Not His Time

We’re fortunate in so many ways. Not the least of the benefits of growing up in the US is our ability, for the most part, to provide our children with a sustained bubble of innocence in which to grow up. All children should be so blessed, should be given the opportunity to learn to trust their environment and the people around them before that bubble, like all bubbles, disappears.

The bubble of innocence pops early in many parts of the world, if it ever exists at all, but here, and for most of us, childhood is carefree and magical and immortal, until it isn’t. My own bubble shrank significantly when I was about eleven and my grandfather, after too many years working in a concrete plant and too many Camel cigarettes, developed lung cancer.

Ernest Beckom was a powerful man who could bend rebar with his hands. When he was 70, I saw him lift a donkey clear off the ground trying to reposition that unreasonably stubborn Equus Asinus for a saddle. Grandaddy was as gentle as he was strong, and he was our hero, and it’s hard for kids to understand why their hero has to cry out in pain in the night. He died when I was 12 after a long and painful struggle that left him spent and frail.

Childhood did not end there, but it was much diminished for a while. However, our culture is adept at creating distractions from our own mortality, and those distractions attempt to replace the bubbles of innocence that we lose when we grow up. We emerge from childhood into our teens and young adulthood immortal, and all those whom we love live in an undying land as well.

My own illusion of immortality was threatened again when my dad was in his seventies. He was still quite fit and active, but one day he wanted to drive my new truck, a 4 wheel drive Toyota with a high ground clearance and a big step up into the cab. After our drive, he stepped down from that height and I saw his leg tremble as he almost lost his footing. That may sound like a small thing, but it was a turning point for me. From that moment on, I realized that he would not last forever, and the prodigal gypsy who loved to travel started spending more time with his folks.

That was the best decision I ever made, and fortunately, Dad had many years of vitality left. It was not his time yet, and I don’t know if he sensed my concern, but that was about the time when he began telling the story of our other grandfather, Albert Shook, who suffered a stroke in his seventies. The doctor told Pa’s family that he would not live. He lived. Then the doctor said Albert would never walk again. He walked. He also outlived his doctor by several decades. It was not his time yet.

Like it or not, one day we all have to squint to see childhood receding in the rear view mirror. We become well acquainted with mortality, and the empty seats around the table attest to that familiarity. A puppy or kitten born into such a home is fortunate indeed for the attention that can be lavished upon them.

They don’t fill the empty seats or replace the kids who have departed the nest, but they bring with them their own bubbles of innocence and youthful exuberance. Dogs, in particular, have a great lesson to teach us about living in the moment.

Bonnie and Babu are the puppies that came into our lives in the February that my mom passed away. The lying old calendar says that they are “ten” now, but they will forever be “The Puppies” to us. They are two hundred pounds of trouble, well worth it for the joy they have given us.

Babu Underfoot Valentine is a gentle giant. Had I known who he was going to grow up to be, I might have named him “Ernest” after my mother’s father. He has eyes that melt your heart no matter what he chewed or where he pooed.

About six months ago Babu started suffering from hip dysplasia, a tragic side effect of long term human meddling in the wolf clan. Once dysplasia sets in, the loss of mobility can occur rapidly. It is heartbreaking to watch.

It does not help that as soon as you mention hip dysplasia, many people, including the veterinarian, began to speak of your canine companion in the past tense. It is assumed that you will immediately begin making plans to end the life and the suffering of your furry friend.

When the morning arrived that Babu first realized he could no longer chase the ball, we thought he was ready to go, too. He would not be the first furry friend to cross the Rainbow Bridge and hunt in the Elysian Fields.

But dogs are wiser that us in many ways. One evening I sat with Babu, grieving. He responded by picking up a tennis ball and dragging himself over to me, shoveling his pushy nose under my arm to drop the ball in my lap. He laughed, as dogs do, and continued to prod me with his nose. As clearly as a bell ringing he said, “It’s not my time yet.”

It is remarkable how our little black 110 lb puppy has adapted to his malfunctioning hip, and how we have adapted to him. Babu has a racing cart now, and boots, and Ace bandages to protect his ankles. I’m getting extra exercise lifting him into the garden cart for more extended trips around the farm, and we still play ball every day.

Plan for the future like a human, but live in the moment like a puppy. We do not know when our time will come, but with each conscious breath, and every tennis ball we pick up and throw in anticipation of joy, we are in that moment, immortal.

When A Life Lesson Flies In Your Face

When Achilles was born, according to Greek mythology, it was prophesied that he would die young. To protect him from his fate, Achilles’ mother took him to the River Styx and washed him in its magical waters to make him invulnerable to all injury. She missed a spot, the very spot where she held him by the heel to dip him in the river, and that’s exactly where a poisoned arrow found its mark and ended Achilles’ life during the Trojan war.

We all have an “Achilles’ heel,” a weakness or vulnerability. Usually we have more than just one. When someone says “that really pushes my buttons,” chances are they really do have several, most likely of their own design and manufacture.

Some people are so full of anger and frustration that it’s not necessary to find the right button to trigger a reaction. Such people react like a touch screen on a phone and the slightest pressure can set them off.

My own Achilles’ heel reveals itself every spring. I usually have a fairly high tolerance for bugs, but I can’t stand horse flies. Or deer flies. Or any member of that family of blood letting buzz bombs, those infernal flying steak knives that have no difficulty cutting through the hide of a cow or horse, much less any exposed human skin. My ill will for the whole lot is such that I will risk allowing a landing and feeling the first cut of the knife for a chance at smashing the guts out of my unwelcome passenger.

Horse flies know that I am their mortal enemy, and they send their best warriors to confront me. Once they even sent an assassin.

Years ago I was a regular swimmer in Lake Chatuge. This was back when the lake didn’t taste funny and the water quality was better. (Many thanks to the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition for their continuing efforts to improve the health of the lake and its watershed.)

I was swimming one day at the Jack Rabbit beach where the lake is fairly narrow and a swim to the opposite shore and back was a good workout. There were several buoys in place which provided a place to rest if needed, and on this beautiful spring day I was the only person at the beach, though as it turns out, I was not alone.

The water was chilly that day, so I decided to limit my swim to between the buoys. I had just passed the first buoy doing the breaststroke when I felt a sharp stinging sensation on the back of my head. The telltale buzzing sound announced the presence of steak knives on the wing. What kind of diabolical bug, designed for feeding off grazing livestock, would fly halfway across a lake to harass a swimmer? It’s hard not to take such an affront to logic and good manners personally!

If you’re familiar with the breaststroke, you know that the head becomes partially to totally submerged with each stroke, and that blasted fly was timing his attack to every half stroke when I came up for air. I was bleeding and angry, so I interrupted my swim to tread water and do battle with the evil denizen.

A spirited battle ensued. I splashed and swatted. The fly circled and darted and dive bombed. The conflict seemed to go on forever until a fortunate swipe of my hand actually submerged the beastly bug. I was triumphant! But only for about two seconds until, to my horror and amazement, the fly emerged from the water and flew away across the lake.

It was then I realized that the battle with the assassin fly had left me exhausted, and I was a long way from the shore in cold water. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you’ll remember that first twinge of panic which must be immediately put to rest if you hope to make it to shore.

I was a good swimmer. My training took over my thought processes, and I’m here today to tell the story.

How many stories can we all tell about the times when irrationality and anger brought us to the brink of disaster and beyond? Anger has long been the Achilles’ Heel of our species. Crimes of passion, assault and outrage are our daily headlines. We tend to think that a bad temper is one of the hazards of youth, but anyone who has driven through Hiawassee and been tailgated or given the middle finger by an angry old man, knows otherwise.

The remedy for anger is vigilance. We never know when a horse fly or some other antagonist will be waiting to reveal our weaknesses. Anger is like a horse harried by biting flies, and we must never allow that horse to get the bit in his teeth.

Just Right

In astronomy, the circumstellar habitable zone is the range of distances around a star where a planet, not too hot and not too cold, can have liquid water and thus potentially support life. This is also known as the “Goldilocks Zone.” Our one and irreplaceable planet sits squarely in the middle of our own Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for supporting human life.

“As above, so below,” said the ancients, who invented a pantheon of gods and goddesses to mirror human behavior and account for the apparent irregularities of Nature. Science tells us that the principles of balance apply, not only to the heavens, but to those of us who are earthbound. Whether we’re balancing an equation or tinkering with a lawnmower carburetor, there is a set of conditions that are just right for the task at hand.

I’ve always liked small towns because, for me, they are just right: Just big enough to provide needed services; just small enough that you get to know your neighbors. Big enough to give you something to do when you feel like getting out of the house, but small enough that the problems that plague cities, like crime, traffic, pollution and noise, are limited.

Those of us who love our mountain towns and communities tend to consider our area as being in the Goldilocks zone for a happy and peaceful life. But there may be early signs that we are moving, albeit slowly, toward the boundaries of that zone.

I was standing outside the post office talking to an older friend who was born and raised in Hiawassee. I was annoyed. It was the third time the post office had returned one of my packages to the sender because because of an “insufficient address,” even though their own online system had tracked it there. Apparently, to put a notification slip in my box and stick the package in the corner placed an intolerable burden on the whole system, but it was less inconvenient to process a return and put the package back on a truck so that their computer could tell me that my package had been returned. I had shared, generously, my opinion that it was unfortunate our small town post office had evolved to a level of sophistication where it was more important to follow alleged rules and regulations than to help out a neighbor.

“I began to worry about how our area was changing about twenty years ago,” said my friend. “When we got that first traffic light, the one between McDonald’s and the Huddle House, the town voted on it. Some said the traffic was bad enough that we needed it, and I guess today they would be right. But I noticed after that we didn’t get to vote on any of those other traffic lights.”

“A lot of us thought we were getting too big for our britches when they started scraping off the tops of our mountains to build more houses. Now it’s hard to get from one side of town to the other on a Saturday morning.”

“That always seems to be the way of it when you’ve got something good. There’s always somebody who thinks they can’t squeeze enough money out of it so they try to make it bigger so they can. Then they crow about how much things have grown until somebody gives them a plaque or names a street after them, and then they they put a stop light on that street.”

“You’d think folks would figure out that bigger’s not always better. Nobody brags about how much the boil on their backside grew, or how their belly got so fat they had to poke another hole in their belt.”

My friend was on a roll, and she continued:

“People always say they want smaller government, but when you get more people, you always get more government; more laws, more taxes, and more rules.”

“What about jobs?” I said. “A lot of what’s happened here was intended to create jobs so that our kids wouldn’t have to leave the area to make a living.”

“Well, you show me the jobs,” she said. “All I see is people serving food or selling knick-knacks or driving nails. That’s good, honest work, but it’s hard to raise a family making ten dollars an hour. It’s just my opinion but I think we grew in a way that made a lot of money for a few folks, but left the rest of us still struggling.”

“What we need to do,” said my friend, “is to decide who we are. If we’re going to be a tourist town, that’s fine, but we need to act like one, take better care of the mountains and think twice before throwing up another metal building on the side of the road. But I think that ship’s done sailed. Who wants to sit in traffic or take a picture of a bunch of houses on a mountain or trash on the side of the road? Folks can have all that in the city without having to drive two hours to get it. “

“Now the big shots who want us to keep growing are trying to sell us as a good place to retire. I agree with some of that. Compared to the city, we’re still quiet and peaceful and not so big that you can’t know your neighbors. But I’m 73 and there are times I just dread coming to town, and it wasn’t that long ago I never thought about locking my car or even my front door, but not anymore.”

My friend had a point. Anyone born here or who has lived here since the 90’s can tell you that in some ways our area has changed so much that it would be almost unrecognizable to our forbears, and as we have grown, we have lost some of that time to be neighborly. In small towns, people are generally considered to be more important than rules and schedules. In big towns, there is less time to share with more people. We create more rules and regulations, laws and codes to protect us from chaos.

As above, so below, or when we’re dealing with human nature, what’s true at a macroscopic level is often true a the microscopic. Our nation has always had its share of empire builders. Our entire economy is predicated on the notion that growth is good for the sake of growth itself. Our population has almost doubled over the last two generations, and the number of laws, rules and regulations has multiplied many times over.

Here at home we enjoy our small communities, our neighbors and our more relaxed pace. But we also want the conveniences and distractions that are available in bigger places. We have grown, and we will continue to grow, but I question, both for us and for the nation, whether the voices clamoring for growth should always be the dominant ones. On a finite world of 7 1/2 billion people where poverty, starvation and unrest are pushing millions of migrants to find a place where they can survive, perhaps we need to hear more from those voices who promote what is sustainable rather than those who always clamor for what is profitable.

For the small town, when we’re too small we dry up and blow away. When we’re too big, we lose the advantages that make us glad to be here. Every town, indeed, every complex system, has an optimal size that can be sustained by its available resources. Whenever we have a conversation about planning our future, we should look for that balance, that Goldilocks zone between growth and sustainability that, for us, is just right.

This week we’re continuing our ongoing discussion about how to remain sane in the Age of Information. It’s an evolving strategy. Things change so rapidly now that any plan can become obsolete before it has a chance to be implemented.

The most successful part of the plan has been the reclamation of the time once wasted absorbing the nightly shooting report and the national corporate political spin. For the generations who grew up with the television tuned into to local and national news, this has been a habit hard to break, even as the content of the broadcasts became steadily more toxic. But in this case information technology itself has provided the solution, especially for cord cutters. The news apps on Roku and FireTV allow you to choose the stories you want to watch, or you can go directly to Glenn Burns’ video weather report and avoid corporate news altogether.

Americans now spend more time looking at phones, tablets and laptops than they do watching television, but around the farm it’s not hard to avoid pixels, especially social media pixels, in the spring. Any free time left over after earning a living is usually spent outside. Soil must be turned and tended, and the greenhouse is full of seedlings that need to be set out. It only takes one rain to turn grass into hay, and the blades on the mower need sharpening.

The morning cup of coffee is usually the time when we are most likely to visit pixel land here on the farm. Social media captured and still holds the attention of millions of people. It was something novel when it was new, but it grew stale long ago for many of us. However, it is specifically designed to be addictive, with feedback mechanisms that serve up small doses of serotonin when we are “liked” or “retweeted” or “followed.” Therefore is is a difficult habit for many of us to kick.

Curating the social media experience can help. Avoiding the “look at my wonderful life” posts can add hours to your day. (Hint: Most of these are just “commercials” in search of validation and not a valid basis for comparison with our own mundane lives. Just click “like” and quickly move on.)

We’ve criticized social media often here, but that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of benefit. Again, the key is to curate the experience. It takes some time to setup, and a bit of maintenance, but both Facebook and Twitter allow extensive filtering. After a bit of tweaking, the first things I see are posts from people who have a sense of humor, and it is rare now that I am served an unsolicited political opinion. This cuts the time spent on social media down to about the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee in the morning, and avoids an incalculable amount of unnecessary annoyance.

The ongoing challenge for those of us who wish to extract useful information from corporate media is to do so without wasting time on click bait drama. You can safely skip over any headline that contains certain telltale phrases. Articles under the words “slams,” “outraged,” and “pushes back” usually do not contain any information you can use to improve your life. If the headline sounds like something that could be reported from a professional wrestling match, it probably has little value.

When I’m hiking in the woods or working in the garden, it’s easy to imagine a world without our information matrix. But to continue to be able to afford some time with nature, many of us must continue to interface with the world of pixels. I’ve invested some effort streamlining that interaction, and some of these shortcuts may work for you as well.

Marketwatch is a website that can very quickly provide all the essential financial news without the contamination of politics. ScienceDaily and Physorg provide a wide view of cutting edge science news, with links to in depth articles for the technically minded. Access North Georgia will keep you current on news of interest to north Georgia residents. None of the websites mentioned are behind a pay wall.

There are more sites out there that can provide quality information on current events without politics or drama, but you have to look for them. There are countless sources of scientific, technical and historical information, and many of them are still free. It takes effort to push past the click bait drama that competes for our attention, but it is worth the trouble.

We have an advantage over most of you when it comes to curating our information experience: We have to drive about 5 miles for our cell phones to become useful. This one geographical advantage has allowed us to avoid the Borg-like assimilation that plagues many Americans. When we are away from home, however, we are just as likely to become tethered to the phone as anyone. There is a simple solution for that. Confine the phone to a separate room. Never allow it to enter the bedroom..

In my humble opinion, the best place to keep the cell phone at home is in the bathroom. The amount of time we spend on our phones should not exceed the amount of time we spend there, and the bathroom ambiance somehow seems appropriate for the quality of most of the information a phone can provide. (If you find that you’re spending more time in the bathroom, however, a different strategy may be needed.)

It’s Not A Lie If What You Said Would Be True If The Facts Were Different

I wish I could take credit for the title, but I first heard it spoken by the actor, Bryan Cranston on the “Malcom in the Middle” series. There are some days, some weeks, when the phrase seems to capture the spirit of our age.

Last week was one of those weeks. “I’ll be there by 11,” said the men who wanted to pick up my old refrigerator (at no cost) and restore it. A 1960 Coldspot, still running, had been left over from our estate sale. Quality vintage items are treasures, and I abhor waste, so I didn’t want to see it hauled away to the landfill.

A Sears repair technician, days away from leaving the company to deploy to Afghanistan, told me that appliances today, the “good” ones, are designed to last 8 years. I had heard the same thing from a retiring technician with 30 years experience, so I believe what the young man said is true. The number of appliances that have crossed my own threshold, having lived past their ability to be repaired in a few short years, also gives credence to his words.

The opinion of two “insiders” plus my own experience gives lie to the claim of “quality” that is postured by appliance manufacturers, but in our time we must examine that claim with relativity and corporate cultural context, where “quality” depends on what your definition of the word “is” is, to paraphrase former president Bill Clinton. Indeed, modern refrigerators work so much harder and are so much better at keeping our food cold that they give out in 8 years instead of 58, and it’s not a lie if what you said would be true if the facts were different.

Eleven o’clock came and went and the old refrigerator still sat in the backyard by the basement door looking quite forlorn. I didn’t bother calling the two gentlemen who failed to show up, remembering the distinct odor of poorly metabolized whiskey that surrounded them. Jack Daniels may function at times as a temporary truth serum. It may inspire on occasion the deepest sincerity. But it is not a reliable catalyst for making and keeping commitments.

It was a long trip up the hill on a hand truck for our noble machine, and both the refrigerator and I were relieved when it was finally settled at the top of the driveway. The metal to plastic ratio of a 1960 refrigerator is considerably higher than that of a modern appliance. My wife put a sign on it that said “Free- working 1960 vintage refrigerator,” and we hoped that someone would take advantage of the opportunity.

I thought that moment had arrived when, later that day, the pizza delivery guy mentioned that he had a side business hauling scrap metal, and that he would like to restore the refrigerator himself, as well as pick the scrap metal out of the construction dumpster we were using to empty the house. “I’ll be there at 7:30 sharp tomorrow morning,” he said.

Seven thirty came and went and Scrap Metal Pizza Man did not. I knew that the next day the city would remove the refrigerator from the street and it would end up as scrap metal despite my best efforts, so about 4 PM I called SMPM at work. “Oh, I’m sorry. I had a family emergency this morning and didn’t have any way to contact you” he said. The pizza restaurant is two blocks away from our house, and it’s not a lie if what you said would be true if the facts were different.

Where do we find honesty and integrity these days? I realize that this is just anecdotal evidence, but I’m pretty sure that the first place I would look would not be among the ranks of the whiskey soaked, or 40 year old guys who deliver pizzas and haul scrap metal and have family emergencies.

We all know that repeated applications of alcohol and drugs will etch a person’s honor like acid etches metal. I also believe that hardship and privation, and the ongoing necessity of cutting corners and making ends meet, can in some cases destroy a person’s integrity. Only a psychopath robs a liquor store for the fun of it.

The lack of integrity can cut across all the boundaries of all the myriad identities we have for labels these days. Some of the most humble can be the most honest. Some of the most successful can be the most deceptive. I’m thinking of a former supervisor, young and intelligent, prosperous, church going. He would, as the old expression goes, “lie as quickly as a cat would lick its hind end.” When caught in a lie he would say, “I didn’t say that. I would never say that. You must have misunderstood what I said.”

Of course, dishonesty was not invented in our time. The old expression about the cat was my great grandfather’s, and from the Bible to Shakespeare and in the great literature of the world, the story of lying and its consequences is told and retold.

But lying today is empowered by technology if not actually embraced by elements of our culture. Truth is considered to be relative; good and bad are functions of cultural context, and reality itself is considered to be malleable.

The tale of the noble refrigerator ends well, however. On the morning before the city came to collect our recyclables, I saw a man in a pickup truck carefully, almost reverently, loading up our old friend to haul it away. I don’t know if he was an honest man or not, but I am convinced that he was, at least, able to recognize quality.

Is it True? Is it Kind? Does it Improve the Silence?

There is truth in the title. Those of you of a first class intelligence ( the majority of people who read the TC Herald), will hear the truth and act on it. Some of us hear the truth and need to verify it with our own experience before we will act on it. The rest of us, sadly a rapidly growing group, may hear truth but, failing to act on it, will repeat the experience many times.

Think before you speak. Discretion is the better part of valor. A word to the wise is sufficient. Don’t let your mouth write a check that your buttocks cannot cash.

From the time we first learn to talk, the momentum of civil society itself attempts to imbue us with the simple but essential knowledge necessary to maintain that society.

The human psyche is a complex summation of chemical reactions and electrical currents, tentatively balanced on the boundary between instinct and cognition; prone to impulses that are often chaotic and unreliable.

We don’t act on every impulse. We don’t say everything that pops into our heads.

The above statement delineates half the challenge of raising a child. Put that down. Be nice to your sister. That’s not a toy. Don’t yell. Be still. Learning impulse control is the primary lesson of childhood, and for many, that lesson continues for a lifetime. Prisons, asylums and grave yards are populated by those who did not or could not learn it, or who forgot it at a critical moment.

Somewhere between the temper tantrums of a two year old and a Youtube video of a knock down drag out fight between adults in a fast food restaurant, outraged because somebody’s fries were cold, is a failure of civil society to produce civilized members.

Blame what or who we may, for there is a sufficient quantity for some of it to always find the mark. But we, ourselves, participate every day in a modern ritual of obsession which eats away at civil society like an acid. Technology unguided leverages our lack of impulse control into a divisive and debilitating force. It makes us angry, It makes us anxious and fearful. It makes us sick.

The effect is cumulative. Think of a traffic jam, where the combined impulses of a self absorbed herd can immobilize a highway for miles. Each little selfish act combines with others in a cascading sequence of events. Social media can have a very similar effect on a civil society.

The asphalt highway suggests a relative anonymity which can defer the social consequences of an ill considered action. (A person’s true character is often revealed in the way they drive.) The rude and aggressive driver is, and should be, reluctant to act in person the way she does on the road. On the information highway, the rude and aggressive participant in social media assumes he is immune to any consequences of ill considered or hateful speech.

But there are consequences, and we see them in the divisiveness and ill will which now characterize our political process. We see them in the Balkanization of life in America, less “a people” as time goes by as a collection of identities who believe that an opinion is an entitlement.

It isn’t. We have a right to form an opinion, but it is our due diligence and the work involved in forming an opinion that entitles us to have it. Every day we experience the consequences of opinions formed (and shared) with no diligence or discretion at all.

It isn’t entirely our fault. We are enticed to participate in the drama, rewarded with little injections of serotonin when we are liked or followed, or dosed with adrenaline when we have an angry exchange or reaction. It’s easy, and it’s addictive.

Take a step back and consider the sum total of all that we can see and hear at any hour of the day or night, the continuous noise of opinions and arguments, daily disasters, never ending scandals and controversies and investigations, and it’s all repeated over and over in a never ending showing and sharing of everything that happens and everything that is said, and everything that is said about what happens and everything that is said about what is said.

It’s the ultimate inclusion when we join in the fray with our comments and replies to comments. Forget the thing. The comment is the thing, and the story is the tweet and all the reactions to the tweet are the story. And we’re all included. We’re all entitled and we’re all here together on the information superhighway. So why are we so angry with each other?

Because we have created a big angry traffic jam in our national discourse, and the sound of everyone blowing their horn at once does not improve our attitudes or our impulse control, and yet we are shocked and offended when someone succumbs to road rage.

The solution is ridiculously simple. Just turn it off. Close the laptop. Turn the phone face down. But if the addiction is too strong and we find ourselves back in the fray, all is not lost. Those three simple questions can serve to improve the traffic wherever we are:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Does it improve the silence?