as we race out of control  trying to outrun fear.

Meanwhile, I’ve found a way to get to my destination without crossing a bridge.  It adds a half hour to the trip, but I’ll arrive chipper and unscarred, certainly worth a few extra minutes of back road navigation.  On my next holiday, will I be driving the hairpin four mile Megler Bridge from Astoria to Point Ellice, or the twenty-four mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, even though that bridge is not terribly high, or the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is two hundred feet above the water for more than four miles?

Sorry, can’t breathe.  Must stop.








Almost Book Friends

Almost Book Friends

“Mind if I sit here”

Two things strike me simultaneously:  We’re in a busy airport, flights have been delayed by snow and ice, few seats are open, and I can’t remember the last time anyone was courteous enough to ask.  And, in that same instant, I detect an accent, mildly central European, perhaps Israeli.  This could get complicated.

As he sits, my seat neighbor points to my shoes and asks, “You a runner?”  I’m not and explain that I’m not, without going into an explanation of my personal shopping creed, a set of convictions so rigid that I often buy and wear shoes and clothing somewhat at odds with my true persona.  Cheap but serviceable, in other words.  As I write, it strikes me that may, in fact, be my true persona, but to return to the moment at hand.

He’s brought his shoes, he says, but isn’t sure he’ll have time to run as he is heading to Medford for an intensive training seminar involving plastics and coatings.  I’m not sure that any sentence could have more surely prompted me to trot out some elaborate shuffling with the book I had been reading, but this guy is not to be shuffled off.

“I was in San Diego once, when my son finished boot camp, but this is the Northwest, huh?”

I nod and ask the question that had to be asked.

Newark, New Jersey,  he says, not a pretty place to live, he says, but affordable.  His son now lives in Arizona.  Yuma.  He and his wife might visit again, but not in the summer.

I agree that Yuma, Arizona in the summer would be hot, hellacious actually, but I keep that assessment to myself.   He points to my book and asks what I’m reading.  Ordinarily I would have been trying to mute my discomfort in flying by reading a fairly grisly potboiling tough guy police procedural, but I’d finally started George Saunders’ first novel and had found it irresistible.  Most casual conversations die quickly when literary fiction arrives as a topic, but not this time.

“I was a terrible student.  I don’t think we read anything, really, maybe some short stories.”  I might have nodded again and slumped back  into ostentatious reading, but it turns out that I am fascinated by what people read in school.  I confessed that I had been a teacher and asked him if he could recall any particular stories or collection, scanning my own memory of what might have been on the list in the late 1960’s , when I figured he might have been a high school freshman.  Maybe, “Paul’s Case” I thought, or a Steinbeck short story.

The names came quickly.  “Leiningen vs the ants”, “The Most Dangerous Game” He paused, then shrugged.  “I don’t remember the others.””

I do.  These were among the dozen stories contained in a remarkable collection, Great Tales of Action and Adventure, edited by George Bennett

Two copies of Great Tales of Action and Adventure are in my bookcase.  I bought both as used books from Powell’s.  I, too, read the stories in the ninth grade and can recall each in sharp detail.  Saki’s “The Interlopers”, still as unsettling as an extremely compact account of unexpected death at the paws of wild wolves could be.  I had been knocked out by Saki (H.H. Munro) and particularly taken with “Sredni Vashtar” and “The Open Window”, two stories with subtly surprising endings, a fondness for which unfortunately  crept into my own writing for the next decade, except for the subtle part.  “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Poe, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” by Conan Doyle, ” “August Heat” by W.F. Harvey.  That one was a corker.  It’s not exactly a ghost story, but I found it again in a DC comic, Secrets of Sinister House.

This guy read twelve of my favorite stories!

I have three or four “book friends”.  I’ve met some of them no more than twice, but we fell into conversation about books and bonded.  We don’t share the same tastes, exactly, but we take books seriously, which is not to say that we bond over serious books.  Anyone who has experienced the rhapsody with which technologically minded people can speak of the Logitech Wireless solar keyboard K750 for Mac will understand that there is a subset of humans who are book nerds, book geeks.  We know each other almost immediately as we respond to even the slightest reference to any of the books we have loved (immoderately loved, recklessly loved – see?) as a Great White Shark does to freshly slaughtered chum.  Our voices rise, we lean into the conversation, we grab pencil and paper to copy down recommended reading.

Great Tales of Action and Adventure was a gateway read for me.  It was presented as a text to be considered in class, thus a collection worth studying.  And these were not dusty classics; these were the sorts of stories I had been reading for pleasure.  A clunky ninth grade book nerd had been given permission to take seriously a book I loved from the start.  That may have been the moment when I saw that I could be a teacher.

“My wife never read at all.”  I am jerked back from “Sredni Vashtar” to find myself in  a conversation with a potential book friend, a person to whom I might recommend one of the books I love.  “She didn’t know about books.  But now we read to each other.”

They read Kidnapped to each other, then Treasure Island.  The Chronicles of Narnia had been a great hit, followed by the C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).  “We tried to read his books on philosophy and religion, but we didn’t understand them.”  I am impressed by their willingness to follow an author into a challenging conversation, but before I can respond with some suggestions they might enjoy, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, he’s off again.

They’re reading L.L. Baum’s Oz books, now up to the fifth, which I recall is The Road to Oz, a strange, almost psychedelic, melange in which Dorothy Gale and the Shaggy Man, a disabled hobo, set out on an afternoon’s walk, meet two of Baum’s least engaging characters, Button Bright, a rich kid in a sailor suit, and Polychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter.  It’s all too precious until the gang arrives in Foxville.  Talking foxes are irresistible, and the chapter in Foxville almost saves the messy, Love Boat cast of faded characters brought out of retirement for a cameo appearance in this long wandering novel, but there’s no magic left in Baum’s Oz factory this time.

Baum was a racist, welcoming the extermination of Native Americans in a famous screed in which he describes Indians as “…a pack of whining curs who lick the hand of those that smite them.”  So, I’m not a fan even though I read the entire series as a kid.  I look over at my seat neighbor and decide we’ve made good use of our time waiting to board, but he will not be a book buddy.  I toss out a tentative recommendation, thinking they might enjoy reading The Golden Compass, but no pencil emerges, there’s no request for a piece of paper.

I can go for weeks without catching myself being myself, but as I wish my companion a good trip, I realize that before we had conversed, I had made up a story about him, based on his accent, his suit, his shoes.  I thought I was sitting next to a Willy Loman, a drab salesman pitching the plastic coatings in his line of coatings, liked but not well-liked. Perhaps that is his job, but at the end of the day, when he gets back from Medford, he’ll sit down with his wife and read The Emerald City of Oz to his wife, probably slowing down as they understand the crushing indebtedness facing the Gale family in the wake of the celebrated tornado’s churning through their farmstead.  They’ll talk about the characters, I guess, then go to bed, dreaming of the Gnome King and the plot to conqquer Oz.

I hope he reads better books along the way, but he is reading and enjoying reading.  I should have asked for his address. I have an extra copy of Great Tales of Action and Adventure; his wife might enjoy it.

Help me, Heloise

Help me, Heloise

Dear Heloise:

I’m out of options.  I’ve tried hot water, cold water, baking soda, toothpaste, mayonnaise, Ajax, Pine Sol,  You are my only hope.

You told me to put a dab of lavender on a light bulb to clear insects out of my living room.  It worked.  You told me to put a drop of clove oil on a cotton ball, jam that sucker into plastic wrap, and put it in my shoes to wipe out foot funk.  It worked.  You told me to grab the tablecloth covered with melted wax and shove it in the freezer before scraping with a dull knife.  It worked.  You reminded me that cleaning a dvd with a circular motion could damage data, and you jumped into the 21st Century when the chemical composition of hairspray changed, making it useless for removing ink stains.  I know, I know.  Rubbing alcohol but don’t rub.  Just dab.

Yes!  Fabulous!

Do I soak my feet in vinegar?  I do.  Do I use a hair dryer to blow crumbs out of the slots in the knife block.  I do.  Have I put ice cubes on the dents in my carpets left by furniture I have moved?  I have.

When company comes to call, I put a pan on the front burner, sprinkle a little cinnamon around, and, La, Voila, the house smells like I’ve been baking up a storm. Who knew?  Time to scrape the Kerry/Edwards stickers off my Subaru? Duct tape?  Genius.   

I’ve gone to any lengths,  any lengths to try to live the life you so obviously have mastered.  When you told me you had recycled your old pillows by making a bed for your schnauzer, I got a schnauzer and recycled my pillows.

But I am at the end of my rope.  It’s all my fault; I should have known.  I saw the lamp advertised in a magazine, saw the picture of the genie, and thought, what the heck, I could use a couple of wishes, this could be my chance to take care of retirement, and maybe Alice at Safeway could find me sort of attractive.  Not hunky, not going there.  Just ok enough.

The lamp arrives, I unpack the crate.  The instructions are in Japanese which threw me off.  I copied the sheet into Google translate and find out I have a Seirei, which is a genie but more of a ghost genie.  I probably should have found a real translator because I now know that the command for the Seirei to grant wishes is just a tone from the command to transport a person to a parallel world, which is where I think Alice is since I haven’t seen her at Safeway for more than a week.

When I finally did find a djinn master online (that’s a search I’d rather not do again), I was advised that the next wish, intentional or not, could release thousand of ghost snakes into the water supply, an outcome I would like to avoid.  And then, this thing has an appetite you wouldn’t believe, a distinctive odor (sulphur and peppermint), and an attitude I find really offensive.  Instead of referring to me as “Master”, the title I would think appropriate to my station, he/she/it calls me Kasatta Niku, Rotting Meat.  

I tried to wish it away.  No luck; apparently that’s not in the wish drawer for Seirei.  I tried putting the lamp in the freezer, figuring that might slow the thing down, but it and the lamp reappeared within minutes.  Put it in the microwave, lots of sparks but no change in basic profile.

The djinn master suggested burning sandalwood and sage, which I tried, but only made my place smell like the Health and Beauty aisles at Shop’n Kart.  

I’m out of options and about to drop thousands of ghost snakes in the water system.  Help me please, Heloise.

                                                                Wishless in Ashland

Dear Wishless –

I’m so pleased soaking your feet in vinegar and using the clove soaked cotton balls in your shoes has worked so well for you.  Did you know you can put used cotton balls in your rubber gloves to prevent your nails from tearing the rubber?  If you are fond of the smell of cloves, you can drop your used cotton balls in your vacuum cleaner bag for a refreshing pick-me-up.  Or, dip new cotton balls in vanilla and place them at the back of your shelves in the fridge.  You’ll be delighted with the fresh aroma each time you open that door.  Spring is about to roll around, so fill the hollow stems of daffodils with water and plug them with those cotton balls to extend the life of your cut flowers.  Finally, if you have a camping trip in mind, remember that cotton balls and a dab of petroleum jelly are all you need to start a roaring fire.

As for the genie issue,rest easy.  You are so close to finding your way free of that pesky demon.  Put the lamp in the fridge, not the freezer, then, when the lamp is cold to the touch, put it in the oven.  Leave it for about an hour at 350 degrees, plug the spout with a cotton ball soaked in sandalwood and sage and chuck your lamp out a car window on the side of a country road.

Hope these tips help,


So, What’s Wrong With Plutocracy?

So, What’s Wrong With Plutocracy?

It’s worked so far, hasn’t it?  There have been momentary bursts of democratization in the relatively short history of the American Republic, but for the most part, the wealthiest citizens have directed the course of government with results that appeared quite satisfactory.  Well, satisfactory to a segment of the population.  In any case, while we celebrate the idea of a president working his way from a one-room cabin to the White House, the reality is that three out of four of those figures carved in Mount Rushmore were men of considerable means.

Just to be clear, a plutocracy is not an idea or ideology.  Plutocracy is a fact; the wealthiest govern the society.  Plutocracy can be relatively benign, as with the Kennedys and the Bushes, and can be positively progressive, as it was with both Roosevelts.  I’ll get to Donald Trump and the Republicans’ tax plan in a moment, but it is worth noting that people of considerable wealth have made important contributions to society, from Andrew Carnegie’s endowment of libraries to Warren Buffett’s support of health care initiatives.  Wealth can do a world of good, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the less celebrated Atlantic philanthropy of Chuck Feeney demonstrate.

Wealth is just wealth.  But, as the top one percent controls fifty percent of the world’s resources, their interests and proclivities have an outsized effect on the rest of the population.  That’s probably not a good thing for a democratic republic, and that process now appears inevitably certain to continue to concentrate the sources of wealth in the hands of the wealthy.  The question we not in that one percent ask is, do the relatively less wealthy become absolutely less wealthy as the rich get richer?

The current cultural and social differences of opinion aside, the response to that question separates liberals and conservatives.  It is increasingly clear that we can study meteorology, hook up elaborate radar and imaging facilities, and still completely blow a weather forecast.  Economics falls into the same category of elaborately analyzed uncertainty.  The issue at the moment, however, is that economic convictions have become ideological.  Trickle Down economics is not a theory; it is the conviction that reduced taxation and regulation of corporations, and capital gains brings a vibrant, healthy economy in which all boats are raised by the tide of prosperity.

As the gap between the wealthiest citizens and the rest of the pack has widened, however, certain peculiarities of economic behavior have surfaced, the most notable of which is stagnation of wages, the absence of protective labor unions, and the migration of capital.  The crash of 2008, largely the result of large scale chicanery in the financial sector, left citizens homeless and robbed many of pensions and retirement funds, essentially removing a safety net for most working Americans.  Six years after the end of the recession, the bottom 99% have regained about 60% of what they had before the crash.  In that same period of time, incomes for the 1% jumped 37%.

The income gap is, for the most part, an invisible reality.  The 99% rarely see or meet those in the top 1%.  Where would, how could that happen?  That separation hardly registers in the daily life of most Americans.  What does register, however, is the disproportionate influence that 1% has on American political policy.

It isn’t easy to keep track of the players in that game.  Some, like the Koch brothers, seem to have a hand in virtually every institutional decision; others, like Robert Mercer, who has donated more than thirty million dollars to political causes, and his daughter Rebekah, now head of the Mercer Family Foundation, emerged as among the most influential forces in the recent presidential election.  Whose hand is on what campaign?  Well, could be any of those with clout.  Real clout.  There are, after all, 4.8 million millionaires in the United States but a mere 540 billionaires, 169 of which had holdings too unsubstantial to make the Forbes list of richest Americans.  That group of 540, you’ll be pleased to know, did have a combined net worth of almost 2.4 trillion dollars.

So, what’s the problem?

Big government with all its restriction and regulation is inconvenient in the operation of finance at that level.  If the operating principle of capital acquisition is the acquisition of capital, nothing is more pesky than taxation.  Taxation, however, seems to be the mechanism by which the operational needs of a nation are secured.  The transfer of wealth does not happen spontaneously, and the day-to-day needs of the 99%, education, clean water, healthcare, a protected environment, highways, and a safety net for older and under-employed citizens pretty much depend on funds secured by the business of the nation.

Hmmmm. That does seem to be a problem.

Back in 1975, acerbic author and political commentator Gore Vidal opined, “There is only one Party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”  A lot has happened since 1975, but the basic question remains.  In this United States of ours a democracy, a democratic republic, or is it a thinly disguised plutocracy in which wealth and political power are indistinguishable?

The rich are certainly getting richer.  The poor?  Look around you.











Petting takes on a new meaning

Petting takes on a new meaning

Look, I’m antediluvian, a fossil, old as dirt.  You can’t expect me to keep up with a culture that stands on its head every twenty-four hours.  My idea of a ripping good yarn is a Dorothy Sayers mystery set in Oxford.  The Wodehouse comic adventures are equally engaging; I’d pit Bunter up against Jeeves, valet to valet, anytime.

The which is to say, I’m several steps behind in almost every area of contemporary social life.  I do watch television, of course, and generally allow most ordinary commercials to wash over me without noting the particular products advertised or the particular methods by which they are touted, fearful that I might again see an animated bear wipe its hindquarters with Charmin, leaving less paper behind (as it were) than rival tissue brand, Cottonelle Ultra.   In the woods.

Every once in a while, however, something pulls me to the screen, my will is thwarted, and I get the message an advertiser intends me to get, as in a recent unguarded moment when I was made aware of groundbreaking investigative reporting on pet dating sites as presented on

I have seen examples of speed dating and know couples have found each other on line.  Rumors of a nether world of exotic “dating” applications have reached me, but, as I have not yet figured out how to answer my new phone, these remain obscure.  A quick scan of less frequently accessed, relatively conventional, sites, however, informs me that bearded men and those who seek bearded men can meet on Bristlr, a social network and dating site which promises, “… beard dating on a global scale.”  My viewing tastes, which include National Geographic Wild and Farm and Ranch TV, have  made me aware of Farmers Only, which, to confuse the viewer, announces that you don’t have to be a farmer to avail the services of Farmers Only, you only have to like farmers, or people who like farmers.  Equestrian Cupid similarly matches “cowboys, cowgirls, and equestrian singles”, whereas Trek Passions helps Trekkies find Trekkies available for “trekking”.  Tall Friends helps vertically advantaged people who apparently can’t assess size at a glance.  Need a partner for a luncheon date?  Salad Match is all over it, but you might be better served in accessing GlutenfreeSingles.

Let’s remember the days gone by when lonely hearts, singles, the shy and the reclusive found each other by posting quaint and plaintive coded messages in the personal columns of daily newspapers.  Some were virtually indecipherable – “I saw you.  Did you see me?”, some all too particular – “Man seeks woman not a cheating skank like Marcy Teddle.”  The digital age has allowed great specificity of search, so it should come as no surprise that dating has now brought dog addled singles together as well.

The pet economy is recession proof, jumping up from the sixty billion dollars spent on pets last year, adding another two billion.  Of course that reflects dollars spent on kibble, treats, and pet meds, but also includes the three hundred and fifty million dollars spent last year on pet costumes.  Dogs know each other by their scent, of course, so it should come as no surprise that aspiring dog matchmakers would spend seventy-five dollars for “Sexy Beast”, an apparently irresistible dog perfume, and so it goes.

Those seeking their “forever person” with whom to share a new leash on life now have a wide range of digital doorways through which to whistle up a partner.  Twindog/Tindog has been called Tinder for dog owners, but actually offers two services.  Registered hounds can seek pals for play dates, and their owners can swap photos of pets and selves in order to find, well, play dates.  The most unfortunate corporate branding is probably, a site not actually promoting cross-species frivolity.  They would rather be known as, “…the leading free online dating website created exclusively for pet lovers. Whether you are looking for a life partner, a buddy for your pet or just someone to hang out with…”.  Whew.

The very well received guide to finding the right dog-enhanced match, Leashes and Lovers: Where Dog Owners Meet, has broadened its base, now maintaining FetchaDate (“Find a date or even Love with Dog Lovers Like You”).  The FetchaDate website does not mess around; whereas others present portraits of singles or a stationary happy couple, Fetch jumps to a video, up-close-to and slightly-ahead-of a laughing couple, each partner holding a squirming Parson Russell terrier while riding on a motorcycle. Neither human nor any of the dogs is wearing a helmet; the countryside rushes past the bike, the happy pair chortles, the dogs squirm, and the viewer’s stomach lurches at the thought of terriers flying as the bike takes a tight turn.

The book’s website is more restrained, well, slightly more restrained.  We see a woman of middle age lounging against a sporty white convertible.  There are dogs in the picture; she has one arm over the chunky head of a large dog of indeterminate breed while a sharp snouted collie -mix of some sort watches with vigilant nervousness from the back seat.  Perhaps the word “slinking” or “draping” would be more evocative than lounging.  She’s wearing a Leashes and Lovers t-shirt, low-slung jeans, and offers a smile that is simultaneously panicked and predatory.

The book itself does encourage the establishment of healthy relationships through a series of articles by dog loving writers of some celebrity.  Cesar Milan takes a turn as one might expect, but contributors also include Rachel Ray, Monica Seles, and Howard Stern.  The idea is that dogs can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves, thereby freeing us to become the person we are meant to be, and thus, suitably attractive to other completely self-actualised dog fanciers.

I’m not completely self-actualised yet, but a dog fan myself, married to an even more actively committed dog person, and we have both learned important lessons from our dogs.  I’ve seen dogs actually correct unfortunate behavior, as was the case with a friend whose first impulse was to shout and toss his arms about when facing disagreement.  His dog, a retired Dog for the Deaf, in those moments shrank sadly, refused to be patted, and moaned softly.   My friend couldn’t take it; he learned to soften his voice and gestures, and the dog relaxed.

We did too.

I so believe in the ability of dogs to makes us better people that I am dismayed that this reasonably helpful book is marketed like a late-night infomercial.  The cover is alluring.  A woman’s long and perfectly shaped legs, crossed at the ankle, encased in delicate fishnet stocking, fall from the side of an overstuffed red chair.  She’s lying sideways in this chair; we assume she’s reading the book, although, since we see only her legs, she might be experiencing any number of moments of pleasurable relaxation.  There’s a dog, of course, a French Bulldog, peeking alertly from the depths of the chair, but there’s no doubt the book is marketed to women in search of ravishing romance and for a few men who find legs, fishnet, and stuffed furniture irresistible.

I find all bulldogs pretty irresistible, even though I know Darwinians take issue with breeds that are likely to develop hip dysplasia, cherry eye (don’t ask), deafness, brachycephalic respiratory syndrome, Stenotic nares ( narrow nostrils), and patellar luxation.  Also, they pant, and the larger ones slobber.  And yet …

It seems likely that folks who like dogs a lot probably do better in relationship with folks who share or have a high degree of tolerance for the dog-centered life.  There may have been pet dating organizations back in the 20th Century, but I happily stumbled into a dog-centered life without really knowing that I love dogs as much as I do.  I’ve loved all of our own dogs, but it’s significant, I think, that I’m more than eager to meet dogs of any size shape, or breed.

No slinking against convertibles for me, no wallowing in the embrace of armchairs, but I may send away for a t-shirt that simply asks:  “Can I pet your dog?”