Snake Eyes

It’s hard to love a snake.

I know, all creatures great and small, but even though I am a snake supporter, I have to admit that there is something very snaky about a snake.

I had a pet King Snake in college. (It was just a phase.) I’ve captured beneficial snakes and brought them to the farm and I’ve relocated  other snakes. My official snake policy on the farm is “live and let live.” In fact, we have the same policy for all the creatures that share this space.

Except for Copperheads. Copperhead behavior and puppy behavior is not compatible. Copperheads just won’t get out of the way. They “bow up” and stand their ground and wait for you or one of your dogs to step on them. “Go ahead. Step on me. I dare you. I was here first and I’m not moving.”

I don’t relocate Copperheads, but I do relocate parts of Copperheads.

Rattlesnakes? No problem. We have co-existed here with timber rattlers for decades. Rattlesnakes are thoughtful enough to alert you to their presence, otherwise they are good at getting out of the way.

Snakes are just too beneficial to disrespect. They earn their keep in mice alone, and the only cost to me is watching where I put my feet. We could all use an occasional reminder to watch where we put our feet.

We don’t have water moccasins here in the North Georgia Mountains. Some people will argue with that, but I’ve never seen one, and the biologist for our Conservation Easement says that this area is outside their range. I’ll take the word of the person who can name every living thing you encounter when you walk with her in the woods.

We do have water snakes though, and they look enough like water moccasins to get your attention,  and – they are extremely snaky. They can also be aggressive. They like to jump out of a bush and into the water when you’re trout fishing. I think it amuses them to wait until the last minute when you’re almost directly under them.

Water snakes are spring-loaded, and they can jump an unbelievable distance. I saw one jump about 10 feet into the Chattooga River. The kid who disturbed him was in a canoe and decided to float over to a rock face and investigate a hole. The snake cleared his face by about 3 inches.

Fear makes you do illogical things. The poor kid screamed and jumped into the river – with the snake. When he realized what he had done, I swear that kid walked on water. I don’t blame him.

We have a water snake living in our frog pond. When you look at her head, there is no doubt that she is non-poisonous. She looks almost sweet, with a ghost of a Mona Lisa smile, and she has pretty eyes. I named her Hazel.

While Hazel’s visage is very becoming, if you come upon any other part of her unawares, there is a visceral reaction. The grab in the gut, the raised hairs on the arms and the tingle in the spine all shout, “Snake!” We’re trying to get used to each other, since the pond is right next to the garden. But even when I know it’s her with the pretty eyes, those intimidating markings and that serpentine slither do not inspire a warm cozy feeling.

The frogs in our pond are not very happy with Hazel as a neighbor. Some of them have moved to another nearby pond, and the ones that remain are not nearly as mouthy as they once were. There were far too many frogs in that pond for the available food supply, but thanks to Hazel, there is a better balance now. Nature always seeks balance, if we get out of the way and allow it to happen.

Got No Soul

When you have lived here long enough you start to forget what it’s like to be back in the rat race.   That’s OK. We want to forget. We came here to forget.

The rat race is, nevertheless, always available for those who want it, and some people thrive on it. It’s only a click away in a society intent on finding new ways to become connected. We are urged at every turn to login, to join in – to follow – the vast electronic network that reaches ever further, probing, collecting, and often manipulating. This web of impulses and opinions and motives has become almost a form of consciousness on its own, greater than the sum of its individual parts, though there are those who are ever intent on using it for their own purposes.

Some of us never disconnect from this increasingly global hive mind. Even here in our green valleys far from broken news updates, we bow our heads to the little glowing rectangles, and walk into walls or drive into ditches.  We expect instant access and constant updates to everything the hive declares important. Even the random thoughts fished from our own streams of consciousness are now so significant that they need to be instantly recorded and shared with our friends and indeed, with the world. As the Borg said to Captain Picard, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

I’m reminded of this assimilation when we go to the city on business. Without a mountain to lift our spirits,  a wooded path to sooth the soul, growing things to quicken the spirit, the sound of running water and the wind in the trees, the television gets turned on more often. The computer stays on. The smartphone, which doesn’t work at all at behind the mountain, comes alive with beeps and buzzes.

Handel. Ossoff. Ossoff, Handel. That’s all the television seemed to say on a recent stay in town. Each candidate said that the other one was dishonest, corrupt and bad for the country.  No one ever seemed to consider that they may have both been right.

Or wrong. But that’s how partisanship works, and after too many years of partisanship we have reached an inflection point in history where each side in this continuing conflict is convinced that their team is on the one true path to saving civilization. Each side is encouraged to believe that this is exactly what is at stake. Each team is the sole possessor of the truth. We’ve been here before, if that’s any consolation.

Oh, the spectacle of it all! The tens of millions of dollars spent. Wasted. The talking heads, the misleading polls, the celebrity tweets. There were those of us who hoped that the embarrassment of the entire 2017 political race would awaken some voters. The dishonesty and the raw cunning of the candidates, the political machines and the media was laid bare for all to see. But we did it all again, this time in Georgia, next time somewhere else.

So we elected a Republican in the 6th District. The tweets are tragic and triumphant, but nothing has changed, and nothing will change as long as the pendulum keeps swinging left and right, powered by the latest crisis. This election turned out not to be a referendum on Trump at all. Though the democrats outspent the republicans in multiples, and the same discredited coalition of celebrities and media giants  took their best shot in Georgia, they failed. They failed because they still don’t understand why they lost in 2017.

And what does the hive mind think of the election? It’s hard to say. It seems to be of two minds, at least in America. The creative front part of the mind, where a lot of democrat thoughts gather, is wasting away, caught up in visions and fantasies. The back of the brain, the part that is responsible for keeping the body alive and where republican thoughts are more at home, is consumed with thoughts of survival and often quite fearful.

The nation, just like a person, can function quite well with a brain divided by its basic functions as long as the mind is healthy, and what is mind but the central processing unit for the soul? But the national mind is not healthy. We have a splitting headache, and we’re beginning to think we might be bipolar.  We’ve lost contact with our national soul, and we’re not quite sure who is calling the shots, or what direction we’re headed. Our mind is in a bitter tug of war between fantasy and fear. We need to find our soul connection again before something breaks.

To Catch a Thief

Most of us have experienced theft at some point in our lives. Anger is a normal response, but a sting of betrayal can follow, for thieves take more than material possessions. They take peace of mind and faith in humanity.

Some thieves steal out of need or desperation. Some do it for the thrill. Some thieves are as blunt as a bludgeon. Some are as cunning as a politician. Woody Guthrie said, “As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

Like most places on Earth, we have our share of theft. The crime rate here in the peaceful valleys of North Georgia is lower than in many parts of the world; lower than many places within our own state.  We have some break-ins and other incidents, but we rarely have to endure anything as dramatic as the nightly shooting report from the city. For this, we are ever grateful.

There is another kind of crime, however, that is not uncommon in our area. It is rarely prosecuted. It is not even considered a crime by some of its well-heeled perpetrators. This crime happens all over the country where there are old farms and old buildings, places that the uninformed or insensitive might consider neglected or abandoned.

The perpetrators of this crime sometimes look just like you and me. They are well mannered and often well-regarded members of our community. Like many of us, they might appreciate quaint old things or enjoy collecting antiques and such. You may even know some of these people yourself, people who do not “need” to steal anything.

Unfortunately they seem to have a misguided notion that it is acceptable to rummage about private properly if that property appears sufficiently remote, neglected, or “abandoned,” as some have said. They seem to believe that stealing from an old farm is “rescue” or “salvage.”

You, dear reader, know better. You know that old houses, old barns and old out-buildings may look abandoned. They may actually be neglected. But this does not mean that they are not cherished. Sometimes here in the country we let our old buildings take their own time returning to the ground. They hold memories, better than any photograph ever could, and there is a quiet kind of dignity in just letting them be.

We know that some people disagree, but if we had a microscope, we would still be unable to locate the slightest interest in a drive-through opinion of what constitutes an “eyesore.”

This does not mean that we don’t appreciate beauty and order. We respect natural order and live according to its rhythms. We believe that what time and nature do to old farms, old buildings, and old people – is beautiful. Nevertheless, we still sigh with sadness at the sagging roof or the cracked window at the place where our grandmother once greeted children with smiles and sweetbread. We miss the carpet of flowers that used to decorate the neighbor’s farmhouse, before his wife passed away and arthritis limited his ability to garden. Some of us wish that the job that kept us on the road so much had given us more time to drive an extra nail or pull more weeds. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in a lifetime.

Some of us wish that our backs were straighter, that we still had the strength to mend the old barn where we were mighty in our youth, where our children learned about life and death and where our grandchildren played before they all grew up and moved away. When we look out the window and see someone digging up bulbs from the old “neglected” flower bed, they are digging in our memories.  When they put a shoulder to that closed door, and then carry out something “quaint” and “abandoned,” we are wounded. We feel an anger that would call down lightning, and when that passes, we feel the weight of the years even more.

Now as to the thief who is the subject of this week’s discussion, we must assume you are smart enough to read a newspaper. You were smart enough to earn the money to buy the new SUV you drove. Chances are that you might not even consider yourself a thief, but you are. Be advised: Some of us who love old places still have strong backs,  very likely stronger than yours. We are the ones who put up the posted signs that you chose to disregard and climbed the trees to hang security cameras, in the shadows. You won’t see them. But we will see you.We were reluctant to do all this, but you, and others like you, keep coming, and digging, and taking.

In a quiet, remote grove of an old homestead there is an old log barn that was built a century ago. It is a simple structure, but a family treasure. The roof is kept in good repair. The sills are still sound and the little barn sits high and dry above the ground. You came quite a distance through the woods, thief, to get to that barn. You damaged the frame when you pried off the door. It wasn’t locked.  Maybe you thought that you would take it with you, but it was too heavy to carry. You forced out a beam from the wall, leaving an ugly gap in the side of the barn. Your desire for that “quaint” old beam did not come close to justifying your theft. It was a load bearing beam, and now the entire wall sags. Left unattended the whole structure would soon have fallen to the ground, after all these years.

The wall will be repaired, but a memory of the quality of your character will persist, as well as an electronically preserved image of your face.  Remember those cameras we mentioned earlier? They take remarkable pictures.  Don’t come back.

A Sailor’s Story

The number of Americans who have died in battle since the Revolutionary War is 657,946. When we look at that number printed on the page in black in white, it does not cry out. It does not tell the stories of the men and women who died. It does not speak of the bravery and the sacrifice, not of the soldiers who died nor the families who watched them go away to war, never to return.

Politicians are good at telling us about bravery and sacrifice. Few, very few of them ever serve. Fewer still have ever seen battle. But they are good at talking about it, and about how everyone who dies has contributed to the great cause. The speeches have not changed much since the Revolutionary War.

War is ugly. It is chaotic and messy. It usually takes a couple of generations for us to find out, but war is rarely about the reasons given by the politicians. War is usually always about business and politics, though stating that may be somewhat redundant.

My father was drafted to serve in WWII in 1944 when he lost his student deferral. He lost that deferral when my grandfather voted for the wrong person in a local election, or so he was told by someone on the draft board at the time. Nevertheless, Dad thought that serving his country was the right thing to do, so he went willingly.

My father went through basic training for the Navy in, of all places, central Texas. So many GI’s were being processed at such a rapid rate in 1944 that the Navy was using every available facility for training. Dad’s swim test consisted of being herded across an irrigation ditch with a bunch of other recruits. He “couldn’t swim a lick,” he used to say, but the ditch was shallow enough that he could bounce on the tips of his toes while waving his arms.

After basic training he was garrisoned near Terminal Island outside of Los Angeles while waiting for his ship to arrive. Dad always loved music and he was an excellent dancer. In high school he had even won a couple of ribbons in dance competitions at the John C. Campbell Folk School. So when Dad and his buddy heard that Tommy Dorsey was playing in town one weekend, they were determined to see him. They slipped off the base on a Friday night and made their way to the club where Tommy was playing. They figured the risk was worth this once in a lifetime chance.

As luck would have it, dad’s friend and his partner won a dance contest that night. There were reporters in the club following Tommy Dorsey and flash bulbs popping. Someone snapped a picture of the contest winners, which appeared in the local paper the next day.

The Navy was not amused, but the War in the Pacific was heating up and the authorities had no intention of wasting two freshly trained and badly needed sailors. Nevertheless, they confined Dad and his friend to their barracks for a couple of days – just long enough for them to miss their ship. While they waited for the next available berth, that ship was sunk and went down with all hands.

For months, everyone back home thought that my dad had been killed; everyone, that is, except for my grandmother, who prayed morning and night for him. She was a woman of Faith, and she knew that he was still alive.

During his two years at sea, Dad survived typhoons, torpedoes and kamikaze attacks. He had so many near misses that for the rest of his life, he attributed his survival to his mother’s prayers.

Six hundred and fifty seven thousand, nine hundred and forty six stories. Perhaps now, one more of those numbers is something more than a number. Many of you have your own stories. Never forget them. Pass them on. We need to remember each and every one of them, every time the politicians come around waving the flag. They speak such beautiful and inspirational words when they send us to war, but most of them will never know what that flag really means.




Faced with a choice between being ignorant or being depressed, the bliss of ignorance begins to look more attractive. Being informed is hard work, and since fact can also lead to cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t always make us feel good.

Being entertained is much easier. Nevertheless, some of us still prefer knowledge. Peddlers of media realize this, and they are also very aware of our tendency to rubberneck at the scene of an accident. So the facts they present are often dire, urgent, and breaking. Their facts have shock value to get our attention, but we can only stand to be shocked for so long. This is a win-win for the peddlers, as we are soon driven to consume entertainment to assuage the pain of being shocked.

Those of us who still want to be informed consume action-scene-live-breaking commentary in an effort to seek knowledge, and we consume entertainment to ease the pain of the harsh reality of broken news. Every year that passes finds more of us skipping right over being informed and going straight to entertainment.

Network ratings are high this year on the heels of a very painful (though not very factual) presidential election. Many people simply refuse to discuss politics now. This is unfortunate, but understandable. However, the disdain for knowledge is expanding to include world events and scientific advancement. We can all remember the last conversation we had about “Dancing with the Stars” or the latest sports scores, but when was the last time we discussed a documentary?

The largest single group of people eligible to vote last year – did not. Those of us who did vote have done little to entice non-voters into our camp. We, the fact seeking voters of the United States of America, are partisans. We suffer in various degrees from confirmation bias, allowing only those facts which agree with our preconceived notions to penetrate momentarily into our consciousness. We are so partisan, in fact, that we make value judgments about world events and decisions by our elected officials based, not on merit, but on political affiliation.

So we gather here this week in yet another attempt to overcome partisanship and transcend confirmation bias while we seek the truth. To aid in this quest, we offer you something to rubberneck at the scene of an accident of historic proportions in a long and ongoing emergency. It is shocking in its own right, but doubly so because of the fact that so many people have overlooked it. If it does not shock, we hope that it will at least offend. Offense also increases the flow of blood to the brain.

Without further delay, here is the statement most shocking: President Trump and President Obama are very similar, and in some ways identical.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming. It occurred to me while watching a video of Trump’s entourage and Saudi royals in a traditional dance with swords to celebrate “peace after war.” This, after the largest single arms deal in history. One could choke on the irony.

You see, Obama, the Nobel laureate, was overall the biggest arms dealer in history. Not to be outdone, Trump has already penned the single biggest arms deal in history barely 100 days into his first year.

Obama ran on hope and change for the middle class and the oppressed and spoke of peace in our time. He abruptly packed his cabinet with Wall Street bankers and war hawks, bombed someone somewhere every day for eight years and instituted a program of global assassination. Trump ran on a platform of “draining the swamp,” and then abruptly packed his cabinet with Wall Street bankers and war hawks.  Obama talked of a world free from nuclear weapons, and then spent over a trillion dollars upgrading the US arsenal. Trump accused Secretary Clinton of being a warmonger for her suggestion that we bomb Assad, then soon after getting elected, launched a cruise missile attack against Assad.

No doubt there are distinct differences between the two presidents. Obama abandoned his campaign promises by redefining terms and violating the spirit if not the letter of those promises. Obama was more sophisticated while Trump is more blunt and abrupt, already flipping positions on NATO, China, Russia, The Federal Reserve, and most recently, Islamic terrorism.

Both presidents ran, or rather “postured” against the establishment, but as Sam Husseini of Vote Pact wrote recently, they simply “rebranded” the establishment.

I saw an economic analysis recently which demonstrated that earning power for Americans peaked with those born in 1942. Washington has been occupied almost exclusively by Democrats and Republicans (and lobbyists) since then, so it would be almost impossible to blame this political philosophy or that for the decline in our fortunes. Yet we still do. We are supposed to. Our blame and our partisanship is essential for business to continue as usual.

In all these years, throughout all the arguments over social justice, fiscal policy, immigration, abortion and gun control, gender studies, wars on drugs and wars on concepts, with the changing tides and shifting sands of party platforms and talking points, we have seen quite a show. Somehow we were so distracted by the theater that we often failed to notice that our pockets were being picked. We failed to notice that the same companies always prospered. The same lobbyists stayed in Washington year after year. We failed to notice that every president, no matter what their party or platform, was always the chief salesman for the biggest arms dealer on the planet.

Are you beginning to notice yet?


A Successful Life

How do we measure success? Popular culture has an answer, and we are all too familiar with that. But there is a better answer, and no finer example can be found than the life lived by our friend, Joe Anderson, of Upper Hightower. Joe passed away last Friday at the young age of 84.

Mothers cherish those days when the family is back home again,  together under the same roof, but most families today are scattered. Parents with an empty nest wait for the phone to ring and wonder why it doesn’t. We blame our “busy lives,” but that excuse brings no comfort. Our longing for community and for the sense of belonging that family once gave us is painfully evident in the empty hours we spend on social media. We left the village for a commute on an Interstate highway, and watched our families receding in the rear view mirror. We attempt to fill that void in the virtual world, and today we cannot drive or even walk without a phone in our hands.

Joe chose a different kind of life. He served in the Army and saw what the world had to offer beyond our green valleys, but he returned here to make a life in the mountains he loved so much. Anyone who grew up here can tell you what a challenge it can be to make a living in our isolated and limited economy. Joe and his wife, Totsy did it, however, and raised five children who built their own homes and raised families here as well.  Joe’s success was easy to see, especially on Sunday afternoons, holidays, and on any given day throughout the year when his home would welcome visitors: friends and neighbors, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He raised a family that continues to keep parents and grandparents as a priority in their own busy lives.

I mentioned earlier that Joe passed away at the “young” age of 84. I know people thirty years younger who are less engaged with life than he was. Joe had planted two gardens already this spring. He had just built some homemade bee hives to add to his apiary.  His yard was immaculately kept, and he was often seen around the valley on his ATV visiting neighbors or carrying his granddaughter to her house sitting job.

Joe was the first person to welcome me when I moved into the valley, back in the days when I was young, untamed, and in a hurry. He was patient with me, and always kind. Some people are “horse whisperers,” but Joe knew how to guide people back onto the right path with good humor and common sense, softly spoken.  Somehow in the midst of raising 5 kids,  Joe helped keep an eye on my grandparents when they were old, contributing greatly to the time they were able to stay together in their home. This is just one of many such stories that are told all around our area. When the community came to pay their respects Saturday evening, the line of people waiting could have circled the entire church.

I will miss Joe’s wisdom, rooted in the Faith that was central to his life. His Faith was an example to any who seek God, never judging, always welcoming. I will miss Joe’s wit, his easy smile, and that twinkle in his eye. I will miss his stories.  He is one of the last few people alive who knew my grandparents and the forgotten stories of the pioneers of the Southern Appalachians. He was a bridge between the past the the future.

No one expected Joe to leave so soon, but he lived his life fully, and he was spared the painful, lingering – and lonesome departure that awaits many who live so long. The only true measure of success is the impact that we have on people’s lives, and Joe Anderson touched many lives. His legacy will continue in the family he leaves behind, strong in Faith, rooted to the land they cherish, and devoted to family and community. To his children, those of us who have stood where you stand now can only tell you that it will get easier in time, but it will always hurt. Always. But the pain will change to longing, and it will remind you to cherish every moment. Your dad is not gone. I see him in your faces, and in the lives that you live.






Click “Like” for The Earth

When my father was a child, there was a remote spring in the mountains alongside a forest road traveled by horse and wagon or on foot. Travelers would sometimes water their horses at the spring, or take a drink and rest awhile in the shade of the tall chestnut trees. The spring was tiled with “pretty rocks” collected by a farmer who found them in the creek that ran nearby. My dad said that when the sun shined on the pool, it sparkled and cast dancing lights all about the shaded grove around the spring.

The “pretty rocks” were actually amethysts, which can still be found in Northeast Georgia, if you know where to look.

My father understood that the spring had been dug in his grandfather’s day, sometime in the late 1800’s, and lined with the amethysts soon after. He estimated that the spring had been there for at least 40 years by the time he first saw it, respected and maintained by the travelers who used it.

One day my uncle, who was a few years older than my dad, came home with some amethysts in his pocket and my grandfather asked him where he got them. “At the old spring,” was his answer, and sensing that he might be in trouble, my uncle added, “but everybody else is taking them.”

“You’ll put those right back where you found them,” said my grandfather, “and see that you do it quick if you want any supper.”

But the magic spell of the spring had been broken, and first by ones and twos, then by pocketful and at last by the bucket, it was not long before all the amethysts had disappeared. The valley was growing. What had once been frontier to the white settlers (it was home to many peoples before them) was becoming more civilized, and greed is often a side effect of civilization.

When I was a child I went with my grandmother to visit the old homestead where she grew up. There was a chimney still standing there, and some stone works around the site where the house once stood. I remember the deep shade of huge trees, and numerous flowers and herbs surviving from plantings made a half century before. Water still flowed over a stone watercourse made by hand. The summer sun was hot, but the old homestead was cool, quiet and peaceful.

Not a trace of it remains. As the property changed hands and subdivided, the trees were cut down, the stone works bulldozed under, the creek dammed, and the variety of plant life replaced by some kind of hybrid fescue over ground that cracks open during dry weather.

Another shaded grove I once knew disappeared in more recent times, during the big real estate boom that started here when the Olympics came to Atlanta. There was an avenue of giant maples and poplars that followed a meandering stream. Numerous springs fed the creek along the way. One spring was particularly intriguing, as it emerged directly from the roots beneath an ancient maple. The roots formed a grotto over a deep pool of water where mayflies danced in the summer. One might have fancied it as an entrance to the underworld guarded by fairies, though my nosy hound once found it guarded by yellow jackets instead.

The springs survived the first couple of attempts to develop the property, but then came a developer who was more aggressive than the others and decided to try and “recover” all that “wasted” land. Trees were cut. The springs were bulldozed, filled in, destroyed. Of course this was a violation of environmental regulations, and the property owner was fined a few hundred dollars. He eventually lost his land to the bank. What once was forest is now another field of fescue in a vacant lot that has been sold and resold. The mayflies are long gone, but the yellow jackets are still there.

We humans have always been greedy. We have always been prone to treating the natural world in a ham fisted manner. But as our negative impact on the earth has escalated, some of us have tried to seek comfort in the past, looking for that magical time and place and that special people possessed of a set of values that were kinder to the earth, and more sustainable.

Sadly, no such time, place or people ever truly existed. Perhaps the closest our species ever came was the First Peoples of North America, who cultivated and nurtured field and forest. It was not a wilderness that European settlers found here, but managed land, empty, but recently occupied by a million people or more who had died from the diseases brought here by the first European explorers.

But even among the indigenous tribes that we like to think of as being fundamentally purer in some way than we are today, we find those who were responsible for deforestation and the extinction of species.  We have also seen a community of conservative Christians, (the same people who today are stereotyped for an eagerness to drill and mine and develop) who were able to leave a public spring full of semi-precious stones untouched for two generations. If respect for the land is not a function of culture, then what?

Such thoughts seem appropriate as we observe Earth Day, and consider that many of our current 7 billion inhabitants may live to see 10 billion. We are in the midst of a great extinction event that some fear may grow to rival the Permian, when three fourths of life on the Earth was extinguished. Meanwhile our tapeworm economists worry where we will get the extra population to pay the bills we have already run up.

So far the tapeworm view is the dominant paradigm, supported by the myopic impulse to reproduce that continues to plague those parts of the world least able to afford more mouths to feed. The economy must always be growing, and we seem to lack the imagination necessary to grow it without also growing the population. Population growth (by birth) has slowed in the developed world, but it will continue through immigration in order to sustain the current economic model that is dependent on borrowing from future generations.

When there are more people, there are less natural resources to go around, and as freedom requires a certain amount of elbow room, there must also be less freedom. There will be fewer shady groves and cool springs to enjoy. When we had a choice to value such things, we often sacrificed them for short term gain. Today, separated from the natural world by the virtual , we value Nature less. Who knows what we will value tomorrow.







Idealism is a Hothouse Flower

We’ve taken a much needed break from writing about political things here. It’s better for our mental and digestive health that we do so. But today we couldn’t resist a brief return to the bread and circuses.

We’ve been feeling a little better about politics lately. No, politics has not changed, but we have redefined some terms and lowered some expectations. Idealism is a hothouse flower.

When it comes to the American political scene, “feeling better,” for those of us who insist on thinking about such things, is perhaps more accurately described as “not feeling sick all the time.” In order to achieve this dubious improvement, we needed a new working definition of “president.” See if this works for you, too: “A president is a politician chosen from a small group of people selected by corporations. An aspiring president says whatever is necessary to get elected. Once elected, the president can then pursue whatever personal political agenda is necessary for re-election, as long as the corporate agenda is fulfilled.”

Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the possibility that those of us who appreciate irony are drawn to politics because irony occurs so often in that realm. Perhaps we’re getting a little sick of irony too, but this next case could appear as an example in a Wikipedia definition:

Trump orders a missile attack on Syria during a visit from Chinese President Xi. Did you catch that? The fact that Trump’s first “superpower” meeting is with Xi and not, as many would have suspected, with Putin? Of course to accuse the Russians of being a superpower we have to ignore the fact that the Russian economy is smaller than that of Texas, but they do have a lot of nuclear missiles.

Nevertheless, it all makes for great political theater, unless you are one of the unfortunate people killed during the attack. (We might add to our working definition of “president” something about the ability to kill people in foreign lands without being charged with murder.) Trump warns the Russians before the attack, giving Syria time to move their jets from the air base about to be destroyed. The Russians appear to be outraged. Trump appears to dispel the notion that he is actually a Russian agent. The Syrian jets continue their own attacks. Defense stocks soar.

The left accuses Trump of starting World War 3, although Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer praise the attack. Hillary Clinton agrees and reminds us that she had already suggested such an attack long before Trump ordered it. In Stockholm, discussion begins on nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize, although he has much more bombing to do to catch up with Obama. Defense stocks soar.

“Disgraced” talking head, Brian Williams, refers to pictures of the attacks as “beautiful,” and quotes a line from a Leonard Cohen song: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.” (Add “The ability to lie to the public without disgrace” to our working definition of “president.”) Defense stocks soar.

Meanwhile, ever the gracious host, Trump tells Xi that an American aircraft carrier is headed toward Korean waters. Xi appears to be concerned, but not overly concerned. The planes on board that carrier were probably built with components manufactured in China. You guessed it. Defense stocks soar.

Did we offend anyone today? If we did, let us hope that the offense taken is from a concern for humanity rather than any political grievance. As always, letters to the editor are encouraged, and you are invited to comment on our blog at If you do, a note of caution: you might want to brush up on your sarcasm, as it seems to be a second language for many of us who spend too much time thinking about politics and politicians.





The Oxen are Slow, but the Earth is Patient

It was Sunday afternoon and we were waiting to turn right onto a divided highway. Vehicles kept coming in the right lane just frequently enough to extend our stay at the intersection.

“It doesn’t look like anyone is going to give us a break,” my wife said, “but we’re not in a hurry.”

“It’s a sign of the times,” said that voice in my head, the one that reads too much mainstream media.

The situation gave me pause to consider, and since I had the time to consider, sitting there at the intersection with my blinker on, I did.

If we only had a system for driver taxonomy, it might be possible to divide most drivers into two main families: Those who consciously contribute to the safe and efficient flow of traffic – and those who prefer to get where they are going before anyone else, by whatever means necessary.

I think there has probably always been such a division, even when the “drivers” were driving oxen to pull carts. “I have to get to the market before all the best goods are sold,” said one angry driver, laying the whip to his ox. “The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient,” said the farmer, shaking his head, bemused.

Not too many years ago, an observant driver seeing me waiting to turn onto a divided highway might have signaled a lane change and given me space in the right lane. The same driver, if he noticed he had a line of cars behind him going over the mountain, would have used one of the many turnouts available to facilitate such a courtesy. He wouldn’t dream of tailgating someone in front of him, especially when that driver was behind a line of cars impossible to pass safely.

But we all know that this kind of highway courtesy (and what is courtesy but another form of common sense) is increasingly rare, and those of us who have time to consider such things, might ask why.

“City folk,” says the voice, and he sounds just like the memorable line spat out by Jack Palance’s character, Curly, in the movie, “City Slickers.” The voice has obviously forgotten the number of years we spent living in cities, but he may be onto something.

If you have lived in a city, or spent much time on Interstate highways, then you are aware of the level of aggression on the roads there that is so common that it isn’t even considered aggression. When there are more people living in a given area, then there is less to go around of many of the things we value in the country. There is less space. There is less privacy. There is less time.

A friend from the city visited me for a long weekend. He spends several hours every day on 285 getting to work and back. As he was driving us to dinner one evening, I noticed that he attached himself to the bumper of every vehicle in front of us. When I mentioned this to him, I realized that he was totally oblivious (though he couldn’t understand why many of the cars in front of him were suddenly slowing down). He wasn’t in a hurry. He wasn’t angry; in fact, he was chatting away happily during the whole trip. It was simply that his behavior on the road was common, perhaps even necessary where he lives. (Tailgating can be a sign of impatience, but it also prevents the idiot whipping his ox from pulling his cart into the narrow space between you and the driver in front of you and causing you and all the drivers behind you to slam on the brakes.)

Life moves faster than it did, and not just in the cities. There are more of us everywhere, even in the country. Several generations now have been conditioned to expect a constant progression of “more and faster,” faster cars, faster computers, faster food. We are all a little fast and a little furious. A little courtesy would go a long way toward improving the flow of things, but the dominant paradigm, thanks to a culture steeped in marketing, is about competition, not cooperation.

“I think those drivers aren’t letting us in because they’re distracted,” said my wife. “They all seem to be looking down at something and not up at the road. They’re probably texting.”

She was probably right, and they won’t print what my “inside voice” had to say about that.


Some of us are sentimental and some of us are not. Sometimes there are very good reasons for putting the past behind us. Sometimes treasuring the past can enrich our lives and contribute to a sense of place and purpose

Nostalgia can encourage an attachment to keepsakes and memorabilia. I’m not talking about people who simply like to collect things, or those who suffer from the poorly understood affliction of hoarding, though if we live long enough, our accumulation of keepsakes might begin to resemble hoarding to an outside observer.

When it comes to sentiment I’m somewhere between the extremes, but with one foot firmly planted in the nostalgia camp. If it is possible to inherit a tendency towards nostalgia, I know exactly where I got it.

I remember relatives from both sides of my family who filled their homes with memorabilia. Both of my parents treasured their keepsakes. As they got older and began to lose family members to time, their collections swelled to challenge the available storage space with inherited items.

For most of their lives my folks made sure that everything they kept was carefully preserved, labeled and neatly stored away, but as they got older they began to realize that their collection was beginning to get a little out of hand. My dad would laugh and say “One day when I leave this house I’m going to come up out of that basement and lock the door behind me, and then it’s going to be somebody else’s problem!” If you live long and are lucky enough to be able to stay in your own home, see if the same thing doesn’t happen to you. Gravity gets much stronger as we age (I’m sure it’s not a matter of us getting weaker), and when you apply aches and pains and sickness to a steep flight of stairs, the antique quilts and handmade furniture stored in the basement and in the attic just don’t get as much attention as they once did.

Every new generation reaches a point where the halcyon days of youth can seem more compelling than what we face in the present, but I will always wonder if the generation of my parents was more sentimental than other generations because of the hardships they endured. Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression, when country folk who lived without ready access to goods and services, or money to pay for them, learned that you don’t throw away anything that might be useful. They also learned the value of things that modern Americans tend to take for granted. My aunt, who had all the money she needed when she was old, kept a drawer full of plastic bags and rubber bands that she would not throw away, because they were useful.

A large part of my dad’s collection was his WWII memorabilia. He was a combat veteran who served in the navy during some of the most intense campaigns of the war. One of his most prized possessions was an old periodical with a picture on the cover taken in Tokyo Bay on VJ Day, 2 September, 1945. Near the end of his life when he struggled to speak, he could still point out his destroyer, the USS Kalk, among the Allied ships escorting the Missouri during the official surrender of Japanese forces.

It was a cruel irony, but thankfully a short-lived one, that the little strokes known as TIA took away my dad’s “gift of gab,” as he called it, about six months before he passed away. He was a storyteller from a long tradition and a legendary talker among family and friends. On a family road trip to Canada he once talked non-stop across the entire state of Ohio. By the time we crossed the Michigan state line, even my mother’s indomitable patience was wearing thin when she very quietly said to him, “Can’t we just listen to music for a while?”

As a teenager, I would roll my eyes when my dad would say, “I’ve probably told you this before, but I’m going to tell it again.” As an adult accompanying my senior dad on many outings, I did penance for my youthful impatience, watching how people would react to the old man who had just cornered them at the coffee shop, intent on telling a story. There is no doubt in my mind that veterans are the most patient and respectful listeners on the planet. Dad’s “Tin Can Sailors” hat attracted quite a few conversations, and not once did a fellow veteran show any sign that they did not have all the time in the world to listen to one of the last of the Greatest Generation telling his story.

My folks have been gone now for several years, and their stories, (along with their collections of keepsakes) live on with me. I’m grateful that I realized something very important while my parents were still alive. Their collection of memories, the telling and re-telling of stories – these were not foibles of old age. They were part of an effort to keep their memories intact, and to preserve a sense of self in an ever changing world.

Think about it. Over time everything that we hold dear, everything that is familiar, changes or goes away. We can find ourselves lonesome in a world of rapidly accelerating change, and if we live long enough we watch our friends and loved ones disappear on our way to becoming truly alone. (Our nursing homes are full of people who have nothing and no one familiar left in their lives.) Our senses begin to betray our understanding of the present as we lose the context of the familiar. Our memories of the past can become more real, and more comforting, than what we think we see around us.

My dad told stories and collected old tools. My mom kept quilts and photo albums. It was an effort to preserve the rich tapestry of their lives, to bring forward into the present a reckoning of the past. Their efforts carried a hope that the memory of the lives they lived might somehow survive into the future. They knew many years ago that I would not be giving them any grandchildren, so the stories and the treasured objects were a way to pass on their legacy. I intend to share some of those stories here.

If you are fortunate enough to have older people in your life, take whatever time is necessary to listen to them.  Their stories are more important than most of your desire-driven agenda. Like me, you may wake up one day to discover that someone you love has grown old, all of a sudden, when you weren’t looking, or when you were too busy to notice. Hindsight is not universally comforting. It can be like seeing the answers to a test that you can’t take over again. I hope I passed the test. Perhaps I’ll find out one day, when I’m an old man telling my own stories.