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.


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